Being troubled by patriotic zealotry and glorification of war, I feel vaguely discomforted by Remembrance Days, particularly when craven politicians take centre stage at memorials. While struggling to find words that conveyed my reservations, I read Stephen Lautens. He mastered the expression that eluded me, offering indisputable truths with Wars, Freedom and Liberty.
…politicians still describe WWI as a war of freedom and liberty, it wasn’t in the same sense as World War Two, when a truly evil government was bent on conquest and enslavement. …It was a war about access to markets and raw materials and the personal rivalries of royal cousins, their generals and politicians…
…politicians who revel in a resurgent militarism repeat tired phrases long since discredited, because no one will fight for corporate economic interests or the vanity of politicians, but you can still make people fight for freedom and liberty. “
…None of this takes away from the tragedy and sacrifice of the common soldier who inevitably pays the price for war, or our duty to remember the fallen. We simply owe it to them and future generations to be honest about what they made the ultimate sacrifice for and not hide it behind a false politician’s slogan of “freedom and liberty”.
One piece of school learning remains fresh in my mind despite passage of 50 years. Long ago, I sat in a sparsely populated theatre (Saturday 8:30 am lecture) as a UBC professor of International Studies described an event of 1918. I paraphrase:
As the war that introduced machine guns, flame throwers, poison gas and mechanized armies writhed toward armistice, English officers believed it fitting to end the campaign with a glorious cavalry charge. Instead of honours and accolades, the mounted soldiers were met with an unbroken barrage of machine gun fire from incredulous Germans.
Travelling backroads of Europe, I felt unsettled as we encountered innumerable monuments and memorials that celebrate offerings to the gods of war. I couldn’t help but feel the commemorations were there to encourage future generations to be available when more lives were to be expended. If the offer of glory didn’t work, militarists ensured that pacifists who cared not to serve as potential cannon fodder were ostracized. British writer Gareth Platt, in World War 1 100th Anniversary: Remembering the Heroes who Refused to Fight, wrote:
…it took more courage to stay at home than go off and fight. The jingoistic bally-hoo of the early days saw millions of young people flock to the recruiting halls, lured by the promise of glory and adventure. Those that strayed from the flock were forced to look at guilt-tripping recruiting posters everywhere they went, and taunted with white feathers by women in the street.
All reasonable people understand that war may be morally justifiable, as a last resort. However, human experience demonstrates those situations are rare.