Monday 17 December 2012

Sin and the Generals: Commemorating WW1

There's an excellent article in the New Statesman by T.G. Otte this week about the background behind World War 1. The coming centenary of the war in 2014 will be, no doubt, a very special occasion. We still feel the echoes of those terrible events now, and looking back and reflecting how it could happen is an opportunity to look at ourselves now.

We are in a dangerous situation, as Otte argues. The chaos we find ourselves in at present has some frightening parallels to the lead-up to the trenches. And then there's the fact that the previous 'general war' was in 1815, so we could be due another any time. I hope that if enough people find this terrifying, there may be a chance that it doesn't happen. But we will need imagination, creativity, intellect and love to avoid it.

One of the problems in thinking about war (and history in general) is the tension between the universalising force of narratives and 'historicism' and the particulars of individual lives. Individuals lead their troops to disaster; individuals fight; individuals fail to listen to subordinates who vainly try to speak truth to power. Each individual is worthy of voluminous study in their own right, whether they are the corporal's wife, or the general's illicit lover (male or female!). Each play their part - often without knowing it - in what gradually unfolds as a bloody narrative.

Each person loves and hates. Events cause them to fear - but not always big events.

The fear of discovery of an infidelity by a high-ranking official can lead to strange alliances and deals which then upset the political balance. Hypothetically (although I'm confident that such a story could be found amongst the incompetent generals in WW1), we could imagine disgruntled troops muttering:
"Why was Tommy-no-brains given such a powerful position by the General? What a mess he made of it! Nearly 200 men walked straight into enemy fire and were slaughtered. But Tommy was fine, protected by the General." 
But Tommy knew something about the General's proclivities.  
And it wasn't just Tommy. Others, equally talentless, found themselves groomed into the sordid personal life of the General, only to then find themselves handsomely rewarded for remaining quiet and pliant: chauffeurs, fixers of liaisons, managers of bedsits, etc... 
What happened to everyone else? 
There was disbelief as incompetence piled on incompetence; as failure was rewarded. There was total suppression of dissent: after all, nobody suppresses dissent better than someone fearful of being "found out", or in the case of Tommy, deprived of the source of their privilege. The fear instilled in the troops was seen by the "top brass" as a sign of their strength. And then the polarisation really set in: 
There was little averting the inevitable catastrophe. 
There is a different way to think about history. Not as narrative, but as systemic structure, where both diachronic and synchronic aspects are explored. This is revealing because it helps us to sniff out the essence of the structural conditions of our own time and see where the danger lies. When we look at the Jimmy Saviles, the Press Barons, the city traders and some of our politicians, we see it.

The danger lies in fear. If only the General has accepted his sexual proclivities, rather than being ashamed and wishing to hide them. But then, he wanted easy acceptance, to maintain an unblemished and unproblematic image. The General's fear was driven by a desire to maintain this and to protect it from his lustful alter-ego.

What we fear most is ourselves. That is the fear that leads to war.

If history is to be more than 'historicism', then it should be, I think, a path of self-discovery. Through history we see the dynamics of ourselves and others. We understand where the rot set in. If we can learn the lesson, then we might do the work on ourselves so that it doesn't set in again.

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