The first casualty of war is truth. But what is the second casualty?
Well, during the week, as I watched some hasty comments by acclaimed historians on the Ukraine conflict, I realised that the second casualty of war is history. Or at least, mindful, honest history.
These comments followed the collapse of the wall of the Nova Kharkhova Dam in Ukraine. Within hours of the news, and on the flimsiest of evidence, two acclaimed historians barged in like information ministry spokespersons for NATO and Ukraine.
Peter Frankopan tweeted “if these are even broadly accurate, Russia has just cut off long-term Crimea’s future. Looks like a key turning point to me.”
Serhii Plokhy tweeted “An appalling act of ecocide by the Russian regime. The Kakhovka dam and the Kakhovka “Sea” are gone. Zaporizhia nuclear power plant loses access to water.”
Events soon revealed these statements as aligned with Ukraine war propaganda. They had even a little sniff of prepared lines. I replied to Peter Frankopan with some clear facts, and he did not reply. I did not bother with Plokhy. Frankopan writes some good history, but there are glimpses from time to time that he may be, in the tradition of British historians, too close to the British intelligence establishment to speak truth to power. Still, I was disappointed. I would like him to do better. Plokhy’s histories are in a long tradition of fervid emigre nationalism. No better can be expected of him.
One of the lessons for me about this war is that the Anglo-American historical establishment cannot be trusted to present reliable histories of Russia or their current and former empires. Historians too can be deranged and poisoned by access to power, information and exclusiveness. Even an outcast historian-bureaucrat like myself can twist the stories of the past, unless we approach history mindfully, with detachment, compassion and integrity. Our histories of the ‘modern world’, after all, are mental models that are breaking in this polycrisis today.
I also began reading this week Priya Satia, Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire (2020). She shows the long complicity of historians with empire. It is a brilliant book, that I will come back to on the podcast later in the year.
War has long provoked reflection on history. Tolstoy included a long essay on history in War and Peace. Over the next few months, I will write some essays that reflect on war and historians’ tales of war. They will be included in my collection War, Peace and Ruin in Ukraine, together with transcripts of my podcasts on the NATO-Russia-Ukraine War.
I am also preparing a course that I hope to luanch in July 2023 on mindful history for everyday decision-making. I think it can help all readers who want to learn from history, not biased historians, make better decisions in today’s world.
If you subscribe to my free weekly newsletter at jeffrich.substack.com, you will get updates on the course, and my free weekly newsletter. You can also support my writing and search for the truth in world history by taking out a paid subscription. Why not do it now?