Monday, May 10, 2004

A flippant comment of the day 

Richard Overy, professor of modern history at King's College, just can't help himself in his opinion piece on the Iraqi prisoner abuse:

"Flicking through a Sunday magazine a few years ago I was struck by a colour photograph of heavily armed German soldiers on the eastern front in Russia burning a village to the ground. With the heavy helmets, camouflaged combat jackets, submachine guns thrown over shoulders, the image seemed standard fare. It was only when I looked at the caption that my illusions dissolved. It was a picture of US troops in Vietnam punishing Vietcong guerrillas.

"It was an easy mistake to make."
No, it wasn't. Overy is one of the more distinguished historians of the Second World War. If he has to look at the caption because otherwise he can't tell apart Wehrmacht from US Army and a Russian village from a Vietnamese village, then I'm seriously worried about Overy's credibility as a serious historian.

Overy writes later on in the piece: "The mistreatment of prisoners, common in Iraq as in occupied Russia or Vietnam, has horrified world opinion."

Putting Vietnam aside (gotta give a tired cliche some rest once in a while), to imply that the mistreatment of prisoners is somehow comparable between the Eastern Front and Iraq, either in terms of quality or quantity (or the consequences), is simply obscene and unbecoming of somebody who fancies himself an authority on the Second World War. Has he actually read any books on the topic? (what am I asking - he's actually written books on the topic, for God's sake.)

To give you some perspective, somewhere between 2 million and 3.3 million Red Army prisoners of war perished while in German hands, "the majority of whom died as a result of a deliberate policy of inadequate nutrition, medical and sanitary facilities, and accommodation, not to mention deliberate cruelty and murder." How's that for common mistreatment? In addition, anywhere between 7 and 20 million Soviet civilians died during the German invasion.

Then again, maybe I'm too harsh on Overy - maybe it was an easy mistake to make. But only if you're a member of the "America=Nazis" crowd. I expected a bit better of Overy, though.


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