Walking up to the Imperial War Museum in London, the very first thing you see are…guns. Two massive honking deck guns from a battleship prominently displayed in the courtyard to be exact. From that introduction you wouldn’t be remiss in thinking that the rest of the museum would follow suit, but everywhere I went in the IWM, I felt a definite absence. There was one specific thing missing from the experience, and it was so blatantly obvious that even the little children scurrying around among the shredded hulks of enemy fighters and disassembled German rockets noted the absence. Somehow, there were no guns . . .
The Imperial War Museum had fighter planes, Russian tanks, and even a few Japanese officer’s swords, but there were no firearms. For a museum ostensibly trying to convey the experience and terrors of war, the one object carried by every soldier and which carried the greatest emotional attachment was nowhere to be found. Yes, there was an artillery piece or two, but there wasn’t a single rifle, handgun, or shotgun. Anywhere.
Firearms are a hugely important part of the story. Battles have been won and lost simply because one army showed up with the better small arms — some English engagements with native African tribes come to mind, specifically the first to effectively use Gatling guns. World War One would have been a decidedly different conflict except for Mr. Maxim’s creation. And let’s not forget the role that the American rifleman played in the American Revolution. Well, on second thought, the British might actually want to forget that one.
The point is that guns are an indispensable part of the history of warfare. The development of small arms changed the course of history, and while the individual firearm in a soldier’s hand might not seem that important when looking at the big picture, it can make or break a campaign. Prime example: American M-16 rifles in the early Vietnam years, a failure that set the tone for the entire conflict. Heck, I’ve written more than one history paper dissecting the mentality of a nation based solely on how their ammunition was packaged. Firearms are as important as any airplane, tank or bomb, but the Imperial War Museum doesn’t seem to want anything to do with them.
I’ve noticed this same phenomenon at another museum recently. The people of Finland in World War Two were incredible — they not only stopped the “invincible” Russian Red Army when they were attacked, but they made them turn tail and run for home. Buried in that incredible story is the story of Simo Häyhä, perhaps the greatest sniper who ever lived. World War Two was an event that had a massive impact on Finland and shaped the nation for decades to come, but in the history museum in Helsinki there are only three uniforms, a couple of rifles, and a brief mention of some vague unpleasantness. It’s almost like they’re trying to bury that chapter of the nation’s past, ashamed to let it into the daylight any more than absolutely necessary.
There’s no doubt that the British people have been conditioned to fear guns. I was speaking to an English colleague not too long ago and when I confirmed that I owned a firearm they started visibly shaking — a reaction that I’ve seen before, sadly. The fact that this rampant hoplophobia has worked its way even into the museums of England, that the curators happily discard parts of history that are now “offensive,” makes you wonder what else is being glossed over and neglected in the English education system.
I’ve always believed that in order to understand the world, you need to be a student of history. You need to understand all aspects of the world, and not just the fuzzy fluffy pretty parts. When a museum like the Imperial War Museum shows cans of spam and cooking utensils but omits the single most important piece of equipment in a soldier’s life, they’ve deliberately made a decision to edit history and leave something out. Something incredibly important.
When a country is so afraid of an object that they won’t even allow it to be displayed in a museum, there might be something wrong with that country.