Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Hot and high

Conductive Education under siege?

La Rocca (The Rock) stands high over the town of Cephalù in Northern Sicily. It is a very big rock:

It is hard for me to imagine now, but last Friday afternoon I was scrabbling up La Rocca, from the very bottom to the very top, during the very least advisable time of day. For most of the way there was no shade from the sun. I took me a little over an hour and, swelp me, by three-quarters of the way up I was feeling like a gonner and hoping that I could remember Italy's emergency phone number.

There are two concentric stone fortifications on the way up, and the remains of a final stone fortress at the summit. The earliest ruins are megalithic, pre-classical, probably form the the eighth century BC, but in later years both Saracens and Normans had considered it worth their while to extend the fortifications with their own extensive defensive walls.

I do not know whether these fortifications were ever used in earnest but, scrambling through their massive remains, it was hard not to think awful thoughts. Had there indeed been times over the last three millennia when others had scrabbled up the self-same tracks, up over those very rocks and stones, laden down with their period-appropriate weapons of war, driven by the age-old intention to kill or be killed?

What an horrid line of imagining. On these bare and often near precipitous slopes, would any advancing attacker advancing up my path stand a cat in Hell's chance against determined defenders above? Indeed, by the time that I gained the scorched, dry summit, I was wondering whether there might indeed be a general law that in attacks upon fortified places advantage lies overwhemingly with the defenders.

Safe and gasping at the top, I realised that the ghostly, imagined companions of my ascent, whatever the scale of their individual pain and efforts, might have been of little wider significance in the campaigns in which they fought and perhaps died. If any fortress could be regarded impregnable, the this was it – but of course, I realised, the top of La Rocca would have ultimately been an equally very bad place for those holding out during any a protracted, encircling siege. With water supply at the top limited, the garrison's supply line cut, and no way in for reinforcements, all that besieging forces had to do was hold back, maintain their encirclement – and wait. They would be free to dominate the surrounding countryside, leaving the beleaguered defenders plenty of time to contemplate the limited and unpalatable range of options open to people in their besieged situation.

How evocative of the situation in Conductive Education, I thought, as I began my descent.

Conductive Education under siege?

Well, this is one way of modelling current events. What's yours?

A generation or so ago Conductive Education began what was then seen as its 'expansion', setting off boldly to establish new settlements on unfamiliar shores. In some place the soil was good and the native inhabitants proved friendly, inviting it in and encouraging it to settle. Other places were less blessed. The soil was poor and the already local population hostile, resisting the newcomer which it regarded as an intruder or interloper.

In only a few, particularly favoured territories have little settlements blossomed and set up what have become small, self-sufficient and generally isolated communities. In some places, however, the newcomer has gone native, donned the clothing and adopted the beliefs and customs of the local inhabitants, blending into existing ways of doing things. In others it has been simply driven out. Still it comes, though, and the processes are repeated.

And where it hangs on, so Conductive Education as a system of thinking and practice finds itself trapped, under siege, while around them the established forces are safe to continue to dominate the surrounding country side.

Slipping and sliding down La Rocca I thought of the shock troops that had stormed Conductive Education's little fortresses in the early days. In the United Kingdom (and there have been and are similar patterns discernible elsewhere) these drew from the ranks of professional establishments, academic researchers, established disability organisations, state bureaucracies, and extremists from the inclusion and disability lobbies. Generally the immediate advantage remained with the defenders and outright, head-on attack failed to drive Conductive Education out of its little strongholds where, weakened by constant struggle, its lines have largely held – just about.

In most places Conductive Education's supply situation is desperate. Money, sustenance, weapons, reinforcements, are hard to come by, and there is no apparent relief force approaching (even rumoured) just beyond the horizon.

Besieged populations have to look to their options, collective or personal. Collectively, what is there to be done? Sally forth and attack? Negotiate? Collective action has not generally been a strong tradition in Conductive Education. What then might individuals do? Save themselves? Slip away, try to blend into the scenery, go over to the enemy, renege?

Approaching the foot of La Rocca my mind turned to the historical sieges that I had been brought up on, how they had ended and why they ended as they did. I realised that ll the stories had been passed down to me had in common that they represented the point of view of the encircled defenders, not the besiegers. Also in common were courage and suffering, and immense heroism on either side. And that the defences nearly often managed to hold off the frontal attacks, whatever the cost.
  • The mass suicide of the Zealots at Masada. According to the Roman historian Josephus, there was not a soul left alive when the Romans broke into the silent fortress. That is one way out.
  • The relief of the Residency at Lucknow. The siege was only finally lifted when a powerful relief column fought its way in and, so they used to say, the skirl of the pipes was heard approaching. But in the meantime the defences had held. 
  • Roarke's Drift. This was held, just, but did not have to be held for long since it was no strategic importance to the attacking Zulus.
  • The Mission at the Alamo. The only siege that came to my mind that was was simply overrun by its attackers.
  • The Alcazar in Toledo. Relieved just in time, when General Franco diverted the Nationalist army from its main goal specifically to raise the Republican siege.
  • Stalingrad. At huge human cost the Soviet Army kept its supply lines open and resisted encirclement.Their German attackers were then encircled and cut off, and became themselves the besieged. Denied supplies, reinforcement and any possibility of relief break-out, they had no choice but surrender.
  • Leningrad. At whatever human cost the city maintained its supply lines. Surrender was not an option for the inhabitants or the military defenders. German frontal assault was resisted, whatever the cost, the German supply chain was longer and weaker, and eventually the besiegers could no longer withstand the attacks from the progressively more powerful Soviet relief forces.
  • Budapest. Encircled and cut off from supplies and reinforcement, the inhabitants sat tight, hunkered down and mainly survived. The defending troops, German and Hungarian, suffered terrible casualties and an attempted break-out became a massacre. Strategic blunders on both sides in a struggle that was now so vast on the Eastern Front determined the end of the siege as they had the beginning its beginning.   Again, external factors were decisive.
Back down at sea-level, could I see a pattern? No. Much as I would like to one so rarely can in human affairs. What regularities could I see in the few historical sieges that I could remember? The chief message looked to to be that, never mind all the blood, pain and heroism, their outcomes are mostly decided longer term and more widely, by strategy and logistics – by the decisions to join battle and the supplies to maintain it that provide the stage for the suffering and heroism to be acted out on.

In a siege, granting all the human horrors faced by attackers and defenders, it may be big outside forces that determine the ultimate outcome rather the individuals on the ground. That is what La Rocca and its hot old stones told me last Friday afternoon in Northern Sicily.

So what are the big outside forces,the strategic decisions and the logistical base that might determine a future for Conductive Education? How might they be used to contribute to ending the Seiege of Conductive Education?

Would that I knew.

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