13 November 2013

War, Memory, and Society #nlpoli

Part way through her interview with historian Margaret MacMillan last September, the Globe’s Sandra Martin turned the conversation for the lessons we might draw for today’s world from MacMillan’s understanding of what led the European nations to war in 1914.

MacMillan does more than oblige Martin.  She goes into a lengthy discussion of how the situation in Syria looks somewhat like the conflicts in the Balkans before the Great War.  She winds up at the end with the admonition that “what history can do more usefully is offer you warnings, give you ways of thinking about the present and help you formulate sceptical questions so you can say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s think of examples where that action didn’t turn out well.’”

To that extent, MacMillan is right, even if her discussion of the similarities between Syria in 2013 and the Balkans in 1913 is rather superficial and ultimately useless.  What’s more useful to think about for a moment in the days after Remembrance Day is the tendency people have to interpret the past to fit modern circumstances.

The War of the Paradigms

A half century or so ago,  John Kennedy did much the same thing during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as Martin and MacMillan did, using the same historical events.  The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s account of how the First World War started, won the Pulitzer Prize for 1962 and, as the story goes,  influenced John Kennedy’s thinking during the Cuban missile crisis that October.  He reputedly gave copies of the book to members of his cabinet, senior government officials and,  to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

MacMillan notes that people who do this are often looking for excuses to justify something they believe.  “You can find any lesson in history you want,” she says.  But that is as true of the example she cites – George Bush and the Iraqi invasion – as it is for people who look for cautionary tales or warnings in history of the sort that MacMillan offers with Syria.

What we often wind up with in arguments like this is a battle of metaphors that looks rather like history as Calvin described it to Hobbes. “History is the fiction,” the boy told his tiger, “we invent to persuade ourselves that events are knowable and that life has order and direction. That's why events are always reinterpreted when values change. We need new versions of history to allow for our current prejudices.”

In that sort of understanding, history is not about what happened but what we imagine it was.  In 1962 Kennedy and Tuchman could look to the Great War came as the inevitable result of war plans set by the generals and take from that belief a warning that the world could blunder into war despite the very best intentions.  In 2013,  Margaret MacMillan can raise the caution of how local instability in Syria looks like the regional instability in Balkans that set the fuse for the Great War.

To you from failing memories, we throw…

In that sense, we can also think about history as less about what happened as it is about what we remember.  The difficulty with memory is that it can be faulty.  You can see that in the way some people talk about Remembrance Day itself.  Harry Leslie Smith is a Second World War veteran.  In a Guardian piece (linked by Drew Brown), Smith says that in the past he has worn a poppy because he can “recall when Britain was actually threatened with a real invasion and how its citizens stood at the ready to defend her shores.”

“But most importantly,”  he writes,  “I wear the poppy to commemorate those of my childhood friends and comrades who did not survive the second world war and those who came home physically and emotionally wounded from horrific battles that no poet or journalist could describe.”

All that will change in 2014.  Smith won’t wear a poppy any more on Remembrance Day because the modern ceremony is a glorification of war, as far as he is concerned.  All the worse, starting next year, Britain will mark the centennial of the Great War “as a fight for freedom and democracy” even though to many “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.”

What Smith is doing, though, is doing nothing more grand or, indeed even truer, than pitting his interpretation of modern commemorations not against the reality of the two great wars of the last century but of popular ideas of what the wars were about.  His version of the Great War is the one that gained currency in the 1960s and 1970s.  Likewise his view of the Second World War is, in part, of the good war.  It was a big affair that encompassed the whole world and saw the country pull together from the threat of a real invasion, presumably not like these lesser events of today.

They are all different.  They are all the same.

Veterans of the First World War - were they still alive – would likely take issue with his  view that the war was not about freedom and democracy.  The veterans would challenge the idea that they didn’t want to go to war, that they didn’t believe in the fight, and only suffered through the mud and slaughter because they were forced or hoodwinked into going. If that was the case, it’s doubtful the British Army could have lasted to the middle of 1915 let alone make it – intact - to the victory in 1918.

Veterans of the Second World War, or Korea or more recent wars would likewise challenge the view that their war was somehow less virtuous than anything that happened before or after.  Or by the same token, they’d note that their war was no less horrid, no less full of death and misery than the trenches.  Korean veterans, in particular, remarked during the war and immediately after of the similarity between their war of trenches and stalemate and the one 40 years before. 

The major difference between a World War 2 veteran and one from another war is often that the guys from the good war need to be alone, to be away from their comrades, and with a trusted companion in order to talk about the darker aspects of their experience.  Those memories don’t fit with the popular image of the war.

As for the idea that Remembrance Day glorifies war, that one is an old chestnut. It’s no more true now than it was 30 years ago in the depths of the Cold War when only a handful of people showed up at the memorials in St. John’s or Ottawa or anywhere else across Canada. People used to say the same thing then.

What changed 20 years ago in Canada was a string of wars in places like the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, Somalia, Rwanda,  Iraq, and lately Afghanistan.  War, death, injury, and the hardships of military service stopped being stuff in books and movies. They stopped being imaginary and became part of our lives.  The sepia tones, as Smith called, washed away and with them went the distance Canadians enjoyed from the suffering that sadly remains all too common a feature of human life in too many parts of the world. 

There’s no surprise that Canadians whose sons, daughters, brothers and sisters went to war in places like Kandahar looked at the past differently after the bodies came back or after the men and women with physical and mental injuries stopped off the planes and onto our streets.  When your cousin has been defusing bombs in the dust of Kandahar province or you watch two small children laying a wreath in memory of the father blown up by one they didn’t find in time, you look very differently at the old fellow who you know slogged his way up the hills and valleys of Italy that summer of 1944.

One of the other things that has happened in the past couple of decades has been a renewed interest in Newfoundland military history during the First World War.  That is where we shall turn our attention on Thursday Friday  Monday.