Monday 30 October 2017

Cautious about confidence

Tonight BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a programme ( (The Confined Trick, 8pm) advising us  how to boost our confidence.  I expect lots of aspirating go-getters will be listening-in and avidly taking notes.  But I hope the programme will also consider the downsides of confidence.

A first rate depiction of confidence is given in the  TV documentary “Army: Behind the New Frontlines” currently showing on BBC2.  From colonels though junior officers and NCOs to the newest recruits everyone seems and sounds supremely confident  of the justification for their presence in various parts of the world ( Ukraine in last week's episode), what they are about to do, and the  probability of success.  

 Actual military history tells a different story, from the unimaginable slaughter of the First World War to the pointless wastage of Vietnam and the counter-productive engagement in Iraq. 

Even the Second World War, which, from the British point of view is seen as justified and successful, even part of the glorious past,  was not, however,  quite the efficient operation some  like to think.  As Jo Grimond, a junior officer in it, points out in his Memoirs, (p99):

". . .once America joined in the war, let alone Russia*, we were bound to win .  If anything is remarkable, it is  remarkable that [victory] took so long."

Grimond goes on to point out the damage  our view of our exceptional national gifts which resulted from   our victory  did to our national psyche:

"Yet we came out of the war being told that we had saved the world by a unique act of courage against fearful odds..  We naturally became convinced  that the world must see that we were natural leaders of the West entitled by our deeds of valour and skill to rest on oars as far as work was concerned  and owed a debt, indeed a living, by our neighbours."

I strongly suspect that the residue of this attitude is what fuels the enthusiasm of the leading Brexiteers. Perhaps the  acronym SNAFU, coined. in the Second World War, aptly describes the situation towards which they wolud take us.

 Let's  hope the BBC, always concerned for balance, will run a series on the virtues of honest doubt. 

* We should never forget that, whereas the number of deaths does not necessarily correlate with the contribution to victory, according to the Soviet Union suffered between 20 000 000 and 27 000 000 civilian and military deaths, compared with  the UK's
 450 900 and the US's 419 000.


  1. What we did in the Second World War, which did in fact save the world, was not be conquered by Germany.

    Germany was doomed from the moment Hitler turned on Stalin. That part of the outcome was not in doubt.

    But, if Britain had fallen, there would have been nowhere for the USA to launch its invasion of Europe from. And without that, the Soviet Union's tanks would not have stopped at Berlin: it would have continued its advance right to the edge of the Atlantic.

    The USA would have found itself facing a communist continent that stretched from Brest to the Bering Strait, from the Bosporus to the Barents Sea. And with nowhere that it could place missiles that would enable them to reach Moscow, there would be nothing with which it could threaten to get the USSR to back down over, for instance, Cuba.

    And in that situation it's quite possible the Communists could have won the Cold War.

    Britain's defiance in 1941-1944 did save the world. Not from Hitler — Hitler was always doomed — but from the real enemy which emerged after Hitler fell, and which killed far many more millions than Hitler ever did, Communism.

    1. Thanks for that thoughtful comment, which is certainly a plausible account of what might have happened if we had not deafened our island to provide a launching-pad for the liberation of the European continent from the West.

      However, your use, twice, of the hubristic “save the world” does, worry me. It is an example of the assumption of British “exceptionalism” which I think has damaged us since 1945 and fuels much of the bravado of the Brexiteers.

      A more realistic analysis of the events of 1939 to 1945 is not to downplay the undoubted courage and sacrifice shown by many of the British, and the dogged “we can take it” determination of the majority.

      Really there is no need to over-exaggerate our contribution. Rather I’d prefer it if we exercised that (now sadly fading) British value of modesty and remembered that:

      A) We were not alone: the Free French, Poland, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and others were all there beside us. It could be argued that without the Polish Air Force we could have lost the Battle of Britain. (Indeed, there is at present a competition to pick the most significant Battle of Britain pilot and the current front-runner is a Pole)
      B) We were fortunate in having the Channel “. . . as a moat defensive to a house” and that, unlike the Maginot Line, there was no way round it.
      C) We were lucky in that for some as yet unexplained reason the German’s called off their invasion when were at our weakest, immediately after Dunkirk