‘Human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness’
A J P Taylor
In Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) a US General is so upset about the fluoridation of water he starts a nuclear war and destroys the entire human race. It is on one view an excessive reaction. The paranoid and zealous Brigadier General, Jack D. Ripper, who thinks that communists are conspiring to pollute the precious bodily fluids of the American people becomes unhinged and (without authority) orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. ‘I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the International Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids’.
As head of an air base, that displays the sign Peace is our Profession, Ripper impounds all radios, seals the exits and transmits the fatal strike code to all currently airborne B52s. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, on secondment and locked into the base, is unable to persuade Ripper to reveal the recall code ‘Let’s face it, we, we don’t want to start a nuclear war unless we really have to, do we?’…Look at me Jack. Eh? And I drink a lot of water, you know, I’m what you might call a water man, Jack – that’s what I am. And I can swear to you my boy, swear to you, that there’s nothing wrong with my bodily fluids. Not a thing, Jackie.’ Meanwhile President Merkin Muffley, too weak and ineffectual a leader to have put in place better safeguards, and told the recall codes may take hours to retrieve is panicking with his feuding generals in Washington: ‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here this is the war room’. Major T. J. ‘King’ Kong, the patriotic, gung-ho B-52 bomber commander welcomes the development: ‘Well boys, I reckon this is it. Nookular combat, toe to toe with the Rooskies’. Mandrake at the base with Ripper deciphers the recall code but lacks the 55 cents to telephone them through to the President in the War Room and demands a US officer shoot a coke machine for the purpose of obtaining coins. The officer aims his rifle at Mandrake refusing his request on the grounds that the resultant damage would be unfair to the Coca Cola Company. Mandrake: ‘If you don’t put that gun away and stop this stupid nonsense, the court of Enquiry on this’ll give you such a pranging, you’ll be lucky if you end up wearing the uniform of a bloody toilet attendant’. The codes are retrieved enabling all but four of the planes to be recalled, three of which (not Kong’s) are shot down by the Russians. Kong’s B-52 flies on unmolested at a low altitude inexorably towards its target so as to release its nuclear bomb over the Soviet Union. The USSR Doomsday machine responds, as pre-set by computer algorithm, and destroys the human race.
Question: what caused the nuclear holocaust?
Columbia Pictures agreed to fund Kubrick to make Dr Strangelove but only if Peter Sellers played four parts (Mandrake, Strangelove, Muffley and Kong). Sellers injured his ankle and disliked moving inside the B-52 so relinquished the role of Kong. The part was offered to Bonanza star Dan Blocker who turned it down as the script was ‘too pinko’. Slim Pickings was then cast but had no passport to get to the UK for filming, leading to delays. The film was then scheduled to be first screened on 22nd November 1963. On that day Aldous Huxley died in California in the morning and President Kennedy was shot in a car in Dallas in the afternoon. Kubruck therefore delayed the release of the film by six months to January 1964 and had to dub over a reference on the soundtrack to having a good night out in Dallas (to Vegas).
Question: what caused Lee Harvey Oswald to fire the gun?
E.H. Carr in his seminal work on historiography What is History? wrote that ‘a study of history is the study of causes’. Historians seek a variety of causes of a given event from their researches in the sources. They then decide the significance of the causes, how much weight to attach to them, exclude those that are too remote, enumerate them, order them, examine their relationship to each other and arrange them in a hierarchy of importance. Those historians who posit tiny causes for vast events are derided as eccentrics, such as A.J.P. Taylor who famously wrote that the First World War was caused by the railway timetable which locked the belligerent powers into a sequence of troop mobilisations and war declarations from which they could not escape (War by Timetable, 1969). Where historians do concede that accident and contingency are real enough, they are seen as of limited importance because, in the main, what is sought are causes and explanations. Accidental causes are of little use to the historian because they cannot be forced into a pattern for the necessary generalisation. The essence of being a good historian is to identify broad trends so as to provide explanations. Then in measured, sober, scholarly and precise prose, being careful not to misrepresent the sources and scrupulously identifying where they can be re-traced, historians write a narrative (even though the source material are tiny selections taken from limited and sometimes inchoate material culled from the vast web of the past, a segment cut from infinity). What of the role of accident, inadvertence, misunderstanding and unintended consequences? What if Lenin had not died prematurely at 54? What if Hitler had been killed in the 1923 Munich beer hall putsch?
If history is a litany of accidents and misunderstandings and cock-ups and crossed-wires and chance encounters, then traditional historical prose is misrepresenting it by smoothing blunders into a retrospective pattern that simulates meaning. Life may seem meaningless when lived forwards but makes perfect sense in the retrospective patterns identified by soothing historical prose. For Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil history was ‘a gruesome dominion of nonsense and accident’. The blunders are re-arranged into a grand design in a narrative imported by the historian and readily lapped up by the reader eager for certainty. The idea that there is a meaningful design inherent in history itself is one that provides some comfort and illusion. There are theological roots in our sense of history as shapely (the seeing of this all as the inexorable workings of God’s purpose and meaning). By projecting patterns onto the universe, rather than excavating truths from it, a semblance of order is smuggled into the continent, chaotic world. History texts are therefore nostalgic in a double way: nostalgic for the past and for an orderly universe that precludes the anguish of an eclipse of meaning.
Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor is a well written and award winning history book, as is the The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. They have been praised for their meticulous research, clear explanations, straightforward prose style, and scholarly approach of judiciousness and balance. But I invite you to go to the comic novels. From the Second World War: Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughtehouse-5, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour Trilogy and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, and from the First Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. In all these narratives fools are tossed around the belligerent world striving, through wit and love and free will alone, to survive the idiocy and absurdity of war imposed by martial participants. Comic, inventive, gaudy wild tales teeming with life are needed to negotiate the terrain of random violence, uncontrollable forces and the chance brutality of war years. Vonnegut was captured after the Battle of the Bulge and sent to work in a factory with other US prisoners in Dresden where he lived in a slaughterhouse. The RAF firebombed the city on the weekend of 13th February 1945 and Vonnegut only survived in a meat locker three stories underground, unlike about 20,000 other inhabitants caught in the firestorm above. Heller flew B-52s on combat mission milk runs from the island of Pianosa on the Italian front between 1942 and 1944. Pilots who were crazy were not obliged to fly missions, but anyone who applied to stop flying was showing a rational concern for his safety and was, therefore, sane and had to fly. Waugh was a Marine Commando present during the disorder, indiscipline and cowardice of the British evacuation of Crete in May 1941, and seconded to the British Mission in Croatia that collaborated with communist Tito’s Yugoslavian partisans in 1945. Grass was called up into the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg, aged 17, and served with them from February 1945 until he was wounded in April 1945, captured in Marienbad and sent to a U.S. prisoner-of-war camp in Bavaria.
Vonnegut, Heller, Waugh and Grass were all soldiers in war and understood, from within, that to properly represent it required ludic prose.