When politicians who haven’t actually gone to war wrap themselves in the flag, you can expect the hyperbole to overflow. Anyone who dies or is wounded is immediately labelled “a hero,” even if the heroism involved was digging like a frightened rabbit to avoid artillery shells.
Other people’s sacrifices are transformed in our “long and proud military history” and the nasty whole-scale slaughter of an entire generation turns into the sort of political jingoism that caused the First World War in the first place.
Last week, our provincial government announced that it planned to spend $3.6 million on the centenary of that war, a four-year commemoration of the death an entire generation of Newfoundlanders.
The funding is for a series of events under the name Honour 100.
“Our role in the Great War has directly shaped who we are today, and our role in this effort has gained worldwide recognition. Our plans to commemorate the efforts of our veterans will help ensure they receive the honour and recognition that is rightfully theirs,” according to Tourism, Culture and Recreation Minister Terry French. (The plan includes, at this point, its own Tory-blue pamphlet and a website to be fully launched in January.)
Do I think the Dunderdale government was out to lunch on its decision?
No. But I do think they should carefully consider what it is they are celebrating, and how that “celebration” will occur. (I also wonder if the money should be spent on improving the lives of living veterans instead — but that is a different story.)
At this point, I think they’re merely going with the flow: Britain has already announced a 50-
million-pound commemoration of the First World War, and the Canadian government — fresh from spending $10 million to trumpet the War of 1812 — is promising more spending for 2014.
Here’s Veteran’s Affairs Minister Julian Fantino: “The 100th anniversary of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War represent a unique opportunity for Canadians to reflect on our country’s long and proud military history.”
That sort of “unique opportunity” is rubbing some a little raw.
Harry Leslie Smith is a 91-year-old veteran of the Second World War. He has remembered fellow veterans for years on Remembrance Day, but now says he’s no longer comfortable with the way governments have changed the tone of ceremonies to glorify war.
Here’s part of what he wrote in The Guardian shortly before Remembrance Day: “I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the Great Wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy. …
“Come 2014 when the government marks the beginning of the First World War with quotes from Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling and other great jingoists from our past empire, I will declare myself a conscientious objector.
“We must remember that the historical past of this country is not like an episode of Downton Abbey where the rich are portrayed as thoughtful, benevolent masters to poor folk who need the guiding hand of the ruling classes to live a proper life.
“I can tell you it didn’t happen that way because I was born nine years after the First World War began. I can attest that life for most people was spent in abject poverty where one laboured under brutal working conditions for little pay and lived in houses not fit to kennel a dog today. We must remember that the war was fought by the working classes who comprised 80 per cent of Britain’s population in 1913.
“This is why I find that the government’s intention to spend £50 million to dress the slaughter of close to a million British soldiers in the 1914-18 conflict as a fight for freedom and democracy profane. Too many of the dead, from that horrendous war, didn’t know real freedom because they were poor and were never truly represented by their members of parliament.”
You can read the full article here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/08/poppy-last-time-remembrance-harry-leslie-smith
We certainly mustn’t forget the horrors of the First World War.
We mustn’t forget that our soldiers marched to near-certain death in part because not marching meant certain death; soldiers who turned back were shot for desertion. They “answered the call” often without knowing what that call actually was.
The First World War was “the war to end all wars.” Why? Precisely because it was so horrible, such a great waste, that citizens of the time couldn’t conceive of wars happening again. But we certainly failed at that.
Did the First World War shape Newfoundland? Of course it did — but not just by letting us sit at the big-boy-war table.
It shaped us in ways Terry French might not have meant in his announcement of Honour 100. The Dominion of Newfoundland’s war debt was a crucial cause of the collapse of a nation, as was the near-total destruction of an entire generation of Newfoundland men and boys.
Should it be remembered?
Yes. For absolutely everything it was, including the waste of thousands upon thousands of lives for the dubious ends of a ruling class that cared little for its cannon fodder.
What it shouldn’t be used for is to justify new military escapades by the kind of politicians that like sending out shiny new planes and tanks that some other poor sap has to drive into hell on Earth.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.