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Issue #1646      July, 9, 2014

War: commemoration against remembering

July marks the centenary of the First World War and a campaign has been under way in Britain and a number of other countries to project this war between rival imperial powers as a necessary and just war.

War has strange psychological effects on those who commemorate it. The desire by some in Britain to revise the significance of the First World War, and to repackage it in the image of the Second, has nothing to do with either of these two conflicts. It is essentially a means of justifying contemporary – and unwarrantable – wars that have sent Western militaries into Iraq and Afghanistan, with the consequences that a whole world can see.

The changing interpretation of history is always to do with the present. The past is constantly rewritten for contemporary political reasons. All this has no connection with the often-invoked lessons of history – which, if they exist, are as ambiguous and indecipherable as the utterances of oracles – and everything to do with the need to vindicate actions or interventions in the here-and-now.

For most of my life, it was axiomatic that the First World War represented a shameful squandering of human life; not in a theoretical way, but in the deaths, maimed bodies and mental scars of family members. Many women, too, amputated of husbands and fiancés, spent diminished lives in the shadow of the conflict that had robbed them of everything.

Our next-door neighbour (in Palmerston Road, that aptly-named imperial thoroughfare) kept for a lifetime the wasting trousseau which had been prepared for the day which was annulled when her future husband was killed in the last days of the war. In her 70s, she gave my mother some of the items that were to have been her dower – some lace pillow-cases, sheets marked with iron-mould, soap that still lathered after half a century, and table-cloths, lovingly embroidered by herself with multi-coloured daisies in the long watchful nights of an absence prolonged forever.

Desolation

The desolation of that conflict remained, even when the event had long been overtaken by its grisly successor. But by a strange act of temporal imperialism (its spatial version now being severely circumscribed) there has been a clear desire to assimilate the First World War to the one which came so soon after. It seems that history, too restless to be confined to the shallow graves to which it is habitually consigned, has conjured up the war against Nazism to colonise the First World War with values and purposes which have only a slender connection with the events of the time.

The enduring fascination of Britain’s role in the war against Hitler is still overpowering. Films, reconstructions, documentaries, memoirs, fiction, newsreels of the Blitz, evocation of the last time that Britain truly acted with moral conviction (however tardily) continue to draw new generations into a struggle from which there has been little dissent from the accepted narrative.

The clearly just war showed this country in such a favourable light that we have relived it ever since; casting all new foes, real and imagined, in the role of Hitler – Nasser, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Saddam, Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, Ahmadinejad, and now Putin. Perhaps it is a sense of righteousness that is now being projected backwards, so that 1914-18 can be shown as a fight for civilisation against barbarism, a war for democracy and freedom; even though at the time of the fighting, democracy was incomplete even in Britain, since the franchise had not yet extended to all adults.

The story that German imperialism had to be stopped would have been more credible if the empires of Britain and France had not still been only just past their florid noon, and clung to with such tenacity: imperialism in Europe was obviously an unacceptable form of domination compared to that in the spaces of Asia and Africa, where the suppression of lesser peoples not only enriched the treasuries of Paris and London but was also represented as tutelage for their own good.

Indeed, the victims of imperialism were pressed into a war where freedom and democracy, if they did figure in its list of objectives, were certainly not for them. People in Britain marvelled at the readiness with which India’s “martial races” enlisted – almost 1.5 million. The Times wrote: “The Indian empire has overwhelmed the British nation by the completeness and unanimity of its enthusiastic aid.” Indian soldiers were deployed on the Western Front in the winter of 1914 in the battles of Ypres, but there were so many casualties – including those who died of disease – that they were withdrawn a year later.

What kind of freedom?

If many of the Indians who enlisted were motivated by the thought that they would be rewarded by independence, they were doomed to disappointment; and the rise of anti-British militancy was the outcome. Of the troops of Empire, David Cameron said in November 2013: “They fought together, they fell together, and together they defended the freedoms we enjoy today.” Can these be the same freedoms the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are presently “enjoying”? Or have we brought to them an inferior order of liberty?

It is not necessarily “revisionist historians” and politicians whose agenda is wholly of the moment, who are to blame for the ritually cleansed version of the First World War. History itself knows nothing of stillness. Convulsive and exigent, it is always in a state of flux, a condition of chronic discontent, begging posterity to reshape and alter its contours.

Perhaps this is how the First World War has morphed into the less equivocal fight against the monstrosity of National Socialism after 1939, so that it now engulfs the disputed morality of the carnage of 1914-18. We are urged to believe that Britain was bound to enter the war, to prevent the brutal domination of the continent by an aggressive Germany.

But the victory of the allies in the First World War actually produced the circumstances in which Germany was able to strive for that cruel distinction. The necessity of World War Two has bled, as it were, through time, to stain 1914-18 as a necessary and just war, despite the fact that the words “never again” of the repentant belligerents of the earlier conflict were negated less than a generation after they were uttered.

Rehabilitating a contested conflict by covering it with the mantle of one which was not only unavoidable but also ideologically principled has been wonderfully effective. We have been so saturated in the past 70 years by the iconography of the brutalities of Nazism and the stoical response of a Britain under aerial bombardment, threat of invasion, suffering great material privations, in response to which all classes and conditions of people united in a common endeavour, that it has proved a relatively simple matter to varnish the earlier war with the colours of a Britain drawn together in the interests of a common – and internationalist – morality.

I prefer to believe the first-hand testimonies of the uncles and elders of my childhood, and their stories - involuntarily treading on body parts and rats in the trenches, under continuous rain and ankle-deep in mud, broken bodies and minds in a broken landscape, the fear of summary executions of deserters, and their constant longing to be elsewhere, indeed, anywhere else, than in the trenches. Of course, they also remembered the solidarity and affection, friendships abbreviated by sudden death; and the survivors, with their sewn-up trouser-legs and coat-sleeves, remained, a tangible reproach, selling matches or singing for halfpence in the town centre even when the Second War was already long finished.

Of course, it doesn’t do to exaggerate. Even the nobility of World War Two was less untainted than it has often been represented. When news of the concentration camps could no longer be concealed in 1943, a reminder that history did not have its only habitation in Europe came with the Bengal famine; a disaster aggravated by the priority given to feeding the military, so that at least 1.5 million died in the heart of an Empire destined to receive its quietus so soon after the time of bones and ashes.

No doubt when the four years of official memorising are over, the First World War will stand forth, bathed in uncritical adulation, not so much for the real courage and anguish of the soldiers who fought it, but for the wisdom and insight of those who directed it to the greater glory of Britain. It is a pity that commemoration should take precedence over remembering, and the voiceless dead are re-enlisted, this time not for a remorseful looking back on gratuitous slaughter but for a tendentious reworking of the cruel, unequal and bloody conflicts of the 21st century, in which the “body count” of US and British soldiers is known but the number of Iraqi and Afghan people who perished is lost in a dark indifference.

There is no limit to the shameful tribute of flesh and blood demanded by those who call themselves the supreme representatives of civilisation, and their appropriation of the innocence and enthusiasm of new generations, whose lives, illuminated by rhetoric of glory and honour, are abridged for causes that have less to do with love of country or justice than with the maintenance of the supremacy of wealth and power. No wonder it has been judged expedient to replace memory with commemoration.

Third World Resurgence

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