What they miss out in history at school

This year is 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. You probably didn’t need me to tell you that, since we’re not exactly allowed to forget. This war and it’s sequel, 25 years later, seem to have been stuck on the history curriculum ever since, as a reminder of how justified British involvement was (and trust me, I’ve not missed the fact that Churchill who ‘won’ the war is now considered the great hero, whilst Chamberlain who tried to avoid it was both foolishly mistaken and a bit of a coward). Fine. Here isn’t the place to go into a kind of sceptical pacifism, I realise that.

But here, not just on the other side of the Atlantic, but down in the southern hemisphere of it, I am coming to realise that there is an awful lot of history, of modern history and politics, that we just don’t know about. We look at the map of South America, all neatly divided into funny shapes, and we don’t really question it. In fact, we’re lucky if we can point out ‘which one’s which’, other than possibly Brazil, which is ‘the big one on the right hand side’.

And yet, of course, over here, things like borders and territory matter, and not just for the kind of odd patriotism that keeps Britain hanging onto the Malvinas (whoops, let’s not go there either!). Squashed onto the bus today, I noticed that the woman next to me in the Ministry of Defence jacket (incidentally, I can’t imagine anyone British who worked at the Ministry of Defence crushing onto an overcrowded, overheated, very slow, very old public bus (fare: 9p)) had a little slogan above the Bolivian flag crest: “The sea belongs to Bolivia.” A quick look at most modern atlases would tell you that wasn’t really true: Bolivian is one of America’s two landlocked countries. The map on the wall here, however, with its neatly defined regions, includes one more: “el litoral”. Despite the fact that this region was claimed by Chile in a peace treaty ratified in 1904 (yes, ten years before the first of the wars that we really bother to remember or think mattered), there’s an optimistic hope in Bolivia that one day it’ll come back, and a fiercely proud belief that the border is wrong, and that this corridor to the Pacific Ocean, and all that implies, is really, truly, Bolivian.

And then, as Europe recovered from the destruction of killing and maiming millions of men and destroying its land, leaving borderlands so shattered that no-one in their right minds would want them anyway, and prepared to do it all over again, Bolivia prepared to fight another neighbour. Not for ideology, or revenge, or suspicion, or xenophobia. No, if the War of the Pacific was over saltpeter, this one, the Guerra del Chaco, was all about oil.

A familiar story, a story that has played out again and again, and without getting too political (again!), it should be pretty obvious that it wasn’t the governments of the countries themselves that were really bothered about this maybe-possible-one day source of potential wealth for their countries. It was, unsurprisingly, two giants of the petroleum industry who were really disputing the territory. And yet as Standard Oil and Shell fought for the right to drill the black stuff, it was Bolivian and Paraguayan soldiers who died.

There were, of course, other issues at stake, other reasons that the two poorest countries, the only two landlocked countries on the continent decided to turn on one another. There was history, there was geography, there was politics. But as reasons why so many people had to die in such sordid conditions, they’re pretty weak, really. Is there ever a good reason for war? I don’t know, I haven’t found one yet. But the world is so full of greed and avarice and misguided patriotism that we have more than our fair share of bad ones.


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