Friday, January 22, 2010

Finding Field Marshall Haig

Across the street from Cannongate Kirk, at the lower end of the Royal Mile – the street that runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace – is the Museum of Edinburgh, a small, unimposing museum with free admission.  Being of sound Scottish ancestry, I hate to pass a bargain, especially when it has something to do with history.

The museum is housed in a restored Sixteenth Century house and includes an eclectic mix of artifacts, dating from Roman times to modern day. Wandering through the collection, I discovered something different at almost every turn.  There were household items of pottery, china, glass and silver; signs and manufacturing tools from businesses that are now long-gone; military, police and fire brigade equipment; and numerous other bits and pieces of Edinburgh from the past two thousand years or so.

Undoubtedly, the most heartwarming display belonged to Greyfriars’ Bobby, the Skye Terrier who watched over his master’s grave for fourteen years during the mid-1800s and was adopted by the residents of Edinburgh.  In the display, one can read Bobby’s story and see his collar, watering bowl, and pictures of the people who cared for him during those years.

As I meandered among the many small rooms of the museum, I discovered a large collection of pictures and personal items belonging to Douglas Haig, commander of the British forces during most of World War I.  Being a student of the Great War, as it was once called, this memorial to one of Edinburgh’s native sons drew my serious attention.

Haig remains a controversial figure even today, with historians divided over his legacy.  Some see him as a great military leader who ultimately guided the British forces to victory on the Western Front.  Others, however, see him as an incompetent general, a blunderer and a butcher, who wasted the lives of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers. 

From my perspective as a Marine Corps corporal, I tend to fall in with the latter group.  However, I would add the caveat that Haig was the product of the upper crust of British society.  Like so many military and political leaders of his time, he was born and raised to do exactly what he did.  There was an arrogance about them all, an elitism  that continues to plague world leaders even today.  They made stupid decisions, with little or no concern for those outside their own social circles.  They abused their power and paid the price with other people’s lives.

World War I was one of the first modern wars.  Millions of innocent people died.  Historians explain the carnage as the result of advancements in military technology,  the tools associated with defending a position – specifically the machine gun.  In an era when generals were taught to win battles with infantry and cavalry charges, the machine gun changed everything.  It was not until World War II that military leaders learned to combine the strength of infantry, tanks and airpower to overwhelm defensive positions.

Haig was an old school military leader.  He seemed to believe, as Winston Churchill later noted, that he could stop machine gun fire with  “the breasts of brave men.”  When one studies the history of war in general, it is too often evident that the military leaders who rise to the top of the ranks during times of peace often fail to provide the kind of leadership needed during war.

Haig’s exhibit is on the third floor of the museum, toward the back of the building, and I suspect that it is missed my many who visit.  At first, I thought the display was appropriately hidden, but perhaps I’m wrong.  Maybe it should be out front, where it will be seen by more people, reminding us of the incredible stupidity of valuing unconditional victory over human life.

Regardless, there is little doubt in my mind that of the two famous sons of  Edinburgh, I would much rather have had a faithful Skye Terrier named Bobby as my friend, than a pompous old Field Marshall like Haig.

© 2010 by David Lee McMullen

Monday, January 18, 2010

Reflections of My Younger Self

On Facebook, friends are posting pictures of themselves as young children, so I decided to join in on the fun. It was a spur of the moment decision, involving not much serious thought. Since I am traveling and have only one suitable picture scanned into my computer – a studio portrait of my family taken when I was a baby – I cropped the picture down to just my face and posted it.
At first I thought of it as just a cute photo and not much more. Unlike most babies, who tend to look like Winston Churchill without the cigar, I saw a striking similarity to Yoda, the wise old Jedi knight from “Star Wars.” My ears stuck out too far and I had a rather large head, something some people will probably say hasn’t changed much in the past sixty-something years. A few extremely observant people may even notice that my left eye is weak. That eye, as I now recall, had a tendency to cross when I was young, but corrected itself over time, although it can still be a little wobbly at times. It probably explains why I tend to see the world from a slightly different perspective.
This particular picture has always been a part of my life. It was on my mother’s dresser for years, before it was passed on to me when I accepted responsibility for all the family photographs. Since the portrait included my parents, I always concentrated on the two of them when I looked at the picture, thinking less about the little guy sitting on his mother’s lap.
Although they have passed away, in the picture my parents remain forever young. My father was 28, home after helping to make the world safe for democracy as the first sergeant of a bomber squadron during World War II, and was working as an accountant for a local lumber company in St. Petersburg when the photo was taken. My mother was 24 and had been a legal secretary until I came along. In the picture, like so many young couples in post war America, they appear happy and destined for a long and successful life, but like many families those dreams were never fully achieved.
Today, as I look at this old photography of myself, I can barely imagine what it was like to be so young, so happy, so untarnished by the realities of the world. I find my older self wanting to warn my younger self of the unforeseen dangers ahead, counsel the little guy on the best paths to take, and point out those extraordinary, but fleeting, experiences that he should savored the most. Then I asked myself: Would life be better if we were given a road map to follow? Perhaps, although I think not.
I have learned a lot as a result of looking back at my younger self. I am reminded of how bright the world can seem when dreams for the future are just beginning to take shape; I am reminded that casual decisions, such as posting an old baby picture, can help one rediscover long forgotten memories; and I am reminded that by reflecting on the past, I can better understand what the future may hold – probably a very good perspective for a rambling historian such as myself.

© Copyright 2010 by David Lee McMullen