Agincourting controversy (my lies?)

Cheese-eating surrender-monkeys’ is a phrase that was not actually used to describe the French in the British press last week. But it was a close thing. You see, a group of French historians and academics gathered last week to discuss the historic English victory at the battle of Agincourt under Henry V. And they were not taking any prisoners, as it were. The historians (caricatured by most of the UK media as being incapable of impartiality by virtue of their Frenchness) suggested that not only had the English not been quite as outnumbered as Shakespeare would have us believe, but that they were also guilty of war-crimes. Burning POWs and killing soldiers who have surrendered would certainly qualify today for that label.

The obvious question on the lips of serious observers is naturally: who cares? Evaluating past wars by modern standards is pointless, right? Well, yeah, if you’re planning to go to war again on that basis. But, if you’re trying to evaluate a treasured historical event that serves as an example and inspiration to the nation, then maybe there’s value in it.

If it turns out Gandhi was a cannibal and that when he was fasting for peace it was only from vegetables, that would justify a re-evaluation of his legacy. If we discovered the ’66 England football team were on steroids, that would necessarily mean an adjustment in our hero-worship.

The problem with the ‘leave history alone’ school of thought is: where do you draw the line? Whether George Osborne asked for money from a Russian oligarch is obviously relevant and worth checking facts for because it happened so recently. But what about something ten years ago? Or twenty? Or forty?



Last week the BBC World Service ran a documentary about an incident that happened 40 years ago and was subsequently covered up, uncovered, sanitised and all but forgotten. Its facts are important, not because the war in which it happened is still being fought or even because some of the villains involved could still be brought to justice, but because acknowledging what happened can only help to inform our judgements on current events.

The My Lai Massacre took place during the Vietnam War. American troops, acting on orders, killed 504 non-combatant civilians in the village of My Lai on 16 March 1968. Women and children were raped, gang-raped and shot by American GIs. Hundreds of bodies were dumped in a ditch and when a passing helicopter pilot stopped and naively thought help would be given when he pointed out that some bodies were still alive, the ditch was fired into. Some members of Charlie Company, one of the units involved in the massacre, did not take part and even tried to stop the rape and murder. But, others carved the ‘C’ of their band of brothers into the chests of Vietnamese civilians. Eventually an order came to stop killing, though not to stop raping.

from salem news

from salem news

Only over time and as 400 witnesses testified, did the American public come to believe that such a thing could happen. They, like we, wanted to believe that only other nations, other eras of history or rogue individuals were capable of barbarity. We ourselves, when we read about abuses in interrogation centres or on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan are often very quick to assume that controversial incidents are rare and isolated, and worse, that questioning or speaking out is somehow unpatriotic.

What we learn from My Lai, and perhaps even from Agincourt, is that we should never assume that ‘our people’, whoever we decide they are, are above doing terrible things. Because if we do, we may not have the courage to prevent future horrors.


One Response

  1. Unfortunately i think everyone, all “types” of people are capable of atrocities, more often than not, when they believe they’re actually doing the right thing. But excellent blog, i hope you keep posting!

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