#28 – Project Essay: America’s Great War

In this first spoken essay edition of the Aidan Project Podcast, Aidan examines why, and with what effects, the United States opted to enter World War One in 1917. The essay also looks at the idealist US President, Woodrow Wilson, who declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917, following repeated provocations. This essay takes a deliberately contentious look at the US’s role in the war, which adds a few ‘what-ifs’ into the mix for your consideration. Could, or should, the Bolshevik take-over have been snuffed out before it began? What about the conditions for Hitler’s rise to power? The roots exist within World War One and its aftermath. For more Project podcasts on the US involvement in World War One, take a look at the ‘America’s Great War’ two-part series with Dr. Paul Dean. Part one covers the period of US non-belligerence, up until the Zimmermann Telegram. Part two looks at ‘America’s Forgotten War’ from Wilson’s declaration of war, up until the Treaty of Versailles, for which this essay serves as a useful companion piece. You can find a full archive of podcasts at iTunes, YouTube and www.AidanCoughlan.org. Enjoy the essay.

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#8 – The Spanish Civil War

With a very special guest, Dave McCall, The Aidan Project Podcast looks at the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Taking the nomme de plume of David Ebsworth, Dave is an acclaimed historical fiction author, and a member of the Historical Novel Society, the International Brigades Memorial Trust, the Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society, New Writers UK, and the Alliance of Independent Authors. For many historians, the Spanish Civil War marks the real start of World War 2. What is the merit of this argument? What type of man was Franco? Can he be compared with the leaders of the Axis powers? What were the typical experiences of the many men and women from across the world who volunteered to fight for either side? What can be made of British policy during the war not to intervene? George Orwell wrote that he traveled to Spain to fight for ‘common decency’. The Aidan Project explains why, despite Orwell’s best efforts to defend the Republic, it was a losing battle.

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Dunkirk: From Spike Milligan to Christopher Nolan

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When defining what it is, or perhaps increasingly, what it was, to be British, courage under fire and Churchillian intransigence rank highly. Stiff upper lip, staying calm and carrying on. Much of this identity is borne out of World War 2, when Britain, so it was claimed at the time, stood alone. Alone, of course, apart from its vast Empire. There is no question, I hasten to add, that the evacuation from the northern French town of Dunkerque was an incredible undertaking. However, for understandable reasons of wartime propaganda, there are prevailing myths associated with Operation Dynamo that continue to this day; etched in stone within the British consciousness and collective memory.

How will Christopher Nolan’s 2017 summer blockbuster, Dunkirk, handle the realities and address the myths of this event? It will be intriguing to see how far Nolan goes in telling the harsh home truths about 27 May – 4 June 1940. Little is known about the project, which is in keeping with Nolan’s closely guarded filmmaking process. The first trailer for the film looks gritty enough. We see abandoned vehicles, a woebegone soldier walking into the sea to end his life, and the horrified reaction of a terrorised Cillian Murphy when informed that his rescue vessel is returning to the beach. Indeed, Operation Dynamo was, quite literally, far from plain sailing.

Will we see the spat between the army and the RAF, which arose as a result of the former wrongly believing that the airmen had not taken to the sky to combat the Luftwaffe? Churchill, in his voluminous memoirs of the war, noted how much it upset him to hear that rescued soldiers were furious with the RAF, unaware that a great struggle had indeed taken place above the channel. Will the bravery of the French to hold the line be featured? Will we see scuffles on the beach between the English and French over the precedence in evacuation? Nolan did much to make Batman real, so I imagine realism will dominate myth in his telling of the real story of Dunkirk.

Certainly, the fortuitous decision of the Germans not to press the assault on Dunkirk with tanks and artillery, and to instead rely on Herman Goering’s confident posturing that his Luftwaffe could finish the job, was the primary reason 340,000 personnel made it off the beach. The Allies were heroic, no doubt, but the Germans had made a huge tactical blunder.

Another aspect of 1940 which remains little known is that Britain was not as united in its desire to fight to the end as popular imagination tells us. Indeed, Churchill’s defiance was not even shared by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, who considered attempting to topple the Prime Minister to pursue an armistice with Hitler. Another enduring myth of the evacuation is the apparent eager acquiescence of boat owners to assist in the withdrawal. Whilst it is true that many bravely answered the call, many certainly did not. One can quite understand their reluctance.

Another film set during the opening months of World War 2, due for release a year from now in December 2017, is Darkest Hour, in which Churchill is portrayed by Gary Oldman. Could either film be bold enough to explore the claim that three of Churchill’s famous radio speeches were actually read by the actor, Norman Shelley, including the legendary “Fight them on the beaches” oration? In truth, this is unlikely for reasons of disputed evidence, and moreover, because the most prominent historian to make this claim is David Irving. To put it mildly, Irving has a less than stellar reputation, and is perhaps best known for his denial of the Holocaust and the famous libel trial that resulted from it.

In any case, as a massive fan of Nolan’s work – especially Inception, The Dark Knight and The Prestige – and a proponent for the teaching of history in as many forums as possible, I look forward to seeing Dunkirk when it hits cinemas on 21 July 2017. Much of the reality of Dunkirk has been glossed over for the benefit of national pride, but Dynamo is doubtless an incredible story, especially when told accurately. The harsh realities of Dynamo, for my money, make the event more engaging, not less. The proud flag-waving propagated at the time and since cannot be dismissed out of hand, because, after all, war is war. But the truth is that Dynamo was something of a disaster. The British Expeditionary Force was saved, but its equipment was lost to the shores of a defeated France.

There is no question that Churchill sincerely believed what he said when voicing a willingness to continue the struggle; to fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets and in the hills. However, what equipment Britain would have had to do such fighting is, fortunately for the United Kingdom, something that never required an answer.

The late comedian, Spike Milligan, who was serving in the British army on the English side of the channel during the evacuation, offered a frank summation of the real Dunkirk in his autobiography. Milligan could have spoken for many when he wrote, “As the immensity of the defeat became apparent, somehow the evacuation turned into a strange victory.” Milligan further noted the striking words of a Bombardier, ‘Kean’, who had made it off the beach and was posted to Milligan’s regiment thereafter. When Milligan asked what the operation had been like, Kean responded, “Like, son? It was a fuck up. A highly successful fuck-up.” Churchill, for all his celestial talk of deliverance and miracles, did offer a similarly grounded, though more politically-conscious, conclusion when he told Parliament on 4 June 1940, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

Update

Upon seeing the film, here is my review.

#2 – The Man of the Year and The Führer

On this edition of the Aidan Project podcast, I take a detailed look at Time magazine’s Man of the Year, Donald Trump, and the lessons of history that can be gained from his remarkable election victory. Is Trump a modern-day Hitler? Which other US President has Trump been compared to? Is a former Italian leader the best comparison to Trump? No, not Mussolini. Is the fear of Trump as a maniacal tyrant realistic or misplaced? This question and more are covered in an interesting episode. Thank you for your interest – please subscribe and spread the word by sharing or shouting the Project out on Twitter, @theaidanproject

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