Convention and Delusion: Review of Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945

15 Mar

Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945, by Max Hastings, was everything I expected: an even-handed if conventional look at the man, Winston Churchill, on his stage, the Second World War in Britain.

Churchill’s eloquent, pugnacious, and often reckless style of bearing up during the course of a war whose tide turned tortuously from the debacle of Dunkirk to the inception of the cold war is the portrait that unfolds over some 470 pages. Through diaries and letters, the mood of Britain and the nuanced communications between leaders are illuminated.  Near the end of the war, Churchill is shown nearly at the breaking point, aging, exhausted and sometimes ill, lambasting his ministers in the dead of night over pet causes.

Yet, even as he takes on a more complex hue and his expressions and witticisms pile up, a selectively revealing lens is subtly at work.  For this is Churchill in the limelight, self-consciously directing his own screenplay for posterity. A more useful book might be less an intimate sketch and more an effort to demonstrate how the leader  reflected and promulgated his ethos.  It might speculate sagaciously on broader consequences. Such a book would have to end in breaking the conventional icon of Churchill.    

History itself is narrative, Edward Said points out, with the way a story is told limiting what we notice within the matrix of culture. Inside the lines, we become unable in many cases to notice  or comprehend the amniotic bath of culture that contains us. With no one “outside the whale” to remark on a societal hero like Winston Churchill, he recycles his act on a stage of cultural delusion.

As a man of his time and class, Churchill generally gets a pass on his racism and its consequences. He was without a doubt not much interested in race or for that matter class. Thus, Churchill’s cultural assumptions would never confront him. In a sense, one might say that he never really attained the age of reason. Convention is nonetheless tolerant of this gimpy, bullish actor, clambering up on stage to reenact his scenes of courage and triumph. His love of war and admiration of empire , features that ought to stir consterntation, remain couched in the print at the bottom of the handbill. 

Across the top of the handbill it is written: Britain, 1940. German hounds are baying in France, on the scent of wounded prey. Winston Churchill, restituted war sage, is making his call to arms and defense, uniting the British.

“We shall fight on the beaches,” he intones. “We shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets.”

His words ring out on every radio–ring on through the ages . . ..

“I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire . . .. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men w ill still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”

Despite  such a declaration, as Hastings shows, British soldiers showed somewhat less pluck in these glorious occasions than Winston might have hoped. Tobruk showed the British forces contributing a rather less than brilliant effort,  surrendering fully 33,000 men along with 5,000 tons of fresh supplies. In any contest with the Germans, far superior forces were needed, and most often, superior forces did not carry the day.

On the home front, the British people did not necessarily see the glory in being pinched between the Scylla of Nazism and the deep, blue sea. Throughout the war, strikes slowed production at a rate that climbed throughout the war, peaking in 1944 with 1,048,000 working days lost.

“(Although) strikes were officially outlawed . . . by the government’s March 1941 Essential Work Order . . . nine thousand men at Vickers-Armstrongs in Barrow went on unofficial strike in a dispute over piecework rates. When a tribunal found against them, the strike committee held a mass meeting at a local football ground, and put forward a motion suggesting that the men should resume work “under protest.” This was overwhelmingly defeated and the dispute drug on for months weeks . . .. Of eight serious strikes in the aircraft industry between February and my 1943, six concerned pay, one was sparked by objections to an efficiency check on machine use, and one by refusal to allow two fitters to be transferred to different sections of the same shop. There were twenty eight lesser stoppages prompted by disputes about canteen facilities, alleged victimization of a shop steward, the use of women riveters, and working hours” (227).

Hastings labors over a sketch of Churchill that takes pains to be objective but doesn’t confront the mythological Churchill. He ends by maintaining that “Churchill towers over the war, standing higher than any other single human being at the head of the forces of light.” He quotes Mark Sullivan of New York Herald , “Churchill’s greatness is unexcelled . . . Churchill’s part in the world war reduces the classic figures of Rome and Greece to the relatively inconsequent stature of actors in dramas of minor scope . . . Churchill was the fighting leader, and his own poet.”

When anyone can be said to stand at the head of forces of light, alarm bells should ring out. Such forces should be called out for a
strict inspection. In the case of Britain, that inspection should extend to the slave trade, Queen Victoria’s little wars, the subjugation of black peopl
e in South Africa and Rhodesia, the concentration camps of the Boer wars to name but a few.

Hastings mentions but does not dwell on the Bengal famine, and there is something arbitrary though expected about this brevity.  He mentions that Churchill admitted he hated Indians, “a beastly people with a beastly religion.” When Churchill heard of the famine in Bengali, he inquired why Ghandi “hasn’t died yet.” In his view, the famine was largely the fault of the Indians themselves, who bred “like rabbits.”   

Although it has been argued that his neglect of the famine-stricken Indians was deliberate, my purpose here is not to put Churchill on trial for the famine, but only to point out how remarkable it is that that such a debate could be buried in a heap of Churchill trivia (as is Churchill’s direct contribution to the systematic torture and repression of the Kikuyu people of Kenya, which has Obama lately sending home the bust of the man).  Could it be the case that this famine, estimated to have killed as many as 4.5 million Indians–far exceeding for example British and American casualties during the war–passes as a footnote on a handbill to the greater drama of Winston Churchill only because of the forces of conventional culture that constrain the narrative?

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