A matter of life or death in the Congo

US Embassy in Leopoldville/Kinshasa

US Embassy in Leopoldville/Kinshasa

In his book, Chief of Station, Congo, Larry Devlin — the CIA’s man in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) during the early years of Congolese independence, and an operative who knew a thing or two about shaping reality — recounts a remarkable diplomatic incident. The United States had established an embassy in the brand new country, but had not yet provided a troop of Marines to guard it.  With mutinous Congolese soldiers rampaging about the streets, many of them — following years of Belgian misrule — intent on humiliating or harming any white man they encountered, it was a very dangerous time.  Expecting trouble, the ambassador and Devlin armed themselves with grenades and firearms, but they knew they were hopelessly vulnerable in the glass-fronted embassy.

So when a jeep full of soldiers turned into the embassy driveway one morning and aimed a fifty-calibre machine gun at the front door, they were understandably alarmed.  The gunner tried to fire, but the machine gun jammed.  Devlin was about to throw a grenade at the jeep, but the ambassador stopped him.  He went out into the driveway, ignoring the rifles pointed at him, and said, “Thank God, you’ve come to protect us from the Belgians.  We’ve been waiting for hours for the Congolese army to defend us.  The Belgians could be here at any minute.”

Remarkably, the soldiers put down their weapons and, in Devlin’s words, “agreed they had indeed come to protect us”.  They even followed the ambassador’s suggestion and set up a defensive post at the end of the street.

With a few well-chosen words, the ambassador reshaped reality for those riotous soldiers in what was probably a matter of life and death.

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Magna Carta Reshaped

King JohnToday we celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta.  It carries great meaning for modern lawmakers: freedom from tyranny, fair trial, the rights of man.  The ideals of liberty and justice symbolised by Magna Carta underpin the US Constitution and have informed human rights campaigners around the world.  The historian Bishop Stubbs declared all English constitutional history to be “a commentary on Magna Carta”.  Lord Denning called it “the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.  This conception of Magna Carta is an important reality for us – it is very real indeed.

And yet it is not the original reality of Magna Carta, a document that was not called by that name, was not signed by King John (he used his seal), and which was repudiated by both monarch and barons after just a few weeks.  A last-ditch peace treaty between two upper class factions, the “Charter of Runnymede” is unconcerned with the oppression of the common man, freedom of speech or democratic representation.  Instead, it prioritises the interests of the Church and the (mostly French) aristocracy, focusing in the main on the specific grievances of rich landowners.  It is harsh on Jews (“If anyone has taken a loan from Jews, great or small, and dies before the debt is paid, the debt is not to incur interest for as long as the heir is under age”) and women (“No man is to be arrested or imprisoned on account of a woman’s appeal for the death of anyone other than her own husband”). About a third of the 1215 Magna Carta was rewritten or cut within ten years, and almost every clause has since been repealed.

It does seem odd that a failed agreement between one oppressor and a bunch of disgruntled lesser oppressors has come to represent the very essence of liberty and the rights of man.  And yet it has.  Its reality has been shaped — partly by John’s son, Henry III, and partly by 17th century Parliamentary spin doctors — into something powerful and very valuable.  A kind of historical alchemy, one might say.  To go back to the 1215 text and protest that it has quite a different meaning is to miss the point.  Magna Carta IS freedom and justice.  It doesn’t really matter what the words say.

1215 Magna Carta (British Library)

The Battle for World War One

How many truths can one World War sustain?  On the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of war, I won’t attempt to list all the many different versions of history that have already been presented this year.  But it’s worth considering the agendas behind these myriad competing truths.  Policy is shaped to some extent by history, and so the way we interpret our past matters enormously to our future.

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The Somme

Some want to see WW1 as a noble struggle

This is an understandable desire, driven in part by the sense that so much death and destruction must have served some purpose.  We can’t bear to think it was all for nothing.  Or perhaps we want to believe that our nation’s role in the destruction was justifiable.  A lot of people were killed by our shells and bullets.  It would be terrible to think we didn’t have just cause.  Demonstrating the villainy of the enemy becomes important.

Truths favoured by this agenda (from a Russian, French and British point of view) include the outrageous demands placed by Austria on Serbia as the price of peace following Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination; the demonstrable belligerence of some in Prussian-led Germany; the binding treaties of mutual defence; the greater degree of democracy in France and Britain than in Germany and Austria; the German invasion of Belgium; the sinking of the Lusitania.

Some want to paint all war as evil

This ideological view is hard to argue against given the horrendous succession of wars in the 20th century.  And if we are opposed to war, than it is imperative to emphasise the extreme awfulness of the “Great” war.

There are plenty of truths to choose from here: the sheer scale of the carnage; the pitiful ratio of land gained to lives lost in most offensives; the conditions in the trenches; the environmental devastation; the consequences of the peace for later German politics; the ghastly new developments in chemical warfare and aerial bombardment.

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Recruiting Propaganda: “Daddy what did YOU do in the Great War?”

Some want to position WW1 as the inevitable product of the imperial/monarchal system

Britain, France, Russia, Austria, Germany and Ottoman Turkey all had empires of varying sizes and extents.  Five of the six had monarchs.  They tore each other apart and nearly destroyed Europe in the process.  By contrast, democracies without empires never go to war with each other.  It’s a seductive line of reasoning.

The preferred truths for this agenda are more nuanced.  They relate to the trappings of empire and aristocracy, such as titled officers giving orders from comfortable chateaux, while working class boys died in the trenches (true in parts), the fuss made over a dead Archduke, or the fatal confusion caused by a muddled telephone conversation between one aristocratic diplomat and another.  The sacrifices made by imperial subjects, such as ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli or Indian troops in Flanders also play to this narrative.  And so does the early-20th century competition between the great powers for limited resources in far off places, as well as increased tensions at the boundaries between empires — especially in Eastern Europe.

Some want to make sure we never forget

Whether out of respect for the fallen, or out of a determination that we learn the painful lessons of our history, many are concerned that current and future generations do not lose sight of the cataclysm that engulfed Europe one hundred years ago.  Truths that will lodge immovably in the memory are therefore, for this group, the most important.

Memorable truths include the large scale, the horrific, the unique, the bizarre: the numbers killed on the first day of the Somme; the exploitation of horses; the poison gas; the rotting feet; the Gatling gun; canaries; barbed wire.  But they also include the symbolic.  Poppies appeared once a year, in greater quantities than usual, in certain theatres of the war.  It’s a truth, and a memorable one at that.

All of these truths co-existed between 1914 and 1918.  They can be deployed in any formation to achieve all kinds of objectives.  History is a battlefield; choose your side.