Killing and dying for “the old lie”
Ninety one years ago today, at 11:00am, the guns fell silent on the Western Front. Not two minutes earlier, George Lawrence Price became the last Commonwealth casualty of the Great War after being shot in the heart by a German sniper. Up to 16 million people had fallen before him.
The war was a case study in senseless violence, inflicting unceasing horror upon an entire generation, not least the 306 soldiers who were shot by their own side for “cowardice” when suffering shell shock and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It ravaged the landscape of Europe, ignited the powder-keg of the Balkans, and bore witness to the genocide of 30,000 Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.
And I can’t help but wonder, no Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you “The Cause?”
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.
Indeed, the first world war set the twentieth century on the course to becoming arguably the most violent century in human history. Particularly, it was in the context of this war that millions of workers rose up in revolt against social and economic oppression, and the ruling classes fostered fascism as a way to crush this revolutionary wave and divide the working class.
Fascism as a tool of state power
In Ireland, Edward Carson and James Craig had raised the Ulster Volunteers as a fascist paramilitary force dedicated to “using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.” Despite their efforts, the Easter Rising of 1916 set in motion the events leading to the formation of the Irish Republic. Nonetheless, their role as a reactionary group promoting the sectarian division of the working class was a portent of things to come.
The Ulster Special Constabulary, or “B-Specials,” were the direct heirs to the Ulster Volunteers. David Lloyd George, although he had approved their formation, he remarked that “the Fascisti in Italy would be a more exact analogy” to the organisation than the Ulster Volunteers.
In Britain, too, fascism had direct links to the state. The British Empire Union (BEU), was founded in 1916, and the Economic League in 1919. In the inter-war years, they were two of several organised fascist groups which worked in tandem with the state against workers movements. Through strike breaking, anti-communist violence, and intelligence activities, they enabled the state to tackle the threat of “Bolshevism.”
In Italy, supported by the military, the business class, and the liberal right-wing, Mussolini’s Blackshirts waged a war of terror against socialists, communists, and anarchists. As always, fascism was used by the powerful as a way of fracturing class consciousness in favour of nationalism. However, when King Victor Emmanuel III handed Mussolini the reigns of power, fascism finally distinguished itself from the interests of the dominant sectors of liberal democracy.
In Germany, fascism didn’t first emerge in 1924, when Hitler took over what was then the German Workers’ Party, but in 1919. It was then that the German Social Democratic Party enlisted the nationalist militia known as the Freikorps, who would later become famous for their service to the Nazis, in crushing the Spartacist Uprising and thus preventing a workers’ revolution in Germany.
When Hitler did come to power, and Germany joined Italy as the second state where fascism was not merely a tool of the state but dominated the legislature, still the ruling class of Europe did not realise their folly. American and European business leaders actively approved of the destruction of communist and trade unionist currents in Germany. The British and American establishments, particularly, viewed Germany as a useful buffer against the threat of Soviet Communism.
Likewise, in 1938, British Ambassador to Spain Sir Henry Chilton “expressed the conviction that a Franco victory was necessary for peace in Spain” and that it “would be better for Great Britain” than a republican victory. Winston Churchill, too, praised the fascist Franco as “defending Europe against the Communist danger,” although he was pleased by the republic’s repression of the anarchists, and did have some concern that “Franco could be an upset or a threat to British interests.” The British policy of “mild support” for Franco is documented in full in Noam Chomsky’s Objectivity and liberal scholarship.
It was, of course, the German invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939 that led to Britain declaring war on Germany. Thus, by fostering, promoting, and later appeasing fascism in order to preserve the established order, had the elites of Europe brought on a war that would utterly eclipse the Great War in terms of death, horror, and human sacrifice.
The triumph of militarism over antifascism
In his autobiography, You can’t be neutral on a moving train, Howard Zinn describes his experiences as a fighter pilot in the Second World War. After confessing his part in the destruction of Royan, in France, and an early use of napalm, he recalls the words of a gunner on another bombing crew;
You know, this is not a war against fascism. It’s a war for empire. England, the United States, the Soviet Union – they are all corrupt states, not morally concerned about Hitlerism, just wanting to run the world themselves. It’s an imperialist war.
Zinn said he was “troubled” by this statement, and “never forgot it.” Indeed, it led to his “gradual rethinking” of “the absolute morality of the war against fascism.” The sentiment expressed by that fellow bomber, who never lived to see the war over, was echoed by Noam Chomsky in 1994;
A good way of finding out who won a war, who lost a war, and what the war was about, is to ask who’s cheering and who’s depressed after it’s over – this can give you interesting answers. So, for example, if you ask that question about the Second World War, you find out that the winners were the Nazis, the German industrialists who had supported Hitler, the Italian Fascists and the war criminals that were sent off to South America – they were all cheering at the end of the war. The losers of the war were the anti-fascist resistance, who were crushed all over the world. Either they were massacred like in Greece or South Korea, or just crushed like in Italy and France. That’s the winners and losers. That tells you partly what the war was about.
There were plenty of people who, like Zinn, had joined the military out of a sincere opposition to fascism. Or, like George Orwell, had went to Europe to fight fascism on their own initiative. The struggle against fascism began long before 1939 and still continues 65 years after Hitler’s suicide. But it is a mistake to evaluate the six-year “antifascist” stint of state planners and decision making sectors as a part of this tradition.
Rather, for the state, opposition to fascism served exactly the same purpose as the collaboration with fascism described earlier, and the promotion of a jingoistic nationalism that is as old as the state itself. The aim, quite simply, is to keep the ordinary masses divided along national and ethnic lines, and thus subservient to established power.
The name for this submissive virtue is “patriotism,” and it is promoted in a broad variety of ways. But the two most commonly utilised, and most relevant to this subject, are nationalism and militarism.
Nationalism, in Orwell’s words, “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” It is the doctrine not only of far-right groups such as the British National Party, but of every organ of power. Because “political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties.”
This is most evident in the expression of militaristic sentiments, particularly the use of military personnel (especially if dead) to ward of criticism. Hence, the irony inherent in the accusation that those who oppose wars do not respect the soldiers being slaughtered in those same wars. The relevant point is, as with many things, best articulated by Noam Chomsky;
Anything that’s totally vacuous and diverts, after all what does it mean to be in favor of .. suppose somebody asks, do you support the people in Iowa, can you say I support them or no I don’t support them. It’s not even a question it doesn’t even mean anything. And that’s the point of public relations slogans like support our troops is that they don’t mean anything, they mean as much as whether you support the people in Iowa.
Of course there was an Issue — the issue was do you support our policy but you don’t want people to think about the issue that’s the whole point of good propaganda, you want to create a slogan that nobody is gonna be against and I suppose everybody will be for because nobody knows what it means because it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s crucial value is it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something. Do you support our policy and that’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.
This is clear even in the war those who died in war are remembered. Most particularly, to return us to our starting point at the eleventh-hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in the Remembrance Day ceremonies. Ostensibly, the purpose of the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal and of Remembrance Day is to “provide ways for commemorating those who are no longer with us” and to “safeguard the welfare, interests and memory of those who are serving or who have served in the Armed Forces.”
However, it has also become a vehicle for Orwell’s “stimulation of nationalistic loyalties.” Any symbol or gesture towards the notion of peace or an end to war, whether it be the “subvertising” of Royal British Legion billboards or the wearing of a white poppy, invokes accusations of making remembrance overly “political” or even of being “unpatriotic.” At its worst, in incites hysterical and violent reactions, such as the short-lived Facebook group “punch out white poppy wearers.”
Indeed, those who so vigorously promote the wearing of a red poppy, and participation in state-sanctioned remembrance services, also promote the idea of patriotism and the valiance of serving one’s country with equal vigour. The irony and hypocrisy is lost to most. That toy makers Character World signed a contract with the Ministry of Defence to produce HM Armed Forces Action Figures shortly before the launch of this year’s Poppy Appeal passed without significant comment.
Reflections on the legacy of 1918
It would appear, then, that the message of Wilfred Owen‘s most powerful poem has not been noted by the many;
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped5 Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
As we come, again, to the anniversary of that most dreadful war’s end, some reflection is due. The legacy of the First World War is a powerful one, but we need to decide what it means to us.
Are we going to do as the politicians and generals do, and use the “honour” of the dead as a talisman to justify the senseless slaughter?Lest we forget, Field Marshall Douglas Haig was as instrumental in creating the Royal british Legion and the Poppy Appeal as he was in leading British soldiers to a senseless and untimely slaughter on the Western Front. If we follow this tradition then, yes, using the memory of vicious war and bloodshed in order to call for an end to war and imperialism is “political” and refusing to bury your opposition to the policies of the state under “support” for the troops is “unpatriotic.”
However, if we are to hold to the memory and message of Wilfred Owen, of the 16 million others who died during that horrific war, and of the countless who have fallen around the world to the most bloody and brutal century in human history, then a different tradition needs to emerge.
We need to recognise that no war is “great” or “glorious.” That selling nationalism and militarism to our children is a service to those who sent their great grandfathers to die. That the first to lay the wreathes at the Cenotaph in honour of the last generation’s dead are the same ones piling up a new generation of dead who will need wreaths.
As long as young men and women continue to kill and die in service to “the old lie,” peace and freedom will continue to elude us. No matter how much we convince ourselves that they are fighting for it.