Saturday, 29 April 2017

"War, what is it good for?"

Guest Post by Roy Myers

Why do so many Kiwis persist in lying to their children?  

The rantings of a 12 year-old to peace activists at an Anzac Day service in Wellington caused me to reflect on the 'alternative truths' that misinformed this boy.

Anzac Day focuses on the First World War and takes its direction from remembrance events which emerged after that war. We are presented with statements which are repeated like a mantra without any apparent reflection on their meaning: 

“Our glorious dead.” 

“They fought for our freedom”.

Having read extensively about war and talked to old service personnel, it is hard to find anything glorious about it.  

The First World War was the mismanaged slaughter of millions and left those who returned, with scars that we now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder.  When I was growing up there was a neighbour who shuffled around his garden, constantly shaking and switching his head this way and that.  When I asked what was wrong with him I was told it was “shell shock”.  

As AJP Taylor states in his history of the First World War, it was run by  commanders whose strategy was based on cavalry principles, fighting mechanical and industrial technology pitting human beings against powerful weaponry, that led to such a tragic loss of life.  Not glorious at all but bloody horrific and totally wasteful of human life and its potential.  

We must also remember that society at that time was stratified by class divisions and people were expected to do what they were told.  It was the same expectation of doing one’s duty, which drew New Zealand into the war in service of Britain, the metropolitan centre of the empire.

This brings me to the second piece of misinformation - that the war was fought for freedom. This is very much an alternative truth.  WW1 was a conflict between competing Imperial powers, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. These countries had been busily acquiring colonies, suppressing indigenous populations and fighting off competitors to meet the needs of their domestic industrial bases for raw materials. The point was reached when they had to turn directly to each other’s territories and consequently there was war in Europe. The war was not about freedom in any sense but about knocking out and subsuming the opposition. Those who died in WW1 did not ‘give their todays for our tomorrows’, but in service of imperial competition.

The end of the First World War set up conditions for the Second World War, 21 years later as an indirect result of the humiliation of Germany and the crippling reparations imposed on it.  The stricture of the post war years on the German people led to their support for Hitler and a Fascist dictatorship.  So, whilst we might argue that WW2 was fought in opposition to the totalitarianism of Fascism, the conditions that led to that ideology taking hold were born as an outcome of that earlier war.

The focus here like Anzac Day itself has been on war and on military casualties but there are two other aspects that we need to consider which Anzac Day ignores and the activists in Wellington were drawing attention to.

It is convenient to ignore civilian casualties but the fact is that war disrupts civil populations and, whilst the modern euphemism ‘collateral damage’ conceals the reality, there are always significant deaths of ordinary people in any conflict.

“We will remember them” but what about the civilian populations whose lives were sacrificed – should we not also remember them or is that too uncomfortable a truth which distracts from the “glory”?

This brings me to the ultimate irony of Anzac Day, which is that instead of being an opportunity to promote peace and avoid the horrors and waste of war, we actually celebrate war. The Anzac Ceremonies are organised along military lines, parades, buglers, military hardware and service personnel or people in military dress, old soldiers and medals all presided over by priests who conveniently ignore the fifth commandment.

“They grow not old as we who are left grow old”.  This ceremony, the pomp and cant that surround it are manifestly ideological.  It is not saying “enough of wars let’s avoid them”, it is saying that there is glory in war and that dying in the service of an incompetent commander may be necessary in service of  “your” country.  These ceremonies are not so much a remembrance of the sacrifice of the dead as keeping alive the ideology of war and the need to be ready for war.  It is the living embodiment of the well known poster featuring Lord Kitchener pointing commandingly  above the legend “Your Country Needs You”.

That’s what you are doing people when you lie to your children about war.

War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!


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