WAR IS A particularly slippery subject for any cold eye to fasten on. In May 2014 I was walking through the départements of Lozère, Aveyron, Lot and Tarn-et-Garonne in southern France, and the village war memorials caught my attention. Apart from the horrifying numbers listed, there were various other, quite incendiary, additions: a family of five shot in the village of Grealou, and the ages of the children given; a man ‘assassiné par les allemands’. Germans were walking through these villages every day, and I talked to them and to the French people. The Germans grimaced and shook their heads and were hurt to hear themselves still being referred to as les Boches. The French said the Germans wouldn’t talk about it – and that they had started it after all. Yet both parties said relations between France and Germany were now friendly, bordering on exuberant. This manoeuvring around European war memories prodded me to acknowledge my own manoeuvres, albeit ones of a very different kind.
Of all forms of historical writing, military history is likely to be the least comprehensive, least nuanced and most prone to distortive bias. The health of the national psyche, for a start, is presumed to depend on an upbeat military story. Anything less than a glorious record is going to be unsettling and, in the worst case, treacherous. Accounts of the ups and downs of the wool trade in Australia, or of the battles between free-traders and protectionists, are not going to gut their readers or make them ashamed to be Australian. However, accounts of inglorious defeats or rampaging, murderous soldiery will have such a demoralising effect.
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