Sunday, December 1, 2013

Modern Terminology and History

I just downloaded "Catastrophe 1914" by Max Hastings and started listening to it. The first chapter lists how the interpretations of the war have changed over time, from the Treaty of Versailles being unjust and unduly harsh, to the Germans being solely responsible for the fighting. One of the theories holds that Austria-Hungary was justified in seeking a military solution for the murder of Franz Ferdinand, that by its terrorist activities and actions in the First Balkan War, Serbia had become a "rogue state".

I think that this is a very interesting concept of using modern terminology to describe a past event. Obviously the term "rogue state" did not exist in 1914, but it fits. Serbia used terrorism and aggressive action to achieve an enlargement of its territory and influence, desired to upset the political status quo, and even had a superpower patron in Imperial Russia. Substitute Syria for Serbia, and it is a similar situation the world finds itself in today.
This actually ties into the book "Invisible Armies" by Max Boot, a book that gives a narrative history of guerilla warfare. Boot uses terms like "insurgents" to describe, for example, the Jews fighting the Roman Empire in the 1st Century AD. Another book "The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt" by Toby Wilkinson compares the use of propaganda in Ancient Egypt to the level of state terror and propaganda in present-day North Korea. Wilkinson calls Pharonic Egypt a totalitarian state.

The point is, using a modern vocabulary can bring a new immediacy to historical events. When you call Egypt a centralized, authoritarian state, you picture propaganda, fear, and an oppressive government presence. Similarly, when you call Jewish rebels "insurgents", it adds texture to an otherwise abstract idea, because the word "insurgent" brings ideas to the modern mind that the word "rebel" does not. Ideas such as hit-and-run strikes instead of a standing army, relying on the population for support, a group fighting to evict an occupying power, and a group without diplomatic recognition from the outside world. These were all true in this case.

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