Tuesday 27 March 2012, 19:27

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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At first sight the search for peace and stability in Iraq, and the search for physical and mental fitness in the extreme contortions of modern Yoga seem to have absolutely nothing in common.

But curiously they do.

Both the terrible structural problems and distortions that underly Iraqi society today, and the strange, contorted poses that millions of people perform every day in things like Bikram's Hot Yoga, actually come from the fevered imagination of the British ruling class one hundred years ago.

As they felt Britain's power declining they wanted desperately to go back into the past and create a purer and more innocent world, uncorrupted by the messiness of the modern industrial world - a new Eden forged both by strengthening and purifying the human body and by inventing new model countries round the world.

And we are still suffering from the consequences of that terrible nostalgia.

At the end of the nineteenth century a fanatical craze for physical fitness swept through Britain. Millions of men and women took up gymnastics, body building and other physical exercises.

Such a thing had never happened before - and it was given a name - Physical Culture.

The craze had an almost religious intensity because those who promoted it said that it was the only way to prevent the British nation - and its Empire - from collapsing. Behind this was a powerful belief that the modern world of the 1890s - the teeming cities with their slums and giant factories - was leading to a "physical degeneracy" in millions of people.

It was a fear that had started with the elite who ran Britain's public schools. Matthew Arnold warned of "the strange disease of modern life" with its "sick hurry" and "divided aims". Out of that came a movement called "Muscular Christianity" which wanted to recreate the kind of heroic human being that existed before industry and the modern world came along and corroded everything.

It was a vision of a restored physical and moral perfection in the young men who were going to run the empire. And it involved doing lots of exercises in new things called Gymnasiums. Then liberal reformers got worried about the working classes - convinced that the slums were leading to a "physical degeneracy" . So they persuaded lots more people to do exercises.

Then a figure rose up who united all of this dramatically into a mass movement. He was called Eugen Sandow.

Sandow came from Prussia, he started as a circus and music-hall performer. But then in the late 1890s he invented something he called "body-building". It caused a sensation throughout Europe and America - and he became a massive celebrity because he was seen as the leader of a crusade of Physical Culture that was going to stop the degeneracy that was plaguing Britain.

Here is some film shot by Thomas Edison - showing Sandow in action.

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Sandow said that building the perfect body was a way of reconnecting with a pre-industrial time of virile physical perfection. He was very good at PR - and he told a story of how he had gone with his father to see the Greek and Roman statues in Italy. He asked his father why there were no more such men?

His father replied that in those days the rule of the survival of the strongest had not yet been corroded by the dangerous, cushioning effects of "civilisation". There and then, Sandow said, he resolved to lift from himself - and the world - "the stigma of weakness".

And to do that you had to "build" your body to look like this

Sandow also started a magazine called Sandow's Magazine of Physical Culture - to promote what he called The Gospel of Strength. It became the centre of a worldwide movement that incorporated bodybuilding with all sorts of physical exercises.

It was the start of the modern idea of fitness - and at its heart was an almost spiritual vision of restoring a lost wholeness to both human beings and to the world. The American promoter of Physical Culture, Bernarr Macfaddden wrote in 1904

"Our ancestors were strong, virile and conquering because they lived close to Nature and so absorbed her inexhaustible vitality. But we are losing our inherited vitality, slowly perhaps, but none the less surely."

In 1905 Sandow set up "The Empire and Muscle Competition", and then went off on a tour of the world. When he arrived in British India he became a sensation - thousands came to see him in his giant tent.

He had arrived in India at a time of rising tension. There were growing protests against Britain's rule, and Sandow's gospel of strength now began to get mixed up with another ideology - Indian nationalism. In the next twenty years, as Britain's hold over India weakened, the culture of physical fitness that Sandow had brought to the country would re-emerge in a strange mutated form as a way of fighting against British rule.

And in a further mutation this would lead to what we now know as modern Power Yoga.

After the First World War the territories of the old Ottoman Empire were divided up amongst the European powers, and Britain got three provinces in Arabia that would become the new country of Iraq.

Britain had created new countries within its Empire before and it had always started by surveying in extraordinary detail the societies they were ruling - compiling censuses and records of property boundaries and a mass of other details. Out of all that they then built a new administrative system.

It wasn't often very fair or democratic - but it bore some relationship to the reality of existing power structures.

But by the 1920s Britain was bankrupt after the war and couldn't afford such elaborate preparations. Instead a small group of elite administrators were allowed to create a new society out of their imaginations.

And their imaginations were influenced by exactly the same yearning for a return to a pre-industrial rural idyll that had created the Physical Culture movement in Britain.

What the British administrators did was take a romantic vision of a long lost Britain run by feudal landlords and project it onto Iraqi society - where the tribal Sheikhs were seen as being like the British landed aristocracy.

A historian called Toby Dodge has written an absolutely brilliant book called Inventing Iraq. It lays out in clear and very persuasive detail how this group of British Civil servants in Iraq built something that looked like a modern nation - but was in fact a facade. Behind it was really a weird nostalgic myth about Britain.

At the heart of this group was the legendary Gertrude Bell. She wrote the key "Review of the Civil Administration in Mesopotamia" in 1920, and Dodge shows how she, like many of the men working with her, completely distrusted the new modern middle class that had grown up in the cities like Baghdad.

This class had helped run the Ottoman Empire and the British believed that they were tainted - that they had been corrupted by the despotic Ottomans, and that if they were given power they could rise up and become despots themselves.

To prevent this, Bell and the other colonial administrators turned instead to the tribes in the countryside and the Sheikhs that controlled the tribes. The Sheikhs would be a far better alternative - powerful "people of influence" who could help the British run Iraq. They were "true" Iraqis, unscathed by Ottoman influence.

Here is a picture of Gertrude Bell.

What made the rural tribes and their leaders so attractive to the British was the fact that they seemed - in their imaginations - to be just like the stable feudal world of Britain with its rural nobility. The British were explicit about this, the Administrative Report for the Basra Division in 1918 said:

"These landlords are men of gentility and pride, occupying a position of influence and status reminiscent of that of the feudal landlords of English history"

Gertrude Bell was full of the romance of the Sheikhs, she said they were "aristocrats" who managed to keep the collectives they headed in a "natural equilibrium".

Some British administrators in Iraq thought this was mad - that you couldn't transmit authority and order through the tribal system, especially because the sheikhs' political and social power had declined long before the British turned up. It was also sidelining the one group who could help create a proper modern society - the middle class in Baghdad.

But, as Toby Dodge shows, the romantic vision of the sheikh as the linchpin of rural society won out. His judgement is blunt:

"This vision had little to do with the historical or social truth of the society. It sprang in large part from the colonial officials own understandings of the evolution of British society.

To the British the noble bedouin, untouched by all that was negative about the modern day, stood in stark contrast to those who peopled the cities - to those who had succumbed to the temptations of modernity."

If Dodge is right - and his evidence is very powerful - what the British did was create Iraq as an expression of their own fears about what was happening to their own country. They took their worries about the rise of the urban mass, and the horrors of industrialisation in Europe and projected this onto the complex societies that were all mixed together in the nascent Iraq.

They then ruthlessly ignored this complexity and gave a lot of power to the noble, virile sheikhs - who were very like the noble heroes that Eugen Sandow wanted to recreate with his bodybuilding.

Here is part of a film that gives a perfect and vivid illustration of this British romantic view of the Arab tribe as pure, uncorrupted society. It is made by the explorer Wilfred Thesiger who spent the 1940s living among the Marsh Arabs in Southern Iraq, and then with the Bedouin nomads who live in what is called The Empty Quarter that straddles Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

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But problems emerged right away.

The British supported the sheikhs who were prepared to co-operate, but there were others that the British deemed "unruly" - and because of this division there was growing anger and resentment among some of the tribes. And from 1920 onwards there were rebellions. But there was also a growing economic crisis in Britain - the defence budget had been cut in half and there wasn't enough money to find the troops that were needed to put down the revolts.

So the British invented what they called "Air Control". It was the first use of aerial bombing to put down a civilian uprising - and it was promoted as both a humanitarian and a moral way of keeping control. The bombers would be clean and precise, hitting only the buildings and fuel stores of the unruly tribes.

The first large-scale bombing was in November 1923 in the Samawah district on the Euphrates. It was against defiant tribes from the Bani Huchaim confederation. A British Special Services officer called John Glubb had done a reconnaissance and worked out who he thought were the sheikhs who led the tribes. His operations map showed:

"the location of the villages belonging to the Shaikhs and Headmen whose influence among the tribes rendered them particularly suitable for attack."

In doing this Glubb was following the simplified British vision of Iraqi rural society. In fact the society in Samawah turned out to be more complicated than he imagined. When the identified sheikhs were told to surrender or face bombing two of them came to the British and told them that they didn't have the power to make anyone surrender.

But the British thought they were being evasive - and the bombing went ahead. It was the shock and awe of its time. The RAF planes came in and bombed the villages, the people fled and returned as darkness fell. Then that night the planes came back with incendiary bombs and caught the villagers. An RAF report said that it was:

"to do away with the idea that they (the targets) will ever have any period of peace once an attack has begun."

The RAF's conservative assessment after the attack said that approximately 100 civilians had been killed and six villages destroyed. There was a lot of public concern in Britain about this new tactic, and in the face of this, John Glubb later claimed that only one Iraqi had died.

Glubb was one of the central military figures in Iraq - and his actions showed just how dangerous the simplified British vision of Iraqi society could be.

Here is a photograph of him:

Much later - in 1981- Glubb appeared on a very odd BBC chat show. It was called Friday Night Saturday Morning, and the theme was "The Arab People". It had a very strange collage of guests - first a Saudi prince comes on to defend his regime, then the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland dressed all in pink sits next to him and explains how every woman wants to have sex with an Arab sheikh.

Then John Glubb joins them to describe enthusiastically his bombing campaigns in Iraq in the 1920s. He starts by talking about the origin of "Air Control" but then slips away into a practiced, humorous after-dinner set of anecdotes about how the tribes were like little children who spent their time raiding each other - and had to be bombed to make sure they "played fair" like in cricket.

In an extreme, surreal way the programme illustrates the weird myth of "the noble sheikh" that the British had projected onto Iraq - and the extreme violence needed to sustain that myth.

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By the late 1920s there was a craze for Physical Fitness sweeping through India. It was something completely new to Indian society and it was led by a famous body-builder and gymnast called Professor K.V. Iyer. He had been inspired by the western ideas of Eugen Sandow and, like Sandow, he had turned exercise into both a physical and a moral duty.

Iyer modestly described himself as having "a body which Gods covet" and gave himself the title "India's most perfectly developed man"

What made Iyer's vision of a strong body so attractive to many Indians was not just physical. It was also a way of expressing the growing nationalism and hatred of British rule. Indian nationalists were very aware of the way their colonial masters dismissed all Indians as a weak and degenerate people - Baden Powell famously called them "enfeebled". A powerful body was a way of challenging that in dramatic physical terms.

In 1927 the popular journal Vayayam - The Body Builder - said its mission was "to uplift India from the mire of physical decadence."

K.V. Iyer was very aware of the paradox - that Indians were using European ideas of physical exercise to challenge their European colonial masters. And at the end of the 1920s he took his theories of body-building that were based on Western models and fused them with the spiritual ideas of Yoga. The aim was to create what one of Iyer's closest collaborators called "A Physical Culture Religion" which deliberately had roots in India's ancient past. They called it "The Yogic School of Physical Culture".

It was something very new - that had very little to do with traditional Yoga as it had been practiced for centuries. Yet it is the root of almost all the modern Yoga practiced today in Europe and America.

Such an idea is heresy to what are called the "Yoga Fundamentalists" in the west today who portray Yoga as having a special antiquity that goes back thousands of years. But recently a Yoga teacher and academic called Mark Singleton has written a fascinating and gripping book that challenges that idea head on. It is called Yoga Body.

Singleton goes back to the India of the 1920s and 1930s and shows in forensic detail how modern Yoga was constructed out of Western ideas of gymnastics and a modern Indian political nationalism. He points out that traditional Yoga has very few poses - and most of those are variations on the seated meditation posture. For hundreds of years, Singleton says, yoga was not about physical fitness but a system of meditation and philosophical enquiry.

Here is some footage - from BBC news in 1957 - of this new kind of physical yoga being displayed to the new leader of an independent India - Pandjit Nehru.

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And in a brilliant piece of detective work Singleton goes on to show how in the 1930s a completely fictitious spiritual history was created for this new kind of Yoga - which then allowed it to be sold back to the west as something ancient and mystical.

It happened in the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore. The Maharaja was a fitness fanatic, he installed a gymnasium and invited K.V. Iyer to come and teach his body building there. As Singleton shows, in the next door room was an unknown yoga teacher called T. Krishnamacharya who then proceeded to take the yogic physical culture that Iyer had invented - and push it much further.

Here is a picture of the palace.

Out of it came a radically physicalised form of yoga which is the basis for almost all the modern forms of yoga like Power Yoga that have grabbed the western imagination.

What made this so attractive to the west was that Krishnamacharya said that his system was five thousand years old and based on an ancient text called the Yoga Kurunta. He had first heard of the text, he said, when he was taught the system by a guru high up in the mountains in Tibet. He had then returned and "discovered" a copy of the five-thousand year old Yoga Kurunta in a Calcutta library, which he then transcribed.

Strangely no-one has ever seen the original text. Unfortunately when his followers asked to see it Krishnamacharya told them that it had been eaten by ants.

Singleton makes it clear that the real inspiration was far more likely to have been the body-building contortions and gymnastic exercises going on next door in the gym of the Mysore Palace.

Here is some footage of one of Krishnamacharya's followers - who was also his brother-in-law - called B.K.S. Iyenegar who was the person who brought this yoga system to Europe and America and made it famous. The first is an early exhibition he did for the BBC in 1966. It is followed by a wonderful scene of the same Mr Iyenegar on a BBC evening magazine programme from 1981 getting the presenter to do this "ancient spiritual exercise". Iyenegar was by then 63 years old. Obviously this kind of yoga works.

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Gertrude Bell died in Iraq in 1926 - having taken an overdose of sleeping pills. Noone knows whether it was suicide or not. But what is known is that she had come to realise that the British attempt to build a nation out of Iraq had failed. In a letter she wrote:

"There's no getting out of the conclusion that we have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anything that I or anyone else suspected. It will have to be fundamentally changed and what that may mean exactly I don't know."

In many ways the story of Gertrude Bell and her family is also the story of the fall of the British Empire. Her grandfather had been a wealthy industrialist who had made his fortune in iron and steel. He then became a powerful Liberal party politician helping to create the global vision of Empire under Disraeli.

Gertrude was one of the generation who then struggled in the 1920s to keep that global vision alive in the face of economic crisis and political and public opposition in Britain - and failed.

Strangely it was Gertrude Bell's half-sister, Mary, who would show the way forward to the next stage of this global vision - a mystical vision of the world in which individuals around the globe were no longer dominated by political power - but instead united by a vague, spiritual force. It was the New Age philosophy - and Yoga was going to play a central role in this new ideology.

Mary Bell's eldest child was Sir George Trevelyan who would become one of the founders of the New Age movement in Britain. The central guiding idea of the movement was that the world was moving towards a new age in which the fragmented and divided societies and nations would die away. It would be a "oneness" - a restored unity with all the people of the earth, with nature and within your own body.

The earliest and most powerful concrete expression of these ideas was the Findhorn Foundation. It was a rural community in Scotland whose aim was to try and create a model for this new kind of unified world. Sir George Trevelyan helped create the Findhorn Foundation - and tirelessly promoted it as a vision of an alternative future for the world.

I want to show a programme that the BBC made in 1973 about Findhorn. It was taped in their community hall where the founders and many of the members of Findhorn were asked to explain their vision, questioned by a very sympathetic presenter called Magnus Magnusson.

It is incredibly funny and wonderfully bonkers, but it is also very touching. I particularly like the middle-aged, very respectable man who says that he often meets "the Great God Pan" on the streets of Edinburgh - and then says that the God Pan is sitting in the audience tonight - "somewhere towards the back".

And the man in charge of the Findhorn garden is just brilliant - both in his fashion choice and his conviction that the vegetables he grows know telepathically what he is thinking and can feel his love for them.

"The vegetables are happy to be eaten because it is an expression of love. It is a wholeness, a oneness. I am at one with the lettuce I eat, especially after I've eaten it."

Here he is - full of vegetables.

Sir George Trevelyan is sitting in the front row next to the two founders of Findhorn - Eileen and Peter Caddy.

What is fascinating is that none of these people are hippies - they are the disillusioned children of the British empire. The Caddys had met in the early 1950s when both were stationed on an RAF base in Iraq - it was RAF Habbaniyah, the airfield from where many of the Air Control raids had taken off. Both were disenchanted with their lives and had come back to Scotland to try and build an alternative kind of world.

Here is a frame grab of Peter and Eileen.

Sir George, the Caddys, and the others sit there describing eloquently and sincerely how they want to telepathically get in touch with nature to create a new Eden and build "a great harmonious oneness that links us all".

Everything they say is suffused with a yearning desire to recapture something that has been lost.

It's as if what they are really doing is creating a fantasy global empire that is run by what Peter Caddy calls "different administrative levels of natural spirits". An empire that is populated by thinking, telepathic, vegetables that are happy to be eaten - just like the happy natives that were content to be ruled by the white men that loved them for their simplicity and innocence.

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Behind the New Age movement in Britain was the same belief that had driven the physical culture movement sixty years before - that the modern world and above all industrialisation was corroding both the moral and physical fitness of human beings. The aim was to restore a new unity of mind and body.

But the movement couldn't turn to the old ideas of health and fitness because in the 1930s they had become inextricably linked with nationalism - above all in the Nazi cult of physical fitness and the superman.

And that is where Yoga came in because it offered a system of physical exercise that also promised to create a spiritual oneness with the mind. It was physical exercise cleansed of all political connotations - and based instead on a powerful mystical tradition that went back five thousand years (even if the ants had eaten all the evidence for that).

And Yoga really took off in the New Age movement. It was one of the physical activities at Findhorn - and by the 1970s it had swept through the West. Here is a wonderful bit of film. In 1978 the BBC sent Sir George Trevelyan to report of the Festival For Mind and Body at Olympia in London. And one of the first thing Sir George wants to show you is Yoga.

I wish more reporters were like Sir George - I love his style, especially the way he quotes Wordsworth's pantheistic vision of the world in the middle of Olympia.

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In Iraq Britain's failed attempt to create a modern state in the 1920s has haunted the country ever since.

In 1958 there was a military coup which began a period of bloody violence that led to the country being taken over by the Baath party in 1968. When they took power the Baathists deliberately set out to try and dismantle "premodern" tribalism. They did this both to try and finally modernise and strengthen the country - but also because the tribalism was so linked in their minds to collaboration with British imperialism.

The Baathists tried out experiments with the collectivisation of land ownership in 1970 - and then started to nationalise land in 1971.

But in the late 1970s the structure of power began to strangely mutate - and as Toby Dodge argues in his Inventing Iraq - it moved backwards towards a copy of the very same tribal structure of patronage that the British had instituted.

This happened because of the rise to power of Saddam Hussein and the Tikritis within the Baath ruling elite. As power became increasingly personalised around the figure of Saddam, the power of the Baath party came to depend on the al-Bu Nasir tribe - and within that the Beijat clan group.

And in the process Saddam began to do exactly what the British had done in the 1920s. He turned away from the urban political elite (in his case bloodily - by ruthlessly executing scores of senior Baath party members that he thought were threats to him) and moved towards using the tribal system. He set out to co-opt other tribes - and to try and break the power of others

Then - after the Gulf War in 1991 - Saddam went further. He effectively recreated tribal networks and tribal "recognized sheikhs" all across Iraq who were given resources and power in return for loyalty to him. Just like the British.

And as Dodge points out - that structure continued after 2003

"It is these very same "recognized sheikhs" that the British and American forces have begun to look to for the cost-effective provision of order in the post-Saddam era.

If one were able to pick up Iraq like a good piece of china and turn it over, it would bear the legend: 'Made in Whitehall, 1920'."

Here is footage of Saddam from 1981 that shows how he was reinventing this structure. There is footage of him going to rural villages, sitting next to the headman, and promising them stuff in return for their loyalty.

It is followed by a extraordinary description of how he invented himself almost as a super sheikh - his personal telephone number listed in the Baghdad phone book - that anyone could call and talk to - just like going to see the headman.

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Meanwhile Yoga conquered the western world.

But the history of Yoga is just as convoluted and contorted as the positions its followers adopt. For much of the ideas behind it were initially born as attempts to morally reinvigorate the minds and bodies of those who ran British Empire. Those ideas then swept through India and became part of a nationalism that challenged Britain's rule. They then were sold back again to the west in a new form - linked to a mysticism that gave a purpose and meaning to a nostalgic post-imperial generation.

Today yoga has morphed once again. Much of the new age mysticism linked to it has fallen away, and in an age of intense individualism where people increasingly feel disempowered, the human body has become the last territory individuals feel they have control over. It is the Empire of One - and Yoga is the administrative system that controls it.

Here is Jerry Hall reporting on the latest fashionable version - Bikram's Hot Yoga - and meeting Bikram himself who claims to have "800 plus" schools across the world. She also then visits an Ashram in India and is puzzled to find that their Yoga isn't really like what goes on in the Hollywood Hills.

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    Comment number 21.

    @ Roman Krznaric: Ah, thanks very much for mentioning Sven Lindqvist - I keep meaning to read his other book "Exterminate All The Brutes" one day but I never get around to it. I hear it is a great work of art, written in the form of a travelogue through the history of European genocides in Africa.

    Although aerial bombing of civilian targets as opposed to military targets might have been a British idea as AC's article here suggests - and one that extends through the Allied firebombing of German cities such as Dresden during the Second World War, the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all the way through to the current use of drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia (and I believe the US government has cleared the way for possible drone attacks on civilians within its own borders) - the idea of aerial bombing goes back at least to the mid-1800s with the Austrian army's use of bomb-carrying hot-air balloons against Venice which had declared independence and set up a short-lived republic in 1849. Does anyone know if that bombing campaign was "meant" to be against military targets or was aimed at civilians?

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    Comment number 22.

    Nausika, in response to the question about the 1849 bombing - as far as I know, it couldn't really be defined in the terms of 'intention' that have characterised the age of modern carpet bombing since the time that air attacks became truly viable as a means of waging war (i.e. in the early 1920's, following the demonstration of military efficacy in World War One). Like all balloon based technology prior to the invention of the dirigible/zeppelin, there was a notable limit to how well any balloon could actually be steered, and the Austrian forces under Radetzsky seem to have initiated the idea of a 'balloon attack' in frustration after realising that their field guns were not capable of covering the distances needed to bombard Venice from their positions. The balloons could not be steered and were not, in fact, piloted, so would necessarily have done damage to any target they encountered, military or civilian. In the sense that they were being used as objects of psychological warfare, I suppose it's true to say that they were being targeted at civilians, though, in point of fact, many did not reach any target, detonated harmlessly, or were even forced by the wind back over the Austrian positions.

    When balloon communication was utilised to attempt to break the siege of Paris thirty years later, the ability to direct the balloons was no more efficient. The Prussians used balloons then for observation on occasion and the French attempted to (memorably) use them to break the siege lines, but they were not notably employed as instruments of war - offset, by the fact that, by then, field artillery had become so more effective in terms of range and destructiveness.

    With that said, fantasy always preceded reality. After the first modern balloon experiments were undertaken in the late 1780's, it was not long before ideas for improved military application had been developed, particularly in regard to affording them some form of steering/navigation (often on the basis of adding sails to tack in the wind) which technically made them from aerostats into dirigibles (but only in theory). Ironically, during the Franco-Prussian War, the pressure on the French to develop steerable ballooning led to the development of the first propeller driven dirigible, but the concept was only finished after the war was over. The late 1870's on saw the addition of internal combustion engines, and eventually, with the development of rigid airships (like the famous Zeppelins) and the development of fascination with heavier than air flight (in the last couple of decades of the 19th century)%

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    Comment number 23.

    the fascination with the possibility of bombing, gunning, troop launching or incinerating enemies from the skies became extremely widespread in European pulp literature. It took some years for some kind of reality to dovetail with the predicted tendencies, however, and very few bore much comparison to the *actual* developments of bombing methods once developed. H.G. Wells technically predicted the idea of the ultimate release of an atom bomb, but he visualised the bomb as being a sort of fissionable grenade that could be hurled from the cockpit of a passing plane - and, indeed, some of the early bombing undertaken in the First World War was exactly of this type (minus the fissionable material!).

    During the First World War, all notable combatants developed very basic notions of utilising strategic bombing, but there was no consistency to these plans, and no clear set of ideas as to how best to orchestrate a bombing raid. There were, in fact, advocates of remote propelled bombings (a sort of early drone), hand-lobbing of bombs from aircraft, airship bombing and so on. The idea of bombing from a large, multi engined aircraft was only sporadically canvassed or utilised (not least because the mass production of such aircraft was itself very gradual). In technical terms, it was always maintained, throughout the First World War, that such raids were aimed at industrial and military, rather than civilian, targets - though many civilians were casualties. Whether the German zeppelin raids on Britain which were so diffuse as to effectively lose strategic status, and take on the status of deliberate aerial bombing of cities, should be designated as the first true aerial bombing raids against civilian populations is a moot point. Adam is certainly right to acknowledge that Britain's colonial policy in the 1920's, however, was shaped by the establishment of a theory of 'Air Control', utilising concentrated aerial bombardment on a civilian population in order to cow revolt. It was rare for even these attacks to be orchestrated against sizeable, city based populations, however, which is perhaps why they have, historically, been so chronically underacknowledged.

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    Comment number 24.

    @ Leeravitz: Once again, I am in your debt for the knowledge you bring here.

    I now remember there was one case where hot-air balloons were used in an experimental way to terrorise civilians and that was from 1944 to early 1945 when the Japanese hit on the idea of sending bomb-carrying balloons high into the atmosphere so that they would be carried by air currents across the North Pacific which would then dump them in areas where civilians lived.

    Some 9,000 - 10,000 balloons were launched over a period of several months. Probably one thousand balloons reached the US and caused forest fires and panic. One killed an Oregon woman and five children on a picnic lunch after Sunday church in May 1945. These were the only casualties of World War 2 actually killed on US soil. Details of the deaths can be read at this link:

    Before March 2011, this incident would have been remembered as one of history's footnotes (albeit a tragic one) but with the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at Fukushima and the radiation that ended up in the atmosphere and ocean, perhaps the entire Japanese balloon bomb campaign should be given more prominence than it has been and the campaign and the Fukushima nuclear disaster compared as examples of how both knowledge and ignorance of air and ocean currents over and in the North Pacific Ocean area can have sinister consequences for people living in western North America.

    Had the Japanese thought to attach bombs carrying anthrax and other disease germs to these balloons, their campaign would have been more devastating. This would not have been beyond their capacity to do as the Japanese Imperial Army had set up medical and scientific laboratories in Manchuria (the infamous Unit 731) and Nanjing in China (and possibly also in the Phillippines) where research in biological warfare of an often sadistic nature was conducted on civilians and POWs (mostly Soviet but a few Americans, Australians and British were experimented on as well). has plenty of interesting and detailed information about Japan's balloon-bombing campaign and carries archived news stories of bombs found as far as Michigan state.

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    Comment number 25.

    @ Leeravitz: I should have added that the US government had known of these balloon bombs once they started arriving but placed a blanket ban on the reporting of these bombs. The US media complied until the tragic incident in Oregon occurred. The censorship worked as the Japanese authorities eagerly scoured the US press for news about the bombs but concluded after finding nothing that the bombing campaign was a failure.

    A more entertaining reward for you: the Japanese animated movie "Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors", the first full-length anime feature film, is available for downloading on Youtube if you're interested in such films. The Japanese Imperial Navy commissioned this film in 1942 as propaganda for children after the Chinese animated film "Princess Iron Fan", the first full-length Asian animated movie and only the third animated movie in the world at the time (the other two full-lengthers in circulation "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" and "Gulliver's Travels" both being American), was released in Japanese cinemas and blew audiences away (pun intended). The Japanese film was completed and released in 1945 but audience attendances were very low as city children had been evacuated to the countryside due to US bombing raids on cities. The characters are all very cute animals as only the Japanese can draw them!

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    Comment number 26.

    Going to need to read this one a couple of times. But, I'm always struck about how much of British, nay English, culture is based on nostalgia - nothing is as good as it once was (fair play in cricket, morals of politicans/the youth of today). I'm watching a carry on film as I type!!! An Adam Curtis blog on 'carry on' would be worth reading.

    Being English I'm subject to these urges - in my case it leads to a yearning for anarcho-primitivism. There are people who would say human history starting going wrong once we started settled agriculture and ceased being hunter gatherers.

    I also like this blog as I believe the concept of the tribe is very powerful in these urges for primitivism. In a world where we are all connected by the internet the concept of the tribe is a powerful image of a world of known hierarchies, where you know everyone and there are no outsiders (this is a local shop for local people).

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    Comment number 27.

    Bodybuilders are cultists to this day - if you try to read about the right way to exercise on the Internet you'll find all these entrenched opposing camps who create a personal identity and ideology out of their particular way of doing something that is really very boring and mundane, like brushing your teeth. You brush your teeth for both aesthetics and health, but so far no one to my knowledge has tried to build a personal or group identity out of a special fervour for brushing, nor out of a particular method of brushing one's teeth.

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    Comment number 28.

    @ G: Your modern couch potato prefers to use an electric toothbrush which might explain why brushing teeth attracts no competing schools of thought apart from which settings you use: low, medium or high.

    You could try something even more boring and mundane like breatharianism in which you try to subsist on light alone (or the energy that is derived from it) and abstain from consuming food and liquids completely. There have been reports of people who have died following this way of life and there have been documentaries "No Way to Heaven" and "In the Beginning There was Light" made about breatharianism.

    There may be opposing schools of ideology within breatharianism on whether having chloroplasts transplanted into your body to enable you to use the sunlight more efficiently constitutes cheating but I haven't bothered to check.

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    Comment number 29.

    I think this article's portrayal of the british role in iraqi nation-building is not wholly correct on two counts

    1) British are portrayed as romantic nation builders who did many mistakes in iraq because of their faulty, romantic misconceptions, and they were deeply agonized by their failure as a result.
    While this view may be partially true (there is indeed a romantic streak in 19th century european thought,which is best illustrated the history of archeology or geology), one must not loose sight of why british were in iraq: They were in iraq not to help the iraqi people in nation building, but to get their hands on iraq's oil wealth. By 1918, the importance of oil was very well understood. As this is a very well known story, I am not going into details. But, I will just mention the conversion of british navy from coal to oil by admiral Fisher.

    2) British were indeed retarded the development of the modern middle classes in middle east while they entrenched the power of the sheiks/mullahs/hodjas. But they didnt do this for a faulty idolization of middle ages, and a misplaced wish to help modern arab nation building.
    British were very well aware that the danger to their rule does not come from mullahs and sheiks. The real danger to their rule came from middle class people like journalists, doctors, soldiers, manufacturers, men who are westernized in living and thinking, who got modern, secular western education, who can talk with a british officer on an equal footing, whose affiliation is to a nation rather than to a tribe or a remote metaphysical principle. Men like Mustafa Kemal or Enver wreaked havoc with british designs on middle east. By the end of the war, British were wery well aware that the real danger came from westernized, secularized middle class, not from religious and tribal masses.
    It is very easy to divide and rule the tribes. Not so with a modern, secular middle class. Hence their backing of the old order.

    3) We keep on talking about the "british", but who were these "british"? Were they starving textile workers of manchester? Actually, the "british" we are talking about were a very tiny segment of british society: its ruling class. This ruling class, in the last analysis, was not unified by its material wealth, but by its culture. And they exploited their own lower classes as readily as they exploited iraqi oil.
    In order to say more about british role in the middle east, we have to know more about the world view of these british elites.

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    Comment number 30.

    This isn't a response to the blog but a gushing fan-letter from someone who doesn't watch much TV but was recently introduced online to Machines of Loving Grace, The Trap etc. Observant, witty and deep - says Post-Doc publishing on Iris Murdoch. Good Show.

  • Comment number 31.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 32.

    This also is not a response to a blog but is just a thank you to Adam for his great work (not all of which I have seen yet).
    In particular I found the trap "The Trap" very inspiring. So inspiring that I have actually decided to start up my own business incorporating some of the wisdom passed on in that series.

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    Comment number 33.

    Adam I also want to say something completely off topic to this particular article but similarly to Davidserocki I want to thank you for 'The Trap' a most important revealing commentary on the economic and philosophical theories that have shaped the current epoch. I have made a sort of time capsule that I hope my kids will keep that includes a link to that documentary. I want them to be aware of the most important things that have and will shape their world. I have also included other mind blowing things such as ..'Conspiracy of Silence' regarding the Franklin Scandal...Totally shocking stuff.. also included is 'The Kinsey Syndrome - Father of the Sexual Revolution Examined'.. I have also included a movie about the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Fatima in the same year of the Russian revolution. also included is the clash of Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwele with John Cleese and Michael Palin over the 'Life of Brian' movie. I just have a feeling we are witnessing times foretold in The Apocalypse. I am sure you probably feel tempted to conclude already that I am probably a bit of a nutter, and it surely is not a very cheerful time capsule to leave my kids I admit.. If you have any thoughts Adam about my compilation and my reasons for making I would be most grateful to hear them.

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    Comment number 34.

    @ mehmetsahhaf: Yeah, I think having seem this same kind of treatment of every issue ad absurdum I welcome some challenge and balance from the commenters.

    I have a vision of an Adam Curtis History of the World, in which Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan are portrayed as misguided idealists and not ruthless, cynical conquerors.

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    Comment number 35.

    All right ... never were there more caring and sharing if misguided and idealistic people as Genghis Khan and his kinsmen. Some 16 million men across Asia from Afghanistan to the Korean peninsula have the Y-chromosome type that the Khan's grandfather had. Lots of sharing there!

    Along the way they had to destroy civilisations wherever they went to save them, I suppose. Lots of My Lai solutions writ large.

    Perhaps this is just AC's droll sense of humour at work. If he can't laugh at the same old stupid things people do, he'd cry.

    @ mehmetsahhaf: Leeravitz and I had a discussion about the Iraqi middle classes in Comments 4, 6, 7 and 8 and one possible reason why the British wanted nothing to do with them.

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    Comment number 36.

    As always interesting stuff, though I get the feeling you are a little obsessed with hippies at the moment. Were you not able to fulfil your dreams of being one back in the 70's?

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    Comment number 37.

    Reminds me of the "Wunder von Bern" - the German national football team winning the world cup in the 50ies against Hungary. It was a broken nation glued to radios and experiencing a collective success and perseverance in the face adversity for the first time since the lost war. Sports help with nation-building because it builds a feeling of togetherness, which builds trust, which builds belief... and that is what a stable society is built on (laws are just shreds of paper if no one believes in them)

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    Comment number 38.

    @37 I do agree with you about the shreds of paper comment big time!


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This is a website expressing my personal views – through a selection of opinionated observations and arguments. I’ll be including stories I like, ideas I find fascinating, work in progress and a selection of material from the BBC archives.

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