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320px-Francisco_de_Goya,_Saturno_devorando_a_su_hijo_(1819-1823)

Thousands of flaming torches were lit this week around the Tower of London, by Beefeaters, as part of an Armistice tribute called “Beyond the Deepening Shadow.” With this, we are finally wading to the end of four years of centenaries. Practically every week during this period, there has been an event to mark one hundred years since this vast machine-gun massacre or that phenomenal bloodletting. And what, in sum, have we learned from this? What, I think we are entitled to demand, has been the point?

In 2012, the British government had pledged to spend £50 million remembering the Great War. Conservative historians had worried that the British commemorations, along with their important educational agenda, had internalised too much of Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), a sardonic sitcom set on the Western Front that had stressed the British military’s incompetence and its devaluing of human life. In reply, 49 public figures, including Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, and Ken Livingstone, had published an open letter in the Guardian that had warned against staging inappropriately festive or jingoistic memorials. They had stamped their letter with a commendably sane description of the Great War as “a military disaster and a human catastrophe.”

The centenaries of the Great War have been ideally envisaged as a coming together of the nation. The Prime Minister David Cameron had stated in 2012 that he wished to see “a commemoration that, like the diamond jubilee celebrations this year, says something about who are as a people.” Paradoxically, however, to make these centenaries meaningful actually requires division, disagreement, class warfare, and a bloody great row. We are meant to conform to a suitably dignified appearance – to indicate that we are fully appreciative of the peace that the war was fought to achieve – but we will only access the reality of the Great War again by striking up a few warring sparks.

How did such a horrific disaster ever happen and what new, practical knowledge has it passed down to us? These should be the questions for our active consideration, but we have been long taught to respond to the Great War with an eerie passivity. The conflict is sterilised and depoliticised until anything potentially useable has furtively disappeared amongst all of the bland plastic packaging.

There is a rather wistful aspiration to pass off World War One as being some kind of natural disaster that had been randomly visited on the world. Or rather, as being something even less interpretable than a natural disaster. Whereas the 2010 earthquake in Haiti had excited some degree of discussion about the effectiveness of the humanitarian response, even this questioning is not really in the spirit of commemorating the Great War. Your brain is meant to be wholly disabled before it is in a proper state to remember “the fallen” and “their sacrifice.”

Schoolchildren are supposed to bury themselves in the source material, the letters and diaries, of ordinary soldiers on the Front. Naturally, this material cannot contain anything too authentic, such as the relief that the soldiers had gained from prostitutes or the murderous hatred of the enemy that had presumably motivated many of them to fight. Schoolchildren are thus taught to see the war through the eyes of soldiers who are made to resemble schoolchildren. These soldiers are uniformed and respectful of authority, like good pupils dressed in their shiny blazers, and they remain resigned to the orders of officers and generals who are clearly just teachers and headmasters in another guise.

Schoolchildren are taught to view World War One as being the product of mysterious and unstoppable forces that had operated at a level far too esoteric for ordinary people to understand. Just as schoolchildren cannot be expected to follow, let alone influence, the ins and outs of the school budget.

A BBC website for schoolchildren entitled “What can today’s soldiers learn from WW1?” dodges its own question with an infuriatingly neutral tone. It joins some soldiers who have travelled to the battlefields of the Western Front to learn about “the importance of strong bonds” and the value of sacrifice. If the same soldiers were magically whisked back to 1914 and ordered to fight World War One all over again, it is hard to see how they would do anything differently.

These soldiers are inhabiting the world laid down by the centenary industry, a never-never land of irrational fatalism and absurdist rituals. Busloads of schoolchildren are driven off to France to contemplate tidy, empty fields, as if these will somehow connect them with any useful wisdom about the Great War. Memorial services waft their stately, precision-saluting, solemn-sinister regret. Members of the Royal family lug around gigantic wreaths on behalf of countless unknown soldiers, who the iconography of remembrance reduces to poppies and candles, fields of waving or flickering dots. We are obligated to recognise how courageous these soldiers were in giving up their lives, in such industrial quantities, and how noble their sacrifice was, in such impersonal volumes.

How much harder it is for us to admit to the truth: that the establishment had treated millions of human lives as having no value and that so many soldiers had died because they had acquiesced to this worldview. There were no significant mutinies or mass desertions and nobody had set up a revolutionary government at the Front. And our entire centenary industry refuses to acknowledge the simple fact that these soldiers were wrong to be so passive. This industry ends up looking like it is worshipping gormlessness and exalting stupidity. It grieves for the dead even as it lives and breathes its oppressive thanatos.

The British proletariat was, as a class, a flop. They were the only ones who could have organised and provided leadership and they had failed. When we review all of their colourless, pointless, “more mud today!” diary entries, these soldiers are never brought to life by the admission that they were free agents who actually had a range of options available to them.

The lesson of the twentieth century is supposedly that revolutions always lead to disaster and genocide. There is now such pessimism about taking radical political action because – or so the folk wisdom routinely goes – nothing good ever comes of it. Even the gentle rockings of the boat occasioned by Brexit or Donald Trump’s presidency are capable of reducing educated people to affrighted hysteria.

World War One generates such discomfort because its lesson is precisely the opposite. Here were some soldiers who had remained politically passive and who had continued to blindly accept the existing political system. Here were citizens who had refused to use their imagination and critical thinking. Here is the reductio ad absurdum of the liberal mantra, “there is no alternative,” the jingle that justifies every politically unadventurous stance from the Thatcherite consensus to the Remain campaign. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers chanting “there is no alternative” as they walk towards the machine-gun nests.

The lesson of World War One is therefore that human aspiration must be always the imperative. In extremis, this might be the aspiration of the soldier, who is stuck in a slime-filled trench and fighting a war that he cannot understand, to take back control over his own destiny. In our own lives, it might involve us refusing to accept low wages, a knackered economy, patronising managers, and whatever is most comfortable for the establishment.

In an alternative universe, the past four years of centenaries would have treated the soldiers who had obeyed their orders and made their pointless sacrifices as second-class victims. We would have instead commemorated every mutiny, strike, and riot. Naturally, the desertions at the Eastern Front that had eventually empowered the Bolsheviks would be given pre-eminence. The lions that had bit back at the donkeys would be prioritised over those that had warped all Nature and agreed to follow them. In an excellent 2014 article for Left Foot Forward, Peter Tatchell surveys the strikes that had threatened to paralyse the UK at the end of the war:

Faced with the threat of a generalised rebellion – and talk of revolution – army chiefs hastily improved conditions and speeded up demobilisation. They feared that keeping dissenting troops together and under arms could risk a revolution. They were right. In 1919, Britain came close to a workers and soldiers uprising. But it’s not a story that the official WW1 commemoration wants to highlight. It might give people the wrong ideas.

Under our alternative teaching model, schoolchildren would be required to genuinely empathise with the solders at the Front. They would have to tackle the question of why these men could not break out of the cycles of destruction. I suspect that one answer is that the military organisation had left solders atomised and without access to reliable information about the scale of the ongoing disaster. Mutinies on the Western Front were certainly disconnected and localised. It could be that the obstacles to political action were material (e.g. the results of a totalitarian control of information and communication) rather than ideological (e.g. a culture of deference). Perhaps the schoolchild’s findings might be ultimately exculpatory, but, in any case, they would at least credit the soldiers with having some political volition.

If we are sowing revolutionary fervour amongst schoolchildren then a subsequent question might be to ask why the technological breakthroughs that had ended the military stalemate were so late in coming. After all, the components of the tank – heavy motorised transport and the caterpillar track – were in circulation long before 1914. HG Wells had imagined a tank in 1903; the French, Austrian, and Australian militaries had respectively rejected detailed proposals for prototype tanks in 1908, 1911 and 1912. Meanwhile, agricultural vehicles had been fitted with caterpillar systems as early as 1904. The tank had nevertheless made its wartime debut only in 1916 and its rise was protracted and piecemeal.

It seems that, as with most postponements in introducing new technology, the abundance of available labour had lessened the urgency with which the tank was contemplated. All of the militaries had an inexhaustible supply of what was basically slave labour to throw at the war. The tank was competing with thousands of waves of cheaply disposable men. Issuing orders to large quantities of soldiers was comfortable and familiar and it made the commanders feel reassuringly important. Handing power over to scientists and their unpredictable experiments was too disruptive to the status quo.

In his A History of the First World War (1930), B.H. Liddell Hart jokes of the tank’s opponents on the General Staff that “if they had not the ingenuity to devise means of beating the Germans they were fertile in devises to beat the sponsors of the tank.” Yet an indiscriminate hostility to new technology was in fact rampant amongst the military leadership. Field Marshal Haig is plausibly alleged to have disparaged the machine-gun as “a much overrated weapon” whilst in 1910 General Foch had grumbled that “for the Army the aeroplane is worthless.” Cavalry remained a popular flavour. Even as late as 1918, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, masses of soldiers were being still ordered to overthrow machine guns, as Liddell Hart puts it, “by sheer weight of human bodies without adequate fire support or surprise.” The USA’s entry into the war had supplied over a million more inexpensive humans to chuck into the German jaws to try to clog them up.

If the General Staff had been led by science-fiction writers such as Wells instead of by generals then the Great War would have been doubtless over by Christmas 1914. We can see now that a massive development programme into refining the tank, had it been conducted in 1914, would have ended the war years earlier than 1918. A refusal to deploy the imagination and a stubborn unadventurousness had meant that it remained 1914 mostly up until the final days of the war.

Another lesson of the Great War is hence that we should always keep abreast of technological innovation. We should take an active interest in developing new technologies rather than just passively waiting for them to somehow naturally emerge. More than this, we should learn to compute the human costs of failing to exploit technological solutions. We can ascertain now that hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in WW1 due to the failure to utilise the tank. Today, comparable numbers might be “mown down like corn,” to quote one description of the wartime annihilation, due to our own inability to live up to prototype technologies.

For example, we are continuing to pump billions of pounds into preserving the NHS’s portfolio of clapped-out hospitals rather than industrialising stem-cell therapies or gene-editing. We are still altogether happier with global hunger than we are with using genetic manipulation to increase crop yields. We remain more relaxed about 1.25 million deaths a year from traffic accidents than we are with developing autonomous vehicles. Humans continue to carry out dangerous jobs such as mining rather than sending in robots to do this work. In each of these instances, the logic of the tank applies. Lives are being lost and humans are suffering because of our unforgivable laziness towards technological progress.

There! – I hope I have proved that Poppy Day is not merely an occasion for mindless ceremony. It can be as much about doing justice to the future as to the past.

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