What We Should Remember 100 Years On
As we remember the end of WW1 we should have in our minds the people who strove to change a society which produced that most bloody of wars
One of the arguments about the world wars is that they made the world safe for democracy, enabling successive generations to speak freely. There was certainly a democratic impulse at the end of the First World War, with revolutions in Russia, Germany and Hungary, mass strikes, and the widespread extension of the franchise to include working class men and of course women.
As we remember the end of that war 100 years ago, we should surely have in the forefront of our minds those people who strove so hard, and ultimately unsuccessfully, to change a society which had produced, and largely justified, the most bloody and brutal war in human history.
But instead, we are treated to the spectacle of every establishment voice in Britain lining up to remember the sacrifice of those who died while continuing to justify that war and the current wars which have brought so much human misery in the last two decades. The whole atmosphere around Remembrance Sunday has become one where any deviation from uncritical and uninformed thinking on the topic, any refusal to wear a red poppy or (horror) to wear a white one symbolising peace, is regarded as beyond the pale.
The respected Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins was berated as ‘disrespectful’ by Piers Morgan for questioning why this event is still being marked 100 years on, when there is no one alive who fought in that war. By sleight of hand, this argument is extended to anyone who challenges the priorities of the still continuing wars in which Britain is involved, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Yemen. This is seen as not ‘supporting’ the troops – as if in 1918 or now the best way to support troops is to send them to pointless slaughter.
The argument about supporting the troops has allowed weeks and weeks of pro war sentiment to be propagated in schools, universities, workplaces, railway stations, parliament, local government, coffee shops, pubs, and everywhere in the media, especially in the broadcast media.
It is de rigeur to wear a poppy on every television programme – and those who don’t are slated from every side. When I went on Sky News back in October, the producer said to me ‘grab a poppy’ as I headed to the studio. I declined. It is an insult to democracy and to our intelligence to insist that people unquestionably wear these symbols.
Instead, broadcasters would be doing their duty by staging proper and serious debates about the war, about its causes and consequences, and about the wars going on today. Zero chance.
I find it frankly nauseating that we must listen to endless tributes to the dead without any honesty or self-criticism about how and why they died. The sacrifice of the First World War was the responsibility of the military and politicians who refused to admit that they were wrong, and that their tactics were leading to senseless deaths. The eventual victory over Germany was not – as we now hear – the product of great military genius, but of the exhaustion and war weariness which affected all sides. Britain’s naval blockade of Germany made a major contribution to this by creating widespread shortages of food.
When we hear the military, the politicians, the royal family, all using the genuine feelings of remembrance and grief that people have to justify more of these policies, we should remember the bitter opposition to that war which grew as it went on and more people were sacrificed, and exploded at its end as people demanded an end to war, poverty, hunger and disease.
They didn’t get that, but instead two decades of hardship followed by another even more terrible war.
Fast forward 100 years. Britain remains one of the world’s biggest military spenders, is engaged in military intervention in a number of countries, has had troops in Afghanistan for 17 years – far longer than the First and Second World Wars put together – and has far too many politicians who boast of their desire to start a nuclear war. The war in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia but materially aided and supplied by British arms and personnel, is leading to further horror, including famine induced by military blockade.
The war to end all wars turned out to be anything but – and the same people are justifying this carnage all over again.