Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Tom Cruise Gets The Drift

I saw a Tom Cruise film where I'd read the book first!

Okay, I know there aren't that many other films where this possible (The Color of Money, Born on the 4th July, Interview With The Vampire errr......), but whilst most people were probably content to point out that the film was Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers and Saving Private Ryan, I was able to sit in the cinema with my children (it was there idea to go you understand, this isn't my time of film at all....) and think smugly to myself "this is based on The Defence of Duffers Drift".

That's pretty damn smug really as there can't be that many people who have actually read Major General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton's Edwardian book on small unit tactics during the Boer War, and very few of them I imagine go to watch Tom Cruise films.

The good General has a minor place in history as the person who came up with the code word 'tank' for Winston Churchill's Top Secret Landships. Fifteen years earlier he'd been working with a different type of heavy metal, building railways in South Africa. However he took a keen interest in how a few ragged Boer farmers could repeatedly kick the backsides of Queen Victoria's previously all conquering British Army.

The repeated defeat of the army of the globe's most powerful empire, the soldiers who had smited the Sudanese and bested the wily Pathan just two years earlier and who were mowing down scores of sword wielding Chinese Boxers even as the fighting went on in South Africa, was a such a massive shock to the system that the army would probably have been less surprised had it found itself fighting the Martians from War of the Worlds (published 1897).

The reason was that two of the factors that were to make the wars of the twentieth century so bloody, namely nationalism and breech loading rifles, were possessed for the first time by Victoria's enemies. The Boers were not numerous, but they were a nation ready for total war. They were also armed with guns that could kill at 1000 meters and, thanks to the recent invention of smokeless ammunition, the men using them were virtually invisible at that range.

By contrast the British Army still regarded the rifle primarily as something on which to fix a bayonet, whilst its mercenary soldiers, although still happy to massacre people of a different skin colour, found they had no quarrel with the Boers and once they discovered they took prisoners were very happy to surrender whenever they had the chance.

The age of easy imperial victories was over. Spain had been struggling to contain an uprising on Cuba since 1895, the Americans fought an insurgency in the Philippines even as the Boer War raged and in 1904 rebellious Hereros in neighbouring Namibia gave the German Army as much of a headache as the Boers gave the Brits.

In Swinton's book his hero re-fights the same battle over and over again in a dream. As he does so he moves from the toy soldier antics of an earlier age to more savvy modern small unit tactics until he eventually wins. There's a little casual racism thrown in for good measure, but it is a good analysis as far as it goes. In reality though defeating insurgencies involved a lot more than teaching soldiers to shoot straight and take cover properly.

The old imperial strategy of marching into another country with the flag flying, defeating the ruler's army in battle and then expecting his subjects to may homage to the White Man instead no longer worked. Fighting an intransigent population and guerrillas who would run but never surrender called for something different. You could never call imperialism friendly, but it certainly got a lot worse from here on.

In these new colonial wars causalities weren't just in the battlefield. In fact the battlefield could be the safest place to be for the target for the invaders was often not the invisible guerrillas but the civilian population that supported them.

In the Philippines the United States used waterboarding for the first time, whilst in Cuba and then South Africa civilians were rounded up and put into concentration camps where they died of disease and neglect. In Namibia the Germans went one better and drove the population into the waterless desert and wiped out most of the tribe in the first genocide of the twentieth century.

Which brings us to the real comparison between colonial history and this science fiction film; we were the aliens, a destructive race whose behaviour would be no less inexplicable to the victims of our wars of conquest if we had had eight legs and sucked their brains with straws.

H G Wells realised this, that's why he wrote the original alien invasion novel, but what he didn't realise was that, like Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt in this film, the victims would learn to turn the West's own weapons against us and fight back.

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