As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, we’re being bombarded with stories of the horrors and heroism of that war. While I feel huge sadness at the loss of life, my predominant emotion is one of anger, at the futility of it all and how war is glorified. The core theme of the remembrance commemorations is ‘lest we forget’; a worthy objective, but forget what? It seems we mustn’t forget the sacrifice of those who died. However, the causes of the First World War seem all too readily forgotten. As Kenny MacAskill wrote (‘I will not glorify a pointless and shameful war’ iNewspaper, 8.11.18) ‘But as four years have rolled by since the centenary of its outbreak, there has been little critical analysis – or it is remarkably well camouflaged by the glorification of the dead, with no consideration of the pointlessness of it all. Why did we go to war, for what and who benefitted?’
Though we’re often told that WW1 was to safeguard democracy, Britain’s involvement in WW1 seems to have been largely to protect its Imperial interests. A German victory would have imperilled the Empire, through the Turks in the Middle East, which would also have threatened Egypt (under British mandate) and the Suez Canal, thus choking off Britain’s route to India, that most lucrative of possessions. Meanwhile the Germans would have taken possession of French colonies on the African continent, including countries immediately across from the Straits of Gibraltar and those close to South Africa.
Britain was also concerned about the increasing dominance of German industrial output which was beginning to outstrip that of the UK. Germany’s further expansion was restricted by their lack of access to raw materials, much of which was tied up in British and French colonial possessions. A quick war with Germany was therefore seen by a number of influential British politicians (including Churchill) as a means of re-establishing the status-quo.
Diplomacy and cooperation might well have headed off armed conflict with Germany, by finding solutions that would have been in the interests of all parties. Instead, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Serbia seems to have been used as a pretext for provoking Germany into conflict. Instead of constructive diplomacy, jingoistic rhetoric and sabre rattling became the norm, boxing Germany into a situation where they were virtually encircled by a hostile Russia and France. Meanwhile Britain took the role of a somewhat untrustworthy broker in between (Perfidious Albion).
It is this bellicose grandstanding that I believe is the real lesson that we should remember from WW1 but which, time after time, seems to be forgotten. In Afghanistan, US President George W Bush’s ‘crusade’ was a notably provocative term. In Iraq, where Saddam, who was at one time the West’s favourite dictator during his war against Iran, suddenly became a despot with WMD that could strike Europe in 45 minutes. George W Bush once again used bully-boy tactics, demanding support from other Western powers by his challenge ‘you’re either with us or against us’. In Libya, David Cameron assured us that surgical air strikes could quickly resolve the situation in favour of the rebels with little ‘collateral damage’. Civil war continues to rage in Libya as a result of this intervention, with little prospect of peace. Collateral damage is in my view the most deplorable euphemism in the rhetoric of modern warfare given how it attempts to airbrush civilian casualties out of the picture. This is the most egregious consequence of modern warfare, for whom there are currently no memorials or commemorations and which now far outweigh military deaths.
Finally we have Syria in which the Saddam playbook has once again been deployed. Originally hailed as a moderating influence in the the Middle East, Assad is now apparently a tyrant who cruelly slaughters (and gases) hundreds of thousands of his citizens. The solution was to equip and support the numerous Islamist guerilla groups fighting against Assad, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, with the desired outcome of regime change, whatever that means in a Middle East that has been destabilised largely as a result of Western interference.
In all these conflicts, the BBC has been complicit. Nothing illustrates the BBC’s role as the State Broadcaster better than their promotion of the poppy appeal. The BBC is currently awash with red poppies, never a white poppy. To be seen without a poppy in a BBC studio is as rare as hens’ teeth. We are consistently reminded of the generosity of the British public; however, there’s rarely any reference in the media as to why the poppy and other appeals are necessary. The grim truth is that Government cuts are making charitable giving ever more necessary to keep basic services running. This is David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ writ large, however we weren’t made aware of the terms and conditions of the big society which has enabled successive Tory Governments to embark on a low tax, low spend ideology, including tax cuts for the already well off, the worst pensions in the EU and the only EU country to reduce spending on social security as a percentage of GDP (Eurostat 2016).
The Royal British Legion, who run the annual Poppy appeal have for years been lobbying the Government to bring the Military Covenant, whose purpose is to care for ex-servicemen and women and their families, onto a statutory footing. It seems that successive Governments have refused to do so in order to avoid legal action where disability payments to ex-service personnel are less generous than their civilian counterparts. This stance was summed up eloquently by Neil McEvoy, a Plaid Cymru AM in the Welsh Assembly, in a recent tweet: ‘It is shameful that 27 AMs voted down my ‘No Soldier Left Behind Act’ to guarantee in law rights in health and housing for all military personnel who have seen active service’
There was a feature on the BBC today (9.11.18) speculating how World War One might be remembered by future generations. I would hope that they will heed Kenny MacAskil’s call and seek a more honest, less myopic appraisal of the causes and lessons to be learned from that and the many other wars that Britain has chosen to enter. Meanwhile, the sabre rattling continues, currently with Russia and ‘axis of evil’ Iran in the spotlight, while we continue to support and fail to speak out about the depredations by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and the continued aggression towards Palestinians by Israel.