Part of the point of commemorating the hundredth anniversary of a war is the certainty that nobody who served in it will still be alive. It is the point at which, definitively, that war has passed from direct into reported experience; history that can be turned into mythology, without the inconvenience of spontaneous testimony from those who were there, and might have something different to offer on the subject.
As we move into the year when the outbreak of the First World War will be commemorated (David Cameron, with the usual flat-footedness of the second-rate PR man, let the cat out of the bag when he spoke of “celebrating” the anniversary), it’s impossible not to reflect on how our collective view of that war is changing; indeed, is being manipulated. We have the Kitchener £2 coin – notable not so much for the fact that it celebrates the inventor of the concentration camp (we can look to far more recent politicians who, while claiming to be on the left, have been quite comfortable with secret rendition) but because it is a sure sign that the war will be marked from an establishment view) and we now have Michael Gove calling into question the motives of those claiming the war was not “justified”.
It’s a strange response. My own education was at a boys’ public school which exhibited values of which Gove would doubtless approve; including an active CCF and older masters who had mostly served in the Second World War. The A level history syllabus that I studied was certainly critical of the war – we examined how Europe stumbled into war on the back of an arms race. Gove’s comments are perhaps a sign of how far things have changed.
And there is of course a terrible irony that Gove – with his ideological and selective view of history – appears incapable of understanding. While of course working class boys were sent to their slaughter in their millions, the highest casualty rate in the British army was for subalterns – boys from public schools sent out to war on a diet of God, Empire, their responsibility for leadership of men, and classical tags about the sweetness and propriety of dying for your country. This was a war that brutally shattered the values of that Victorian education for which Gove frequently seems nostalgically to pine.
Alan Bennett, in the History Boys, famously wrote about how the whole ritual of rembrance was really a form of forgetting; an appropriation of the experience of war for the political establishment. In the last few decades, Britain has become involved in more wars than one might have though possible; the Falklands War (whose totemic significance for Tories should never be underestimated), Iraq, and that graveyard of nineteenth-century Imperial ambition, Afghanistan. Kitchener on coins, Gove mathering about the just causes of war; it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the War to End Wars is being turned into a ritual to justify future wars, fought over the same questions of global power and control of wealth as the imperial wars of the nineteenth century. Modern Liberal imperialism is no more than a channelling of an imperial past that the generation who grew up in the thirty years following 1945 might be forgiven for thinking was dead and buried.
The 1914 commemoration shows every sign of turning into politics carried on by other means – a festival of nationalist ideology and historical revisionism. The respectful reaction is to speak out against it becoming so.