Lies, Damn Lies and Numbers…

18 08 2009

Two interesting historical posts coming out of the Indepenent today. I’ll write something about the second later, but for now I wish to consider Robert Fisk’s comment on the number of British casualties in Afghanistan.

The full copy of Fisk’s thoughts is to be found here. It is emotively entitled “Why these deaths hit home as hard as the Somme”. Upon seeing such a headline I will admit to growing fearful about the content of the article. Where was Fisk going with such an ill-considered banner line? I actually disagree with the implication of such a headline, I think that these Afghanistan deaths hit home harder because of many things, not least the nature of the world media. That’s by the by though.

The real point that Fisk made, and it is something I agree wholeheartedly with him about, is this one. He writes it pretty succinctly so I’ll simply transcribe his words:

And let’s just remind ourselves of the casualty figures. We’ve lost just over 200 soldiers- admittedly most of them in the past 14 months- in a war that has lasted for eight years. In the Second World War, which lasted for almost six years, Britain lost 650 men on D-Day, 6 June 1944, alone. And let’s go back to the Great War. On the first day of the Somme- 1 July 1916- we lost almostĀ  19,500 dead. That’s almost a hundred times our Afghan dead in 24 hours.

A good point well put I feel. The deaths in Afghanistan are, of course, tragic, but they are small fry compared to many other battles, wars, military engagements made by the British. The word ‘tragic’ above was carefully picked as to echo Stalin’s famous thoughts on war dead, paraphrased “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic“. This I feel has a certain resonance when considering the parallels between the two conflicts. The reason there is such a media outpouring when another British soldier falls is because the event is a comparative rarity.

The British army have grown a lot better at engaging an enemy, and because of this the death rate has fallen. However, this falling death rate has meant that more time can be given to each dead person. We are told their names, their ages, their private life. We are told this because we can be told. The media can keep up, and play with the public emotions of hearing of one more dead person. They simply couldn’t during WW1. The soldiers were falling in such numbers that no-one really knew who was dead, and who wasn’t. Soldiers were lost during battles, and only inaccurate numbers could suffice as to the number of dead on any given day of the war.

The real point is that we should actually be thankful that only 201 troops have died during eight years of conflict in Afghanistan. There is, of course, the lingering question of whether Britain should be in the country in the first place, but that’s a whole different issue. The result is that the soldiers are. And they’ve only lost 201 of their own through the course of eight years of action. That’s actually a pretty remarkable statistic. That’s 201 deaths in 2850 days (roughly). That’s mightly impressive really. The army should be commended for this, not chastised. Of course these soldiers should be remembered too, but the army should not be attacked for losing men, it is after all, the nature of the beast.





Ejucashun, Ejucation, Twitter…

25 03 2009

Whilst on my daily trawl through the BBC’s webpages, I found this story and was instantly dismayed. As a history scholar, I firmly believe more should be done to encourage people to question their pasts, and to connect the present with what has gone on before. The suggestions mooted in this report indicate that this is no longer a concern for governmental officials. Instead, it seems, we should be encouraging the ‘life skills’ of how to use Twitter, or how to blog.

Lets deal with this in three parts:

1. The suggestions seem to point to the idea that using Twitter is an important thing for children to learn. It is almost certainly not just Twitter but every social networking site going, but for the sake of convenience, Twitter will be used. I have a huge problem with this. The childhood stage of life is an important one in terms of building relationships with people, or at least learning how to do so. Kids learn moral and social things, you don’t pull people’s hair, you don’t hit people, you don’t bully people etc etc. They learn this through experiencing things, through doing, and through the repercussions of their actions. Kids learn how to talk to people, how to interact with others and communicate themselves. Again, they do this through actions. If we add Twitter into this, how much of a negative effect will this have on how they learn to build relationships with other people? I would suggest it would be a massive effect. No longer would it be necessary for children to talk to each other, when they can type instead. No longer would it be fun to go and play in the park with their mates because they could be interacting online instead. Twitter would begin to destroy how kids learn, rather than giving them the skills necesary. So yes, while they may learn to type, they will stop learning how to talk.

2. The report also mentions blogging. It seems to want to encourage more children to want to use blogs as a source of information, and to take up writing their own stuff. Why? Not all people are comfortable writing in the first place, never mind in a public access site. Why exacerbate things for those who do not want to write or use blogs?

Also, I’m going to throw into this Wikipedia, which is also mentioned in the report. Apparently, according to this write up of the story, “Children [are] to leave primary school familiar with blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia and Twitter as sources of information“. Great. This though assumes one very important thing. That Wikipedia is right. Which, as we all know, it is not necessarily. Indeed we have been told on countless occasions not to use Wikipedia as a credible source for work as accuracy cannot be guarenteed.

3. It was though the final point of the BBC’s first paragraph which irked me the most though. All this is come come at the expense of history. At least, that’s the impression it gave. Further reading indicates that this is not the case, although schools will have the ability to choose which periods should be taught with the goal to be:

By the end of the primary phase, children should have gained an overview which enables them to place the periods, events and changes they have studied within a chronological framework, and to understand some of the links between them.

Great. They will not be taught about possibly two of the three most important parts of modern British history, but instead whatever takes the teachers fancy at the start of the year. Now I get that the Second World War is still part of later academic life, and, to some extent, so is the Victorian era. But what else is there of significance that can be taught? The First World War? No-one understands that, let alone primary school kids. At least the Second World War had the ‘bad guy’ in Hitler. What does World War One have? Nothing, it was fighting for the sake of fighting. I would suggest it is better to sow the seeds of curiosity when children are more receptive to ideas. They can then follow this up and develop an interest later on in their academic lives.

I really do not think that further use of Twitter, Wikipedia et al should be encouraged. Many people are already moaning that there is too much exposure to the internet and computers, so surely encouraging further exposure should be frowned upon? At a period where we are frequently told of the growing obesity problem, surely placing kids in front of another screen cannot help? I’m still not sure what was wrong with classrooms and books personally.

Just as a note, reading some of the comments about this story, this one has to be my favourite:

Im sure its just a coincidence the second world war where we fought against fascism is removed from the curriculum as our government becomes more fascist and controlling,

To cynical for my own good sometimes

The writer later admits that the Second World War is not being removed at all, but the point still made me chuckle.





Compulsory Remembrance…

4 11 2008

Tonight I have had a moan at my dad. This doesn’t happen very often, as generally my dad is great. But tonight, when he revealed he hadn’t yet bought a poppy, I got a little worked up.

It irks me that people can live in ignorant bliss, and not pay a pound once a year to buy a poppy to show support and remembrance to fallen soldiers of conflict. Why is it so hard? Is it through a lack of education? Is it just a case of being tight-fisted? Or (and this is the option I’m inclined to pick) is it just sheer laziness?

Too many people view the buying of a poppy as a chore, as something that ought to be done ‘because’. The only solution to my mind is to drum it into them from a young age. Make the wearing of poppys compulsory at school for two weeks before Remembrance Sunday. Simple. As the kids get older, educate them in the meaning and significance of the poppy, so that by the time they are adults, they will understand and be willing to get their own and donate to the British Legion.

There is no cost issue either, at my school we used to pay a pound a term (roughly) to be allowed to wear our own clothes for a day. It wasn’t much to pay for the privilage of wearing a pair of jeans and t-shirt instead of blazer and tie for a day. So why would paying a pound to wear a poppy for two weeks be any worse? The simple answer is, it wouldn’t.

I don’t think there can be any moral objection either, after all, what is there to object to? Remembrance? I’m reasonably sure most people would not object to paying a small tribute to our fallen soldiers. And lets be honest here, they don’t ask for much. They gave their lives in conflict fighting for Britain in war. All you have to do is spend a pound a year and shut up for two minutes. Hardly hard work now is it?

Ignorance, sloth and being tight are not good reasons not to remember. If we force the issue from a young age through our schools, then, as we move away from the generations who remember the world wars, we can hopefully keep the tribute running strong.








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