February 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Lest we go over the top

By Don Watson
Lest we go over the top
How should we remember World War One?

The experience of war very much depends on where one happens to be standing at the time. This is true for those whose fate is decided in battle and for those who, having sent them to fight, watch from an expedient hillside. It is also true for those who come later: writers of all descriptions who go on scavenging among the dead and wounded long after they are dust, and base members of the political horde who fashion convenience from their memory and make them cannon fodder a second time, in culture wars. And then there are we citizens, ever willing to sun ourselves in a myth’s reflected glory. War is horrible: so horrible, without it we would not know ourselves.

A friend of mine once told me he regretted not having been to war. I said he must mean he wished he had been to war and returned: with all his limbs and genitalia; his face not excessively disfigured, mind still hinged; nervous system in working order; not burned, gassed or paralysed; not hanging in barbed wire with his guts hanging out, still breathing. I could share his regret, but only on these conditions. It was the obvious response, but glib nonetheless.

For if history tells us anything for sure, it is that humans have a taste for war. It is not just the bloodletting or the primal exercise of power: it is the exercise of righteousness, the fulfilment of dreams, the search for meaning. War’s dimensions are poetic and religious. The primary documents of civilisation abound with hacked limbs and salutary disembowelments. In battle, we find wisdom and self-knowledge of the highest order. Soldiers can hate war and yet find the intensity of the experience and the qualities it draws from human beings compelling and uplifting. Perhaps not all wars or all forms of war – while dropping atom bombs, slaughtering civilians or manipulating drones might stir an adrenalin rush, they are less likely to raise one’s admiration for the species – but wars fought face to face on roughly equal terms, or unequal ones made equal by human courage, resilience, altruism.

That is the problem with war. If atrocious was all it was, we might fight less of them. Instead, this atrociousness is why they call war a “test”, or the “ultimate test”, and it is this “test” that flushes out our paragons. So while we despise war, we also glorify the warriors. War stories brim with virtue and teaching. Where would we be without Homer and the Old Testament, and where would they be without bloodshed? How would we know the modern age without the literature of war?

This year being the hundredth since its outbreak, we will commemorate the First World War, also known as the Great War, which seemed fitting until a second one proved greater. The task of commemoration might turn out to be more troublesome than it looks. Already the British secretary for education, Michael Gove, has provoked a brawl by declaring the war was fought in a just cause, and denouncing, among others, the TV show Blackadder, which “whitewashed” Germany of responsibility and portrayed the war as a “misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite”.

It is not entirely fanciful to imagine that we will hear something of that kind from Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne or the Institute of Public Affairs over the next few months, in which case a response much like the one Gove received from “left-wing” historians and fans of Blackadder can also be expected, and, in turn, an encomium to the Anzacs that deplores the “compulsion … to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”. And so on, in a manner that makes one wonder why Gove didn’t use the word “defeatist”.

Of course, human beings have been arguing about what actually happened in every skirmish since they first sat around a fire together. Why, wars have been fought over it – real wars. But the business of this centenary year is to commemorate: from the Latin commemorāre, meaning “to bring to remembrance”. It does not seem fitting to bring the annihilation of millions to remembrance by turning the tragedy into another chronically tendentious episode of the history wars.

Yet both sides have a point, and it will be impossible to stop them making it. Gove was at least right in saying that the greater part of responsibility for the outbreak of war does fall on Germany and Austria – or at least on their militaries. One thing we know for sure, Georges Clemenceau said, Belgium did not invade Germany. But none of the big powers was innocent in the beginning. All knew the kind of war it would be, and once it started all were guilty of employing stupid and inhuman strategies. And were, surely, a tiny bit out of touch.

Even Australians who do not doubt the wisdom of our going to the war might be tempted to recall the lieutenant who wrote, just before he was killed, that the brother and friends he counted among 23,000 victims of a tactic called “methodical progress” (by which in six weeks a tongue of land a mile deep was gained) were “murder[ed] … through the incompetence, callousness, and personal vanity of those high in authority”. With heads bowed, do we remember this lieutenant and his friends, or the generals whose strategy destroyed them? Or is it a sacrilege to single out people who, after all, were doing their best? Can’t we discriminate a little on the side of dead privates? Get angry? Acknowledge murder? Perhaps the commemoration should be conducted on the lines of an international truth and reconciliation commission.

We have also to ask how much of the war we intend to remember. The thing was so vast we might have to put limits on it. At least three-quarters of a million British, 1.3 million French and 2 million Russians died. Well over a million Italians, more than 600,000 of them in battle, and Serbs probably in similar numbers. As many US conscripts as Australian volunteers, twice that number if you add non-battle deaths. Do we remember all of them, or just our own, or perhaps the Empire’s, including the 74,000 Indians? And what about the 4 to 5 million Germans, Austrians and Turks? There seems to be no reliable estimate of the total numbers. Nine million is about the minimum, but the figure is regularly put at 12 million, and sometimes twice or three times that. Are we bringing them all to remembrance? 

As early as 1905, the French socialist Jean Jaures said that war, if it came, might produce a revolution but what was just as likely was a counter-revolution “of furious reaction, of exasperated nationalism, of stifling dictatorships, of monstrous militarism, a long chain of retrograde violence”. By 1945, such a chain of violence, stretching from Sarajevo to Nagasaki, had killed, at a minimum, 60 million people, and many millions more, if the deaths in Stalin’s Soviet Union are added to World War Two casualties: a reasonable step if we accept that without World War One the Bolsheviks very likely would not have seized power in 1917 and their doing so – like the Armistice – was essential grist to Hitler’s mill.

And we have not counted the wounded yet. For these, multiply the dead by roughly three, and by more than that if we add the shell-shocked and otherwise traumatised. Perhaps they all were traumatised in one way or another: the indestructible Australian brigadier-general Pompey Elliott was, and killed himself at the age of 52. As the soldiers said, you had to be there to know what it was like – and to know what it was like afterwards. The impressions were “fixed like the grooves on a gramophone record, and remain with you as long as your faculties”, one British veteran said. They took them wherever they went when the war was over, including the millions of homes to which they returned. And faintly they still resound.

We will hear it said that the war was fought in defence of democracy and freedom, and the claim will have just enough truth to stand up. But it will be untrue as well, and the more so for being expressed in lifeless clichés. True, it was noble and good to resist German militarism and hegemony. But it happened anyway, and, because of the war and the terms of the Armistice, with Ludendorff and Hindenburg still in the saddle and riding shotgun, it came in unimaginably dire form. And true, there was not much good to be said for the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East – and not much for the set-up that replaced it.

That the war swept away empires and broke down centuries of European privilege means a lot to historians but meant rather less to the millions of returning soldiers – if that is not too Blackadder-ish a thing to say. Whatever form the commemoration takes, something might be learnt from the Anzacs of old who commemorated their war by shedding a few tears at a dawn service and getting drunk for the rest of the day. Though the ritual has since fallen into disrepute and it would be a rank presumption to revive it, no other form of remembrance will ever convey so well the unfathomable dimensions of the whole thing.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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