Saturday, May 15, 2004

The descriptions of carnage are horrifying enough, yet somehow the matter-of-fact accumulation of detail in “Tommy,” Richard Holmes’ new study of the British soldier in World War I, is even more overwhelming.

So, we learn that at the Battle of Loos in 1915, the British army, in the course of being “very roughly handled” by the enemy machine-gunners, lost 8,000 officers and men in less than four hours. In the “impressive victory” at Messines Ridge two years later the British commander suffered losses of 25,000 men in the process of capturing 7,000 prisoners and killing or wounding another 13,000.

As we are learning all over again in Iraq, we measure victories in a very different way now. But Mr. Holmes — one of the best and most prolific of military historians — reminds us that the question of perception played just as significant a role in the era of the trenches as it does in the age of Al Jazeera.

Most of us with some vague knowledge of The Great War know, for instance, that the ultimate tragedy of the 1914-18 conflict was that the British army was a collection of “lions led by donkeys,” to borrow the celebrated phrase used by the German high command.

Yet Mr. Holmes tells us that the words — which later formed the basis of Alan Clark’s acclaimed study, “The Donkeys” — were taken from a conversation between the German field marshals Hindenburg and Ludendorff which apparently never even took place. “Sadly for historical accuracy,” Mr. Holmes observes, “there is no evidence whatever for this: none. Not a jot or scintilla.”

Nor is there much truth, he argues, in the traditional view that the top brass were incompetents who made a point of keeping at a safe distance from the battlefield. Far more, it seems, died in World War I than in the 1939-45 conflict: “The generals who died were actually more likely to be killed by small-arms fire than the men they commanded, which says much about their proximity to the front.” Mr. Holmes even has a generous word to say for the supposedly remote staff officers who now serve as pathetic figures of fun in the television comedy “Blackadder Goes Forth.”

Still, he makes no attempt to mimimize the terror and misery of everyday existence on the front line. His dry, unemotional approach in fact makes the horrors seem even more vivid.

By drawing on a mass of diaries and letters, he attempts to see the war through the eyes of the men who fought it rather than those historians, such as the arch-iconoclast A.J.P. Taylor, whom he accuses of re-assembling facts to “fit their own analytical framework.”

Our armory of information technology does not necessarily help us to see events in Iraq with a great deal more clarity. If things seem bleak in Washington at the moment, imagine how much worse the climate is here, in a country that regards George W. Bush as only slightly less menacing than the pre-spider-hole incarnation of Saddam Hussein.

Thanks to the deplorable events at Abu Ghraib, the anti-war movement has been able to plunge the country into a fresh bout of self-flagellation, using rolled-up copies of the Daily Mirror newspaper. Even though it seems increasingly likely that the Mirror’s initial batch of photographs showing British soldiers abusing prisoners in southern Iraq was faked, the damage was done.

It was depressing to see a historian as distinguished as Richard Overy — one of the world’s leading authorities on the Third Reich — using the Guardian newspaper’s Op-Ed page as a platform to draw comparisons between American troops in Baghdad and the Wehrmacht on the Russian front.

When I interviewed him for this column a couple of years ago I was taken aback to find that he was adamantly opposed to military action in Afghanistan. Now he talks of the insurgency in Iraq as a “war of liberation.”

The Times of London’s columnist Matthew Parris — one of the most cultivated and fair-minded of the anti-war commentators — devoted his weekly piece to assailing the White House and the “neo-imperialist urge which surely had to surface now that the US has become the world’s only superpower.” Amidst all the Dr. Strangelove imagery, he seemed to forget that September 11 ever happened.

Worse still, even some commentators who formerly supported the war are beginning to recant. These are grim times, made even grimmer by America’s abysmal public relations efforts.

I have spent the last two-and-a-half years complaining about the lack of attention paid to winning the war of ideas in this country and the rest of Europe. Nothing has improved; if anything there is an even starker sense of drift. If few people here sympathize with America’s strategic goals, it is partly because they do not even begin to understand what they are.

Media bias is part of the difficulty, of course, but the problem runs much deeper, as the Spectator magazine’s Bruce Anderson observed earlier this month: “In Washington, around the two miles or so between the White House and Dupont Circle, there is an awesome amount of think-tank expertise which has no equivalent in any other capital. But the USA seems incapable of transmuting knowledge into public diplomacy. This is not just a failure in the Islamic world.”

American conservatives certainly have a point when they complain about the Europeans’ often frivolous stance on terrorism. But how hard have they tried to win converts?

And how seriously should we take those same pundits when they shrug off the president’s woeful performance at his last press conference by arguing that most ordinary Americans would have switched off after the opening remarks? George Bush is right to call himself a war president, but it sometimes looks as if he is content to be a war president leading a Laci Peterson-obsessed country.

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London.

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