There is a photograph in a book dedicated to a lesser known war photographer Dickey Chapelle. Chapelle reported from around the world, including the battle of Iwo Jima, the reconstruction of post-war Europe, the Algerian civil war and most notably, the Vietnam war. In addition to this, Dickey also covered relief and aid work in Iran, India, Jordan and Iraq, where the photograph was taken. She was also the first, but sadly not the last, female war correspondent to be killed in action; in Vietnam in 1965.
The photograph is captioned ‘A group of Iraqi boys seated on the floor of a school built with US Aid, 1952’. But it could so easily be 2018. I look at the little boy closest to the camera who was probably only five or six when it was taken, which, if he is still alive, would make him around 70 this year.
I have a preoccupation with the past; the past as it is personal to me and the past that is personal to others. When I sit back and watch the news unfold around me, I am filled with frustration that whatever I am watching has happened before. The people are different, and sometimes the country’s name has changed, but the template is all too familiar, and the words from both sides are from the same tired worn-out script. There is also a sadness that it all could have, and should have been avoided, because of this familiarity.
I think that’s what struck me when I first saw the boy in the photograph. I had seen the context in which he existed before.
I remember during the research and write-up for my Master’s thesis, which looked at the extent the media shaped public opinion during the Vietnam and Iraq wars, of all the thoughts jostling for room in my head, was the all-consuming realisation, a sadness, that there is no learning curve in politics, no universal memory. History is barely observed or recognised for what it is, and this lack of recognition will keep being realised, over and over again. In the words of philosopher and poet George Santayana (1905), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Vietnam and Iraq were not just comparable in the reasoning each used for war – the US looking to ‘liberate’ another country from a so called “enemy” whilst being wholly unaware of that country’s history and collective memory. But also in the lessons learnt from one war that should have been applied to other but which were simply forgotten.
The former is that had the US, both in Vietnam and Iraq, been aware of each of the countries’ colonial histories, they may have been more sensitive in the actions taken during wartime. Or may have not started the wars in the first place. Rebecca Solnit observes that “most European-Americans remained lost over the centuries, lost not in practical terms but in the more profound sense of apprehending where they truly were, of caring what the history of place was and its nature” (2006, p.66). Solnit is explicitly referring to the invasion/discovery of what is now the United States of America, but her quotation could be applied to any American war since 1945.
With regards to lessons not learnt, it’s as if the collective memory of the Vietnam war had been expunged; pages ripped from the history books, a dementia of fact set in. The guerrilla warfare and the means of combatting it, in the form of counter-insurgency (COIN) that was learnt by the marines in Vietnam did not feature. Had it been adhered to the bloody chaos, such as in Fallujah, would probably never have happened.
Politics and International Relations seem to suffer from short term memory loss. Perhaps because the political memory is only as long as a term in office – four years in the United States and five years in the United Kingdom. Brexit is the obvious example of this short termism. The recent missile strikes in Syria another.
All the decades’ worth of propaganda, from both the Conservatives and the right-wing media, about the evils of the EU and the scourge of immigration that follows it, finally came home to roost in the form of Brexit. Much to the surprise of then Prime Minister David Cameron who had seemingly forgotten his own party’s legacy.
The seemingly short-term memory of Western governments, that if enough missiles are launched at an already unstable and/or physically ravaged country that is being used as a proxy war for another country, then peace and stability will follow. The small hot wars of the Cold War being far enough in the rear-view mirror so as not to impede upon present military and political activities.
This political life span does not run concurrently with the life span of a child. Nor does it discriminate, which is why the date on the photo could quite easily be 2003 or 2018, or anytime within the last 65 years. The child in the photograph will remember all that came before, and all that came during and after 1952 – promises made, tensions built upon, and political and cultural fires stoked – not always through the eyes of a child, but through the eyes of a person whose country has become another country’s playground.
I look at that little boy in the photograph and wonder if he has a short-term memory too. I doubt it. I suspect his memory goes back further than four or five years. I suspect that if he is still alive he will have seen his country ripped apart over and over again by the same familiar hands, and be sewn back together, albeit temporarily, by those same hands under whatever guise those hands choose to take – democratization, pre-emptive war or purely humanitarian relief, all in the disguise of bullets, tanks, and missiles. He will have seen friends and neighbours, and perhaps family die and disappear. He will have seen a dictator come and go, and with it, fear and violence, only to be replaced by a new fear and a new violence. He will have watched his history, his culture, his memories turn to dust and rubble in front of his eyes.
None of this short term. None of this is not painful to both person and country. None of this adheres to Santayana’s words of warning but rather follows in the blundering footsteps Solnit describes above.