By any standard that will not prove to be an easy task. Each politician, historian or general commentator must walk a tightrope between validating and empathising with the ordinary soldier in the trench whilst being mindful of the governing bodies that condoned and orchestrated such massive bloodshed.
Enter the British secretary of education, Michael Gove (an old college sparring partner in debate of one of us). In order to assert the government’s views on how the war should be interpreted and to ward off ‘pacifist’ sentiments which he believed were being conveyed by those on the left of British politics, Gove has argued that these alleged-misrepresentations reflect ‘an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.’ He has also made remarks about the way British forces were ‘stabbed in the back’ by the same ideologies.
Cameron’s shameful evasion
Whilst some might perceive this as a fleeting statement, these words can – and should — also be perceived to be a key to understanding how many, including our government elites, view war as a whole, or more crucially how they want their citizens to view warfare, both past and modern.
Enter David Cameron, British Prime Minister. Cameron, like his friend Gove, is seeking nothing less than to rewrite history. Cameron wants to see a “truly national commemoration”. Basically, he wants the First World War to be seen as on balance a ‘good’ war, as the Second World War is across virtually all of Europe. This is, in our view, a shameful evasion of the bloodstained truth.
Again: there needs to be a balance between having empathy for those who lost their lives in such hazardous conditions, whilst at the same time condemning governments that knew full well that they would be losing their most youthful and promising generation – perpetuating myths of the power and audacity of said virtues in order to get them onto the battlefields in front of the machine guns. The First World War was an appalling mass marshalling of ordinary men into graves to serve the rivalries of tragically and disgracefully aloof elites.
Also overlooked are the 16,000 British conscientious objectors. Because they chose not to participate in warfare at the risk of losing their own liberty, were they not able to manifest the same virtues that (allegedly) only those who fought could?
Shall we honorate the conscientious objectors?
And what about the brave and inventive women who gathered together, in the face of sneers and threats from their men folk and from their home countries, in a remarkable cross-national congress in The Hague in 1915, seeking to defuse the engines of slaughter, and declaring that ‘We feel that we can no longer endure in this 20th century of civilization that governments should tolerate brute force as the only solution of international disputes’?
If governments are allowed to perpetuate unchallenged the virtues of soldiery one hundred years on then surely we have missed the fundamental point of what war is all about. We fail to see the young men and women sacrificing themselves for ideals and grand strategies they are hardly aware of at the expense of realising their own dreams, and we neglect to effectively scrutinise the people who make these decisions.
War remains the centre point of our mindset and the same old human cycle of projecting our unresolved emotional hurt onto the world – and of grabbing wealth and power and territory forcibly rather than in any way earning it — continues. We neglect the possibility of mediation/arbitration and the honour in conscientious objection. Not necessarily in every war or every case (the Second World War may well be an exception; as might be the calls that went unheard to intervene in Rwanda): but certainly in the case of the imperial bloodbath that was the four years of World War One.
The endangered glory of the European Union
Courage, honour and patriotism can certainly be virtuous traits, but is it fair to thrust them forcibly on a multitude of people who went to war without being fully aware of how it would reduce their lifespan and of the wider geopolitical forces that were involved? These were young men, the vast majority of whom would have wanted to live out their dreams, but were forced by circumstances to embody virtues that may have been very remote from their actual intentions or experiences, for purposes they could barely comprehend. Whilst they died in the mud of European battlefields by the millions, their generals and politicians revelled in the promotion of such virtues as courage, honour and patriotism in order to continue playing out their dystopian fantasy.
We want again to invite the reader to see the ordinary soldiers and the many others who suffered in the conflict. One forgets that these were individuals being sent to war (or finding themselves victims of it) with their own desires, aspirations and loves. We believe we have become compassionate over the passing years but the war allows – encourages — us to see people as statistics and the more we glorify it, the easier it becomes to send our friends and family members to fight in foreign wars. War continues to be seen as the default position by which we can resolve our disagreements.
The bottom line, so far as we are concerned, is thus this: There was no glory in the first-world war. It was not a ‘Great’ War, as it was called at the time. The right-wing revisionism concerning it needs to be firmly rebutted.
It is the greatest achievement of the European Union that its constituent nations, since World War II, have not fought one another. As we enter into another European election, we need to be mindful of preserving this legacy. Every ‘leader’ who glorifies the war that began 100 years ago this summer is inching us one step nearer toward another European war.
And finally: as Greens, it is yet more vital that we consider these points carefully and act on them decisively. For, on a ‘business as usual’ pathway, Europe will surely descend into resource wars or even into warlordism, within a generation or two. The EU will not be strong enough to prevent this. We see the first hints of it already in the fascism and racism rising in many European countries. The glorification of war is a dangerous game indeed, in the presence of such ugly undercurrents.