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The Guardian SEPTEMBER 11, 2013 - by Jackie Ashley
WHO WILL WIN THE FIRST WORLD WAR THIS TIME ROUND?
It's no surprise that the centenary events are controversial - but in Britain, the anti-war side risks hitting the wrong note.
In the small pottery town of Fenton, Stoke-on-Trent, there's a mighty battle taking place to save the Great War memorial. Made from Minton tiles, the memorial to four-hundred-and-ninety-eight men who lost their lives is now under threat of demolition, as the town hall, which houses it, has been put up for sale. Celebrity supporters including Stephen Fry and Ben Elton are piling in, echoing a national pride and refusal to forget the sacrifices made during the first world war. It would indeed be an act of callousness to let it go.
It's not just in Fenton that people are remembering: as the clock ticks towards 2014 the centenary events are gearing up, with an explosion of books and television documentaries coming out soon. But one hundred years on there's a desire to challenge the official narrative too. On Monday the Guardian reported that the No Glory campaign, backed by an impressive array of artists and writers - from Brian Eno to Alan Rickman, and including the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy - are determined that the centenary will not be just a celebration of war. The Peace Pledge Union has even been given public money - well, lottery money - for the cause.
We are, famously or notoriously, a warrior nation. From the eighteenth-century continental wars to the imperial battles, the world conflicts, and the postcolonial fighting of our own times, the British have prided themselves on being first with the bayonet. Our royal family and many of our national occasions are tightly interwoven with militarism. Our bookshops have more books about military history than any other kind put together.
Yet we are changing. As this week's social attitudes study shows, Britain has become a more live-and-let-live society, much more liberal, and yet more cynical too. From the church to homosexuality to politicians, our views have changed hugely in thirty years. And now, perhaps, we are an anti-war nation too.
To an extent, we have always been one. The most famous and impressive cultural reactions to the first world war were the writings of the anti-war poets. The biggest non-party movements from the 1950s to the 1970s included CND; the biggest ever march in modern times was the Stop The War protest over Iraq. At the time, it seemed that no one listened. But over the years, the marchers' message permeated through. Today, in TV drama after TV drama, the traumatised veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are used in ways which critique, rather than celebrate, those wars.
It isn't even a simple left and right issue. Some of the most excoriating criticisms of British generalship, even the case for fighting in 1914, come from military historians mostly associated with the Conservative side. Many Tory MPs, as well as Labour ones, refused to back military action in Syria in the Commons vote, and some of the most gung-ho voices for military action have come from Labour politicians and left-of-centre columnists.
Yet this is a moment when that long-established argument between militarism and pacifism seems to be coming to some kind of climax. Look at the inevitable contraction of British military ambition, after the cuts to the armed services; add in the possibility of the Trident nuclear fleet being decommissioned if Scotland votes for independence, and you have the first possible signs of Britain ceasing to be the warrior nation of old.
This would not mean that, after so long, we had somehow become an inward-looking nation. Britain still spends a lot on overseas aid, and even the Tory right has failed to win the argument against it. What it means is that, after Iraq and Afghanistan, we no longer believe that deploying violence against other countries necessarily makes the world a safer or happier place.
So this campaign about the meaning of the first world war doesn't arrive in a political vacuum. Far from it. This is as live an issue as there is. Getting the tone right is incredibly important. I for one don't want to see a commemoration of 1914-18 that in anyway appears to diminish or discredit the courage of those who died in that terrible carnage. I don't want a jeering or confrontational message to go out from the anti-war side. What needs to happen is to keep a relentless focus on the damage done both in Britain, where the best of a generation was squandered, and in Germany, where the foundations were laid for the rise of Nazism, just as Lenin got his chance in Russia.
These days, with the rise of personal history, a lot of the focus has been on the tragic individual stories - what we might call War Horse history. That's important, but we also have to keep an eye on the big picture, the terrible and global tear that the war inflicted on mankind.