Lest we forget what?

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

2010 Anzac Day clash

Today is Anzac Day, the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli of Australian (and New Zealand, though my remarks here mostly pertain to my own country) troops on 25 April 1915. In the last two decades Anzac day has increasingly been seen as marking the coming of age of the nation, and its annual commemoration has become the most sacred event on the national calendar. And as a military historian I think this is a problem.

The original diggers are gone now, and the numbers of the veterans of later wars are diminishing rapidly too, but dawn services at local war memorials and overseas battlefields seem to only become more popular. Broadcast, print and social media are filled with ritual invocations to never forget. New forms of commemoration appear. Stories of courage and sacrifice are told and retold. This is not in itself a problem. I’m not against Anzac Day, as such, and there’s nothing wrong with remembering. It’s what we’re not remembering, or never knew in the first place, that is worrying. We should be looking to understand, not merely remember.
Continue reading

Accessing the “Black Boxes” of War

In an op/ed for the influential Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, columnist Khaled Fahmy asks, “How do we write our military history?” and bewails the fact that forty years after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the relevant military documents remain classified.  He describes the tension between secrecy and disclosure:

Intelligence agencies believe concealing information forever is the best way to protect security, and we believe it is indeed necessary to seal sensitive information, but for no longer than 20 or 30 years. After that, records should be unsealed and made public. Whether experts or not, people should be allowed to view them.

The main question remains: Why should the public be allowed to view these old military documents? I believe the answer is obvious: to learn from the past and deduce the right lessons. Old war and battle records are like the black boxes on airplanes that take a lot of effort to recover after an accident. Only after the black box is found and its data analysed can one decide the reason for the accident, and thus work to prevent it from reoccurring in the future.

The complete column is here.

The Israeli rocket scare of 1963

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

I learned something new from an article in the March 2013 issue of History Today:

Exactly half a century ago, in the spring of 1963, Israel was suddenly gripped by a curious mass panic. Sensational newspaper reports and radio announcements claimed that the country was threatened by enemy ‘atom bombs’, ‘fatal microbes’, ‘poison gases’, ‘death rays’ and a ‘cobalt warhead’ that could ‘scatter radioactive particles over large areas’. Within hours, opinion in the entire country had been ignited. Parliamentary debates, everyday conversations, even songs and poems were all preoccupied obsessively with the same theme — that Israel was confronted by the imminent threat of another Holocaust, less than two decades after the first.

The source of this supposedly dire foreign menace was not Iran, nor the Soviet Union, although superpower tension at this stage in the Cold War was certainly intense. The perceived threat instead emanated from Egypt, which over the past decade had been led by the supremely charismatic and populist military officer, 44-year-old President Gamal Abdul [sic] Nasser.

Several months before, in the early hours of July 21st, 1962 Nasser had stunned the world by successfully test-firing a number of rockets. Specially-invited contingents of foreign journalists and cameramen had been driven to a remote spot deep in the Egyptian desert, not far from the central Cairo-Alexandria highway. They watched as a massive explosion shook the ground and a white missile lifted itself from a camouflaged position, a short distance in front of them. As one American correspondent wrote: ‘It pierced a long, white cloud and later, in plain view, slowly arched to the north towards the Mediterranean.’ Over the next few hours three more launches were carried out in quick succession before the journalists returned home, amid scenes of jubilation from ecstatic crowds. The Egyptian public had heard the news when a special announcement, broadcast on a national public holiday, announced on government radio that Egypt had ‘entered the missile age’.

Given my interests, this sounds like something I need to know more about; and as chance would have it, the author of the article, Roger Howard, has a book due out later this year which may provide more details (Operation Damocles: Israel’s Secret War Against Hitler’s Scientists, 1951-1967). According to Howard’s article, the real reason for the scare was not so much the Egyptian rocket programme itself, but the involvement of many German scientists who had worked for the Nazis in the Second World War, such as the aerospace (and his expertise did span both air and space) engineer Eugen Sänger. In fact, Howard argues that it was to deflect attention from the recent exposure of Operation Damocles, the intimidation of Nasser’s German scientists, that Mossad director Isser Harel briefed the Israeli press with a wholly exaggerated account of Egypt’s offensive capabilities. As Howard shows, and as cooler heads argued at the time, the targeting problem had not been solved, meaning the chance of a rocket hitting anything important was remote, as 1967 proved. Nor did Egypt even have a WMD programme at this time, rockets aside. The scare subsided; Harel was discredited and soon resigned.

While I don’t (and can’t) dispute Howard’s account, from my perspective I wonder if the fear of new technological perils might have played as important a role as the spectre of Nazi-Egyptian collaboration. There are parallels to be drawn forwards and backwards in time, in Israel and elsewhere. Israeli fears about nuclear weapons and missile threats from its neighbours resurfaced in 1981, 1990-1, the 2000s, and today. Only six months before the Israeli rocket scare, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. All those lurid weapons mentioned in the Israeli press in 1963 — fatal microbes, poison gases, death rays, atom bombs, even cobalt warheads — had been staples of scaremongers in other countries for years, in most cases decades. In Britain, similar press panics over the danger of air attack took place in 1913, 1922, 1935 and 1938. It would be strange if Israel in 1963 was immune to such fears.