When white supremacists and counter-protesters clashed in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently over the removal of Confederate statues, they forced into national headlines a conversation over the meaning of historical symbols. They also reminded some observers of civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, when activists successfully convinced Americans that they were fighting for a moral cause. Recently, Professor Moore spoke with a correspondent for the magazine America: The Jesuit Review and helped to place the Charlottesville protests into historical context. The correspondent, by the way, is Michael O’Loughlin, a 2007 Saint Anselm alum. The link for the article can be found here.
Over the summer, Professor Sarah Hardin took on Becky Sigman ’19 as a research assistant. We asked Sigman, who majors in Peace and Justice while minoring in French, to tell One Thing after Another something about her experience. Starting this fall, the History Department will be making much greater use of research assistants than in the past, so you might want to read about what Sigman thought of her summer work.
Last year, I took Professor Hardin’s course, History 391: History of Southern Africa. After speaking with her several times about her area of expertise—the role of agriculture in the lives of West Africans—I decided that I wanted to learn more. The idea of doing research with a professor appealed to me because I thought it would be a great way to learn about academic research, increase my knowledge about an issue that I was interested in, and develop a closer relationship with a great mentor in the field. Professor Hardin needed a research assistant, so together we identified our plan of action. Lucky for me, I learned that one of my research responsibilities would consist of translating documents from French into English, which allowed me to expand my French vocabulary and increase my fluency. We started applying for funding, and through the generosity of the Dean’s Office, I was able to assist Professor Hardin in her research for four weeks over the summer.
Throughout those four weeks, I was responsible for translating, summarizing, and analyzing reports from France and francophone African countries. For years, Professor Hardin has been collecting documents to investigate the repercussions of pesticides and herbicides used for cotton production in West Africa between the 1950s and 1980s. She wants to learn what agricultural agents knew about the dangers of the chemicals they used (and when they knew it). She gave me reports and transcripts of meetings in which agents discussed the issues they encountered. Below is an advertisement from the trade journal Coton et Fibres Tropicales which is dated 1970:
Gésaten: yields are assured with this cotton herbicide
A Geigy treatment is appropriate for all of your problems
Widespread applicability: Gesaten eliminates the first sprouting of grass and dicotyledons
Easy to use: Gesaten can be applied through simple spraying techniques or through a spraying with sand without burying the product
Safety: Used in prescribed conditions, Geasaten will not harm your cotton crop and does not present any toxic risk for humans
Geigy société anonyme, 43 rue Vineuse, 75-Paris 16e
Professor Hardin was extremely insightful and patient throughout the process, meeting with me a few times each week to give me feedback on the work I’d completed and helping me through confusing vocabulary or concepts. What I found the most helpful is that she would continuously draw connections between specific documents and the larger goal of her thesis, which made me feel like the work I was doing was valuable. In the transcripts, we found that in the 1950s some chemicals accidentally killed goats, birds, dogs, and fish, and harmed humans, but that the agents seemed to take human labor for granted and only advised that people follow instructions carefully. In the 1970s, however, the agents began to express more concern about environmental damages and human health over the long term. Professor Hardin proposes that economic and political factors contributed to this change.
I would highly recommend doing research with a professor whose area of interest lines up with yours if you are interested in improving your writing and analysis skills, gaining a better understanding of how the academic research process works, or generally expanding your knowledge about a specific topic.
With respect to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, there is a fair amount of “What about-ism” these days. What about Churchill? What about the French? As One Thing after Another has pointed out in a previous post, some critics are unhappy that Nolan did not include the stories of various figures or groups in his film. Now it is the turn of those who complain that Nolan has left Indians out of his tale.
One Thing after Another has a two-part response to these criticism. First, Nolan’s ambition consisted of presenting the experience of Dunkirk, not relating the story of a battle in the round like, say, The Longest Day, or other such films associated with “blockbuster history.” In doing so, Nolan took British memories of Dunkirk as a plucky evacuation and recast them into a harrowing survival story (military historian Robert Citino claims this movie presents the best rendition of what helpless infantry must have felt like when attacked by Stukas). As this blog has argued earlier, many of Nolan’s critics appear to desire a semi-documentary that details the doings of everybody on the beach when that was never his ambition. In large part, they desire this treatment because they want his film to bear the large and unwieldy load of rectifying British amnesia about the contributions of others during the evacuation (and the entire war for that matter).
And that brings us to the second part of this blog’s response. In the New York Times, Yasmin Khan complains that Dunkirk allows Britons to continue ignoring the imperial dimension of World War II. Why, then, did Nolan not show Indian troops at Dunkirk or present the narrative through Indian eyes? The answer is that there were probably very few Indians at Dunkirk. When World War II broke out in September 1939, the Indian Army had just over 200,000 men on the rolls. According to Khan’s India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War, 53,000 Indians enlisted in the army during the first eight months of the war. In other words, when the Dunkirk evacuation occurred, the Indian Army still numbered under a quarter million men, not enough to spare many soldiers abroad, guard the volatile North-West Frontier, and maintain domestic order. Not surprisingly, then, the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) order of battle for 1940 reveals that there were no Indian combat units in France. Khan and others have pointed out that elements of the Royal India Army Service Corps (see photo above) were present in France and made it to the beaches for evacuation. But the RIASC only ever sent four companies to France—about 1,000 men. This unit would have constituted a drop in the bucket compared to the 225,000-odd British troops stranded on the beach. As for the lascars, those Indian sailors who constituted around a quarter of the British Merchant Navy’s strength, the evidence seems to indicate that they were not as numerous at Dunkirk as Sunny Singh believes. A large majority of British troops rescued from the beach were picked up by the Royal Navy’s smaller warships (destroyers, minesweepers, and so on) or vessels pressed into service by the Royal Navy (mainly ferry boats or those involved in Britain’s coastal trade). The latter, to judge from W. J. R. Gardner’s The Evacuation from Dunkirk: “Operation Dynamo”, 26 May-4 June 1940, the standard reference work on the subject, were captained by officers from the Royal Navy Reserve, and they generally appear to have been manned by British crews.
India’s enormous contribution to the British Empire’s war effort (as chronicled recently by both Khan’s excellent book and Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia) came later and elsewhere in the form of men, resources, and production. The Indian Army, which grew to just under 2.5 million men, played a very significant role in the Middle East, a commitment that spilled over into North Africa and thence to Italy and Greece. This force also proved particularly important in driving the Japanese out of Burma (now Myanmar). These missions were generally in keeping with the traditions of the Indian Army which consisted of safeguarding nearby imperial interests, including the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and southeast Asia (the one big exception came during World War I in the fall of 1914 when about one-fifth of the BEF in France consisted of Indian troops). And that is part of the reason why India’s contribution to the war has often been overlooked by both Britons and Indians; each has their reasons for ignoring the British Empire during World War II. British memories of the conflict stress how Britons heroically fought “alone” against the Germans for 18 months after France collapsed. This memory also tends to emphasize the action in Europe; there is less interest in the imperial dimension of the war because the empire is now dead and gone. At the same time, as Khan explains in her book, Indians also do not seem particularly interested in the role they played during World War II, largely because that role is difficult to incorporate in the nationalist narrative about India’s movement to independence in the 1940s. How does one tell the story of the almost 2.5 million Indian soldiers who faithfully did the British Empire’s bidding just a few short years before India’s “tryst with destiny”?
There is a movie yet to be made about Indians’ contribution to World War II that deals with the complexity of their relationship to the conflict and the British Empire. Dunkirk is not the setting for that movie. Such a film should be set in the Middle East or North Africa. Better yet, it it should take place in Burma, where eight of the thirteen infantry division that served in Bill Slim’s 14th Army were Indian. Their victories at Imphal and Kohima in the spring of 1944, which dealt Japan its greatest defeats on land during World War II, led to the recovery of Burma. It’s pretty clear that a British audience would not show much interest in such a film. But would Indians be in the mood to watch a movie that showed them in the service of an empire that they believe they are well rid of?