Phillip Cooper considers contrasting views on how the WW1 centenary should be marked
The approaching centenary of World War One is already sparking controversy over how the conflict should be remembered. While the government has announced a range of initiatives underscored by the desire to be informative but non-judgmental, right wing historians and their echo chambers among the press have already started to harrumph over the official line. The sabre-rattlers want to ‘celebrate’ the fact that ‘we won’ and insist the Germans should be blamed fairly and squarely for starting it.
Leading the charge with all the fervour of a Light Brigade cavalryman is Max Hastings. Writing in the Daily Mail (where else) in an article headlined ‘Sucking up to the Germans is no way to remember our Great War heroes’ he lambasts the non-judgmental approach as a ‘cop out’ for failing to explain ‘ the justice of our cause’ in World War One.
He goes on: “David Cameron displays unhesitating pride in Britain’s World War II stand against Hitler. But his own and his colleagues’ knowledge of 1914-18 derives chiefly from watching Blackadder when they were in short trousers.” (Cameron would have been 23 when the Blackadder Goes Forth series was transmitted in 1989 so presumably was not still in short trousers while working for the Conservative Party’s research department but a historian of Hastings’ standing is clearly not going to let accuracy get in the way of his polemic!)
Hastings then attacks the war poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. He acknowledges their ‘vivid and moving’ depiction of the nightmare of trench warfare but criticises them for failing to say how Britain could have escaped the conflict without challenging the Kaiser, as though their literary skills should have been conscripted as part of the ongoing rabble-rousing propaganda.
Another historian, Oxford professor Sir Hew Strachan, has described the government’s plans, which include a joint British/German commemoration at the cemetery at Mons in Flanders, as ‘conceptually empty.’ (unlike the cemetery, that is, with its 500 graves!)
We can expect a great deal more of this jingoistic guff as the centenary rolls on. One must hope that it will be drowned out by more sober and contemplative reflection on the utter stupidity of the politicians and royalty, of all nationalities, that created the war, as well as the ineptitude of so many of the generals who caused the death of millions of soldiers by failing to comprehend the destructiveness of the types of weapons that had been developed.
The apparent desire not to let the ‘Hun’ off the hook evident in the tone of so many right-wing commentators seems to overlook the fact that war was ignited by the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian archduke by Serbian separatists which then escalated because of the mobilization of Russia as well as Germany. Matters moved inexorably to conflict because of the existing system of grand alliances whereby countries had guaranteed to rally to support each other, domino fashion, if one or other were attacked. Not so different from NATO versus the Warsaw Pact.
Hopefully, the predominant character of the centenary will be one that emphasizes to the current generation, especially its younger members, the sheer waste of life and destruction of resources caused by the conflict and that, for example, twice as many British military personnel – some 900,000 - died between 1914 and 18 than perished in the Second World War.
Apart from some large scale commemorations and memorial services being planned, plus the re-opening of greatly enhanced World War One galleries at the Imperial War Museum, there will be a flurry of much smaller projects, events and commemorations taking place in communities around the country, many supported by grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund which has put £6million aside for the purpose. Typically, these will involve young people researching the lives of the men whose names appear on parish war memorials as well as stories of life on the Home Front, including the fundamental change in the role of women in society.
The tenor of such projects is very much educational and reflective, rather than triumphalist. One, particularly satisfying from the viewpoint of peace campaigners, is being mounted by the Peace Pledge Union which will be researching the history of conscientious objection recording the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of men who refused to fight. The PPU aims to give these courageous people a voice via a website, work with schools and an exhibition.
The organisation’s members’ pledge is worth recalling. It states: 'I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war.'
If that sentiment gained greater support as a result of the World War One centenary commemorations the effort would certainly have been worthwhile.
StopTheWar Coalition has issued a statement, already signed by a number of literary figures and prominent actors, calling for the centenary to be used to promote peace and international co-operation. If you would like to find out more and add your name go to: ww1.stopwar.org.uk.
Jim McCluskey had a letter published recently in The Independent. Jim argued that with half of the population (according to research) destined to get cancer why were we not discussing the cancer-causing effects globally of the 2,000 nuclear weapons test explosions in the atmosphere, the radiation from Chernobyl and Fukushima, and the widespread use of radioactive depleted uranium in wars round the world including Iraq and Afghanistan.
A poem by Carol Ann Duffy
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy wrote this poem in 2009 to mark the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, the two longest surviving soldiers from the First World War. It was read at a recent event outside the house of WW1 poet Siegfried Sassoon to mark the Stop The War Coalition’s statement calling for the centenary to emphasise peace. They also condemn an earlier statement by Prime Minister David Cameron that it should stress our ‘national spirit’ rather like the ‘Diamond Jubilee Celebrations.’
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud ...
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home -
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce - No - Decorum - No - Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too -
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert -
and light a cigarette.
There's coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.
A recent letter in The Guardian pointed out that, on the same day that the US government announced its decision to arm the rebels in Syria, a conclave of Sunni clerics in Egypt confirmed a jihad against the Shias and Hezbollah, thereby turning the Syrian conflict from a war of liberation into a war between Muslim sects. The correspondent went on to say that, if the West chose to arm the rebels, it would in effect be entering the conflict on the side of the Sunnis. Ironically, it was Sunnis who were responsible for 9/11 and a majority of terrorist outrages.
The BBC finally airs a production exposing the contradictions inherent in the nuclear ‘deterrent’
The illogicality of Britain’s nuclear ‘deterrent’ was given a welcome airing in early June thanks to the BBC’s decision to air, in its prime Radio 4 Saturday afternoon drama slot, The Letter of Last Resort. This short, one-act production, was first seen in The Tricycle Theatre’s season of plays collected together under the title The Bomb over two weeks last year when several members of Kingston Peace Council/CND went to see it.
The Letter of Last Resort, written by David Greig, was the one piece that stood out among the several thought-provoking offerings. It is encouraging to think that it was selected for a nationwide BBC transmission. Even more encouraging was the fact that the BBC didn’t for once feel obliged to achieve ‘balance’ by following the play with a pundit talking about the need for Trident.
Instead, rather more imaginatively, the broadcaster arranged a studio discussion with three people; a philosopher, Green MP Caroline Lucas, and a former Royal Naval commodore, to say what they would write in their Letter should they be the occupant of Number Ten.
The Letter of Last Resort is not the concoction of the playwright, it is the written instruction of the current Prime Minister to each of the commanders of Britain’s four Trident submarines. It contains orders on what action to take in the event that an enemy nuclear strike has destroyed the British state and has killed or incapacitated the Prime Minister and the "second person" (normally a high-ranking member of the cabinet) designated to make a decision on how to act in the event of the PM’s death.
The Letter is stored in a safe in the control room of each submarine. They are destroyed unopened after a Prime Minister leaves office, so what action would have been taken is only ever known to the outgoing PM.
The strength of the play in which only two actors appear – a newly elected female prime minster and a senior civil servant – is that it explores the nonsensical mental attitude that has to be adopted by the person issuing orders that will be read only after the nuclear deterrent has failed. Does this fact therefore invalidate the order? After all, the person issuing it is also dead and is, in effect, issuing instructions ‘from beyond the grave’.
The Letter writer can either order the submarine commander to fire their missiles in retaliation -which would be an act of pure revenge, not to fire, to make their own decision, or take the vessel and put it under the command of an allied navy such as that of Australia.
The play’s PM will not write a word until she finds out more about the submarine’s commander. ‘What’s his name?’ she asks her advisor in an attempt to see them as a human being with an intolerable burden of responsibility.
The reasoning that follows exposes the convoluted absurdity of ‘deterrence’. The purpose of Trident is to deter. So once deterrence has failed it no longer has a purpose so why retaliate? she asks. Well, responds, her civil servant, you must be viewed on the world stage as a rational leader of a nuclear power who does not threaten world peace but in order for the concept of deterrence to work you have to convince other world leaders that you are prepared to act irrationally. If you fail to do so they will conclude that a Britain which is not capable of acting irrationally has no credible deterrent.
The play, which is not without dark humour and which recalls less potentially earth shattering arguments from Yes, Prime Minister, ends with the PM writing a Letter, the contents of which we are destined never to find out about.
The BBC then staged its short What-would-you-do? discussion with its three studio guests. Not surprisingly, Green MP Caroline Lucas would order her Trident commanders not to retaliate and would publicise the fact, thus in one stroke rendering the concept of nuclear ‘deterence’ obsolete . The retired naval commodore Tim Hare would order a retaliatory strike. Dr David Rodin, philosopher, senior research fellow at Oxford and of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York, decided that he would not order retaliation but would keep this fact secret.
This duplicity, commented Commodore Hare, would put the letter writer in the difficult decision of having to fool other world leaders that (s)he were capable of ordering nuclear destruction when they had no intention of so doing. Responding, Dr Rodin said it was not normally difficult for politicians to say one thing and mean the complete opposite!
It is pertinent to ask whether real life politicians ponder these absurd paradoxes before writing such letters or do they just blindly go along with the received wisdom of the defence establishment? Of course we have no way of knowing what each PM has actually written in their Letters although it is tempting to speculate.
It has been observed that common sense seems to return to at least some politicians once they have left office. This is certainly the case with former Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Portillo. We have quoted this exchange in the pages of KP News before but, in the light of the play The Letter of Last Resort, it is worth repeating.
On the TV programme This Week, 2nd November 2012, host Andrew Neil asked Michael Portillo his opinion on the renewal of Trident, and he received this amazingly fluent reply:
Neil: As a former defence secretary, what is your view? Should it [Trident] be renewed?
Portillo: No. I think it’s all nonsense.
Neil: Should we have any kind of nuclear deterrent?
Portillo: No. It’s completely past its sell-by date. It’s neither independent, because we couldn’t possibly use it without the Americans, nor is it any sort of deterrent, because now largely we’re facing the sort of enemy, the Taliban, al Quaida, who cannot be deterred by nuclear weapons. It’s a tremendous waste of money. It’s done entirely for reasons of national prestige, it’s wasteful, and at the margins it’s proliferatory.
An arms deal to sell BAE Typhoon jet fighters to the repressive Gulf state of Oman has been sweetened by a £2bn loan guarantee by the British government, it has been revealed.
The Department of Business Innovation and Skills has concluded a £2.5billion deal to sell 12 Typhoons and eight Hawk jet trainers to the Sultanate of Oman. The contract is underwritten by nearly half the government’s total export finance guarantee fund. As foreign governments often delay full payment this loan guarantee amounts to a subsidy paid for by the British taxpayer.
The practice, as well as the sale to Oman, has been condemned by arms trade opponents. Kaye Stearman, from the Campaign Against Arms Trade, said support for arms exports had ballooned from 1% to 47% of export credit business. "This is a return to the bad old days where arms companies like BAE Systems are effectively offered another massive taxpayer subsidy to export their deadly products to repressive governments and areas of tension and conflict," she said.
Tim Jones, of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, said: "It is outrageous that the UK government is guaranteeing loans for arms sales to a repressive regime in Oman. By allowing this dodgy deal in his department, Vince Cable has helped shore up a regime threatened by the Arab spring."
British defence exports totalled £8.8bn last year, a rise of 62%, according to figures released by the UK Trade & Investment's Defence and Security Organisation. Britain now has 20% of the global defence export market, it said. Combined defence and security exports rose to £11.5bn in 2012.
The government is also quick to point out that the Typhoon fighter supports 8,600 jobs in the UK with a further 1,500 jobs dependent on export opportunities.
Applying that latter figure to the Omani deal means that 1,500 jobs are effectively being sustained at a cost to the taxpayer of £2bn. As an alternative you could pay 17,000 teachers an average wage for five years! Which of those alternatives would be more useful for the future?
A poster depicting Sister Megan and her co-defendantsThe Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is dedicated to the production of U235 for nuclear weapons – the works provided the U235 for the Hiroshima bomb. The plant has attracted anti-nuclear protests for decades, the latest being an extraordinarily successful penetration of its security by 83-year old nun Sister Megan Rice, Greg Boertje-Obed, and Michael Walli.
On 28th July 2012 the trio, members of ‘Transform Now Plowshares’, broke into the heart of the complex, spray-painted antiwar slogans and splashed blood on the highly enriched uranium container.
On May 9th this year the activists were convicted of interfering with national security and damaging federal property. They appeared in court in handcuffs and leg irons! They were refused bail, though there was no chance of them absconding, the U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar not understanding that ploughshares people do not operate like thieves, but desire to go to court to argue their case, as part of their action. Megan Rice commented that their action was ‘an act of hope’.
The trio are due to be sentenced on September 23rd . Having been found guilty of damaging a defence facility under the Sabotage Act they could face up to 20 years in prison .
The recent Supreme Court ruling that soldiers heading into battle can claim protection under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act may have a number of positive and negative consequences. The decision, which opens the way for the dead soldiers’ families to sue the MoD for negligence, certainly came as a complete surprise to those concerned, on both sides of the argument.
Naturally, it dismayed the military establishment with Defence Secretary Philip Hammond commenting: “It can’t be right that troops on operations have to put it (the European Convention on Rights) ahead of what is operationally vital to protect our national security.” He added that it could “ultimately make it more difficult for our troops to carry out operations.”
Well, hooray for anything that causes the politicians to pause longer and think harder before committing to military action on the spurious justification that interfering in other countries makes Britons safer at home. Especially at a time of defence cuts when the cost of providing them with adequate equipment might become a major concern.
The issue upon which the Supreme Court case turned was, after all, the adequacy of the vehicles, the poorly protected Land Rovers, in which they were expected to patrol a hostile environment. The doctrine of combat immunity that prevents soldiers claiming compensation for injuries sustained in combat except under official schemes should not include the planning and preparation stage of operations. In other words, if you haven’t got the appropriate equipment, don’t commit yourself to an operation, … or a campaign, … or a war.
Of course, the court’s decision only means that individual cases can now be heard in lower courts, the outcome of which may be disappointing. For its part the government is saddled with the Supreme Court’s decision unless it goes for a full scale abandonment of the Human Rights Act, which of course a number of Conservative ministers and backbenchers would like to see.
The Guardian reported (June 8th) a legal opinion that suggests that British drone attacks in the war in Afghanistan may breach international law. The opinion followed the appearance in court of six anti-drone campaigners who are pleading not guilty to causing criminal damage following the mass trespass inside RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, the British military’s new command post for the remote control of pilotless aircraft.
According to Phil Shiner and Dan Carey of Public Interest Lawyers the use of drones is subject to the European Convention on Human Rights. Based on existing British case law the lawyers argue that it is a requirement that no more force is used than is absolutely necessary and that “only when it is absolutely necessary to kill someone rather than arrest/disable them will use of drones be lawful.” The use of drones would be limited solely to situations where there was an immediate threat to life. This would prevent their being used for ‘targetted killings’ such as where a decision is taken to assassinate a known, or suspected, enemy military leader or official.
The arrested RAF Waddington peace campaigners argue that their actions were motivated by a desire to prevent crimes in Afghanistan. For its part the MoD claims that all operations are conducted in accordance with ‘applicable international humanitarian law.’
Just before going to press KPC’s Mary Holmes had a letter published in The Guardian pointing out that despite, as we now know, the government having almost limitless access to information (through reading our emails) our financial system came within hours of collapse, the Libor rate was rigged for years, we invade countries on evidence that turns out to be incorrect and multinational companies and the rich are able to conceal their wealth. Couldn’t, she asked, we get our spies to do something socially useful? Do we have too much of the wrong sort of information?
Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.
Newsletter Editor for this issue: Phil Cooper
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this edition are not necessarily those of Kingston Peace Council/CND