Yesterday the Guardian published this letter. I am currently at a conference about shell shock but, in between discussing post-traumatic cultures, I have been trying to work out why it has annoyed me so much. The following are my conclusions; forgive me if they get a bit heated.
My main reason for annoyance lies, I think, in two aspects of the letter. The first is the apparent belief that those engaged professionally with and in the arts (as the majority of the signatories are) have a particular authority to speak about the horror of war. I may be wrong; it may be that these were just celebrity names associated with Stop the War, although this still begs the question of where they get their authority to speak so definitely about the war and its meaning for commemorative purposes. Nonetheless, I cannot help feeling that some, such as Michael Morpurgo, are using their status as creators of cultural expression which use the war as subject matter to give themselves authority to pronounce on the ‘truth’ about the war, drawing on the tradition of the First World War cannon. This tradition in British culture privileges particular narratives based on what is artistically valued, seeing the poetry in the pity as the overriding truth of the war. Now, I have nothing against Wilfred Owen, other than his ubiquity, and much of his poetry is beautiful and moving, but his poetry is not the sole truth of the war, however artistically important it may be. Equally, those engaged in the arts have no greater access to the truth of the war as a historical event to be commemorated than politicians, former generals or any other group with interest in said events.
The second infuriating aspect of the letter is the dichotomy it sets up between national commemoration and the promotion of international peace and understanding through a focus on its futility and devastation. Such attempts to impose a contemporary political narrative on the commemorations feels like a betrayal of the men who fought. (This, incidentally, applies equally to attempts to portray the war as a locus of contemporary national identity, which this letter accuses David Cameron of doing.) There were certainly plenty of voices calling for international peace both at the start and in the wake of war. Equally there were many who saw the war as a fight for national survival agains the threat of Prussian militarism. And there were many who, in fighting for King and Country, were simply fighting to preserve the sanctity of the small part of that nation that they called home. Far more men enlisted in the belief that they were defending democracy, however limited that democracy might seem from a 21st century perspective, than we tend to given them credit for. Many survived the war, just as many did not. Some were disillusioned by their experience; many incorporated it into their life stories and carried on, changed but not destroyed by war. To deny any this is to deny those who gave voice to these sentiments, as a huge number did, the validity of their beliefs and does their memory a huge disservice.
As I say, I do not think that a commemoration of the war as a moment of great national unity is any more valid. There was great resistance to war on many levels and from many people whose experiences of war have equal right to be commemorated. So what do I want from the commemorations of the next four years? For a start, a depoliticisation, an acknowledgement of the multiplicity of experience that was fundamental to total warfare, experience that ran the entire spectrum from absolutist conscientious objection to the rabble rousing of John Bull. All form part of the history of the war that is to be commemorated; none should be ignored because it does not sit comfortably with our contemporary political narratives, be they national or global. Please let these commemorations be about the war as a whole, and all who were involved in it, not solely about those whose experiences support a contemporary sound bite.