The myth of the good war. Our year of remembrance has exaggerated the tragic futility of the first world war and preserved the dangerous idea that the second was noble and heroic
by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
9 December 2014 NOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT
A second world war propaganda poster. Photograph: Nara Archives/Rex
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This year has been such a miserable and violent one in so many parts of the world that it can scarcely end too soon. But for many Europeans, it has also been a year of remembrance: the centenary of another terrible conflict. The intensity of public feeling about what those who survived it called the Great War has surprised some, and annoyed others, but it has undoubtedly been a dominant element in the public mood. Apart from all the books and articles, television and radio programmes, an astonishing 5 million people visited the sea of poppies around the Tower of London. Although there are few still living who have even childhood memories of the war, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s 888,246 ceramic flowers – one for every dead British soldier – which steadily filled the moat over three months, provided a reminder that scarcely any family in Britain was unaffected by that war. It is a deeply ingrained folk memory.
Next May sees another milestone, the 70th anniversary of VE Day; it will also mark the 75th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s appointment as prime minister. For all the deep and sincere mourning this past year, there has long been an implied contrast between the first and second world wars. In crude terms, we have come to think of them – haven’t we? – as the Bad War and the Good War.
After 1945, Europe seemed to have at last achieved what had been falsely promised in 1918: a war to make the world safe for democracy, and a war to end wars. That was how it felt during the glorious western postwar half-century of peace and prosperity, when no European countries fought each other, and when finally the cold war ended without armies clashing in Europe.
But so far from an eternal age of peace, we have not only returned to fighting wars – we have returned to fighting a kind of war grimly prefigured not by the supposedly evil Great War but instead by the seemingly noble Good War. From 1914 to 1918 as many as 18 million people died, while more than 70 million died from 1939 to 1945. The immensely important difference was that almost all of those killed in the first world war were soldiers in uniform, while the peculiar – and peculiarly horrible – distinguishing feature of the second world war was that up to 50 million of the dead were civilians. That would be the true face of the new war.
The myth of the Bad War and the Good War has become very dangerous, insofar as it has conditioned our attitude to war as a whole. The notion that the second world war was finer and nobler than the first is highly dubious in itself, since it sanitises so much, from the slaughter of civilians by Allied bombing to the gang rape of millions of women by our Russian allies at the moment of victory.Five million people went to see the poppies at the Tower of London. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA Archive/Press Association Images
And it may be that the sanctification of the later war has had more pernicious consequences than the anathematisation of the former. Any argument that the Great War was uniquely wicked and wasteful is plainly false in statistical terms, and the idea that the Good War was uniquely noble is absurd in view of its moral ambiguities.
Worse than that, the glorification of the second world war has had practical and baleful consequences. It has led us to an easier acceptance of “liberal interventionism”, founded on the assumption that we in the west are alone virtuous and qualified to distinguish political right from wrong – and the conviction that our self-evidently virtuous ends must justify whatever means we employ, lighting up a bomber flare path from Dresden to Baghdad to Tripoli.
* * *
At the start of 1914, few seriously expected another European war. In the spring of that year, the widely read socialist commentator HN Brailsford averred that “there will be no more wars among the six great powers”. Even in the weeks after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, most political leaders thought that war would be averted. The outbreak of war was therefore an immense shock, one which precipitated a revolution in public opinion – not among jingoists, but liberals and radicals, including this paper.
The Manchester Guardian had been very strongly opposed to war, and frankly isolationist. No one was more insistent on the need to keep out of a European war than the paper’s chief leader writer and deputy editor, CE Montague. But when war was declared, he was so appalled by German perfidy that he enlisted, aged 47, dying his grey hair to conceal his age.
The glorification of the second world war has led us to an easier acceptance of 'liberal interventionism'
At the outset, every country thought victory certain, and everyone expected a very short war. Even when the scale of the carnage became clear within weeks – 27,000 French soldiers were killed on 23 August – the Economist, as confident as ever, proclaimed “the economic and financial impossibility of carrying out hostilities many more months on the present scale”. But there were four more years to come, on a scale even more vast and terrible, as one country after another – or at least their rulers – grasped not only the human catastrophe but the grim political outcome. When peace came, there came also a long period of intense and repressed mourning. We may now look askance at the rhetoric of “the glorious dead” who “shall grow not old as we that are left grow old”, but the bereaved did not want to think that their sons and husbands and lovers had died in vain.
Remembrance took different forms in different countries, set in stone for posterity. British war memorials are marked by their acute realism, with every detail of buckle, puttee and gun carriage captured as if never to be forgotten, so that they need never be seen again. See the works of the gifted sculptor Charles Jagger, his haggard infantryman at Paddington station, or the huge bas relief of the Royal Artillery memorial at Hyde Park Corner, gunners dragging their guns through the mud.
Although the British thought that they had suffered an unimaginable loss, France had lost 1.4 million men from a smaller population, and in France the dominant tone of war memorials is desolation – Marianne grieving for her lost sons. At Gentioux-Pigerolles in the Limousin region, the village war memorial bore the inscription “À nos chers enfants,” followed by the names of the fallen, and then “Maudite soit la guerre”. This was bitterly controversial at the time, and those words – “let war be accursed” – suggested a nation that had lost all appetite for war ever after, as the British might also have done.
But had the Germans? Their memorials were not so much mournful as defiant. Some of them listed the fallen, and then ended with the chilling words: “Not one too many died for the Fatherland.” The memorial to the alumni of the University of Berlin killed in the war bore the motto “Invictis Victi Victuri”, which oracular and ambiguous words could possibly be taken to mean, “To the unconquered from the conquered, who will themselves conquer.”Even so, in Berlin as well as Paris and London, the 1920s were a time of hedonistic oblivion, as if to put the horrors out of mind
. But there was also a reaction, beginning again with this paper. In 1922, Montague published a book about the war, Disenchantment – whose title conveys its disillusioned dismay at the murderous folly with which the war had been fought, and disappointment at its political consequences. He was a forerunner. At the end of the decade, by an accident of publishing history, though maybe a significant one, came a clutch of books that have shaped our consciousness of the war ever since: Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon, Her Privates We by Frederic Manning and RC Sheriff’s play Journey’s End. Besides those was a very famous German novel, All Quiet on the Western Front by EM Remarque
. All were published between 1928 and 1930, and all told the same story of appalling and fruitless carnage.
When the war had begun, it was greeted poetically, but not at all in the way we now think. Few today recall the poet Rupert Brooke when he saw his generation “as swimmers into cleanness leaping, / Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary”. Julian Grenfell’s poem Into Battle, much anthologised at the time, is now even harder to stomach: “And he is dead who will not fight; / And who dies fighting has increase.”
Less than a year after the war began, Grenfell and Brooke were both dead, and within three more years – after the carnage of Loos and the Somme and Passchendaele – their lines seemed repugnant. To be told that your menfolk had died bravely in a good cause was one thing. To be told that death had “cleansed” or “increased” them was another.We remember instead Wilfred Owen, who was only really discovered some years after a war in whose very last days he was killed: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” His subject, he said, was “the pity of war”, and “the old lie” that it is sweet to die for your country. And those other war poets, Graves, Blunden, Sassoon, who survived to write memoirs, likewise wrote poetry which is savage, bitter, and angry.
Among the most trenchant critics of the war’s misconduct while it was still under way was none other than Winston Churchill. In the first months of fighting, he was dismayed by the sight of sterile trench war, where “Tommies chew barbed wire in Flanders”. On 1 August 1916, a month to the day after the opening of the Battle of the Somme, he wrote a savage confidential critique of the offensive, detailing how little had been achieved, and at what enormous cost.
Churchill befriended Siegfried Sassoon, and used one of his poems as an epigraph to one chapter in a book about the war. He later wrote a preface to a harrowing documentary novel about a man unjustly court-martialled and shot for cowardice. The World Crisis, his ostensible history of the first world war – which the former Conservative prime minister AJ Balfour called “Winston’s brilliant Autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe” – is largely an indictment of the foolish strategy of the allied generals, not least Douglas Haig. In the late 1930s Churchill tried to combat the revulsion from war that gripped England, but he had played his own part in fostering the belief that the Great War had been a bad war, in means if not ends.A German tank crew surrendering at El Alamein in 1942. Photograph: Fotosearch/Getty Images
* * *
After those shifts in the perceptions of the Great War – intense grief with some manner of acceptance, and then repugnance – another war began, and reshaped memories of the earlier war all over again. Churchill was central to this. He never used a phrase as trite as “the good war”, but in his very first speech as prime minister in May 1940 he defined his policy simply: “To wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.” This would be, if ever there was, a conflict between darkness and light, evil and virtue.
In the process, the Great War was still further disregarded by implicit contrast. The second world war became as glorious and imbued by high moral purpose as the first had been inglorious and futile, with the noble character of the latter imposed on history not least by Churchill’s own immensely successful but highly misleading six-volume history, The Second World War, published in 1948-53.
Besides, there were the war books and movies, heroic and defiant if not actually cheerful, in contrast with the sombre mood of the first world war memoirs. Part of the reason was simple: the British had suffered in the second world war about half the casualties of the Great War, and nothing like the massacres of the western front. But this, too, was misleading.
The nature of war had changed – in western Europe, that is. There were no offensives like the Somme, with hundreds of thousands of riflemen going over the top together to face immediate death. Twenty-five years later, rifle companies were only a fraction of the British Army. Society had also changed: as Churchill was gradually forced to recognise, the fighting quality of the British army was not high. Instead of the ardent volunteers of 1916, the unenthusiastic conscripts of 1941 were citizen soldiers and simply not prepared to suffer the immense casualties those volunteers had endured.
On occasion – at El Alamein, in some Italian battles, in Normandy – combat was very severe for the fighting troops. The great military historian Michael Howard has described how the Salerno landings were no picnic for his battalion of the Coldstream Guards. And there are memoirs such as The Fortress by Raleigh Trevelyan – which echoes Graves and Blunden in depicting the experience of an unusually sensitive and intelligent 20-year-old, barely out of public school, commanding an infantry platoon at Anzio, where the fighting for some weeks in early 1944 was as brutal as the Somme.
But it was still true that British casualties in the second world war were lower than before. And in a curious – not to say ominous – way this made it easier to view that war benignly.
The next major turn in opinion came less than 20 years after VE Day. In 1964 the 50th anniversary of the first world war was marked by a BBC series, The Great War, which remains a landmark in television history. No greater documentary has been made since. Ken Burns’s celebrated documentary on the American Civil War couldn’t include testimony of men who had fought in that war and were still alive. The BBC series could and did.
Moments are still etched in the memory from a first viewing half a century ago. One thoughtful elderly man described the experience of serving in a firing squad, one of more than 300 that executed British soldiers for cowardice or desertion during that war. The rifles were prepared beforehand, half loaded with live ammunition and half with blank and then picked up randomly by solders in the squad. In theory this meant that no rifleman would know whether or not he had fired a bullet at the heart of a fellow soldier. But of course, this veteran said, in a voice impossible to forget, you knew perfectly well when you had fired a live round, because of the recoil.
That series had been preceded in 1963 by AJP Taylor’s rather vulgar book, The First World War: An Illustrated History, and Oh, What a Lovely War!, Joan Littlewood’s musical pasquinade. The latter, which used the songs the Tommies had sung in the trenches, drew on Alan Clark’s 1961 book The Donkeys – a largely fraudulent book, whose title derives from an invented quotation about “lions led by donkeys”, that nevertheless made a mark.
Now the perception of the Great War that had formed in the late 1920s was strengthened all over again. Working-class lads had been sent like sheep to the slaughter by brutal and stupid generals, callously indifferent to the suffering they inflicted, a theme played much later and with repellent facetiousness by Blackadder. The upper classes as a whole stood condemned for wanton bloodshed.
All this, the rediscovery of the horrors of the Great War after half a century, coincided – and may have been connected – with an evolved reception of the second world war. Of course that war loomed large in our lives, we who had been born in the years after it ended. It was hard to avoid in a London still pockmarked by bomb craters. In many ways we were suffused by “the war”, with rattling tales of derring-do by commandos and Desert Rats, while we made our model Spitfires, their top and bottom surfaces painted respectively in camouflage and duck-egg blue.
Although it was already thought in the 1950s that the second world war had been a decent one fought from high motives, it is hard to grasp today how little was made, in the 15 years following VE Day, of what now seems the defining event of that war – what wasn’t yet called the Holocaust. When the historian Raul Hilberg completed the first great work on the subject, The Destruction of the European Jews, in 1955, he had to wait until 1961 for a publisher to accept it.
That was the year of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel, followed four years later by the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt. In 1965, two years after his contemptuous First World War, AJP Taylor published the ostensibly serious, and bestselling, England 1914-1945. In his peroration, he spelled out that beatification of the victory in 1945: “No English soldier who rode with the tanks into liberated Belgium or saw the German murder camps at Dachau or Buchenwald could doubt that the war had been a noble crusade.”
By 1984, when the American broadcaster and writer Studs Terkel published an oral history of the conflict called The Good War, that very phrase had become so natural that Terkel could employ it with some degree of irony. Five years later the Berlin Wall came down, Soviet Russia imploded, and we were told that we could celebrate the End of History – in which the collapse of communism completed the work accomplished by that noble war.
* * * Red Army troops storming an apartment block in Stalingrad during the second world war. Photograph: Georgi Zelma/Getty Images
But all of this meant that the second world war was not only sacralised, it was sanitised and even softened, and that could only be done by forgetting much reality. For one thing, what was that “war”? The military historian Max Hastings has suggested that we should perhaps speak of the second world war not as “the war” but “the wars.” That could be expanded further.
From 1941 to 1945, two vast, historically decisive wars were fought, between Germany and Russia for mastery of eastern Europe, and between Japan and the United States for mastery of the western Pacific. Other countries played minor parts, ignominious in the case of Italy, admirable in the case of Great Britain, at any rate in 1940, when the British defied Hitler but could not possibly defeat him, until he solved the problem for them and brought about his own doom by invading Russia in June 1941 and then declaring war on the United States (and not the other way round, be it noted) in December.Those two truly great wars – the Eastern Front and the Pacific – offer fascinating comparisons and contrasts.
One was by far and away the mightiest land war ever seen, the other the greatest sea war. What they also had in common was that neither could possibly be called a “noble crusade”.
By its end, the best summary of the European war was Stalin’s. The old monster had a gift of phrase, and he got it right when he said, “England provided the time, America provided the money, and Russia provided the blood.”
The blood did indeed flow very freely in the east. Human life was always cheap in Russia, but never cheaper than “under socialism”. To be sure, the Red Army defeated the Third Reich on behalf of us all, but then the Russian army fought – or perhaps “was fought” – with a savage discipline and a total disregard for casualties that would have been impossible in a democracy, that helps explain why nine million Russian soldiers were killed.
Much has been made of the fact that during the Great War, more than 300 British soldiers were executed; they were somewhat pointlessly granted a posthumous pardon by the then defence secretary Des Browne in 2006. But who remembers the more than 300,000 Russian soldiers shot for cowardice in 1941-45, 12,500 of them at Stalingrad alone? As Marshal Zhukov said, with a touch of dry Bolshevik humour, it took a very brave man to be a coward in the Red Army.
When the Red Army reached Germany it celebrated victory with the worst act of mass rape in history
Although the western allies talked of fighting for democracy, National Socialist Germany and Soviet Socialist Russia were both bestial tyrannies that fought with total barbarism. The Germans butchered Jews wherever they went, and when the Red Army reached Germany it celebrated victory with the worst act of mass rape in history.And that other mighty war – the one fought in the Pacific?
Much of the story of our time can be understood in terms of what the former Italian prime minister Giovanni Giolitti once called the “beautiful national legends” that sustain a country. Almost all of the countries that took part in the second world war constructed their own legends after the fact. The most brilliant of these was surely Charles de Gaulle’s preposterous but healing myth that, apart from a handful of traitors, the French people had all been resistants at heart.
But the most subtle, and most consequential, rewriting of the war was the one conducted in America – so subtle indeed that most people are unaware of it. The US journalist Dwight Macdonald famously opposed the war, but even those who disagree with that position would find it hard to deny that the running commentary he produced on its conduct was consistently illuminating. “Not the least ironical aspect of this most ironical of wars,” he wrote in early 1945, was the fact that “the war in the Pacific has always been more popular with all classes of Americans than the war in Europe.” That was entirely true, and has been almost entirely forgotten. For most of the time from December 1941 to August 1945, for most Americans, “the war” meant the war against Japan, a war that in hindsight is hard to endow with high moral purpose.
As Macdonald said, even critics like himself recognised that in Europe “fascism was the most terrible enemy. But the war in the Pacific is a straight imperialist conflict of the classic old pattern”. The Japanese had no right to be in the Philippines or Malaya or Java. But what right did the Americans or British or Dutch? More than that, the Americans were inflamed by a racial hatred of the Japanese. This was given bizarre voice by Paul McNutt, President Roosevelt’s manpower commissioner, who advocated “the extermination of the Japanese in toto”, and practical expression by the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.Hiroshima. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS
But perceptions of the war changed as their focus shifted westward: Churchill’s Second World War, which sold in vast numbers in America, gives an utterly distorted picture with its Anglocentric (and egocentric) perspective, almost ignoring the Pacific war and the eastern front as well. But it proved convenient for Americans as well as the British. Churchill’s misleading implication that Roosevelt and his people were all along eager for war with Nazi Germany, and his fantasy about an Anglo-American “special relationship”, allowed Americans to believe that the war was all about defeating Hitler – and about saving his victims. The growing importance of the Holocaust in American Life, as the late historian Peter Novick titled his book on the subject, only made it easier for Americans to see the second world war as a black-and-white moral fable – rendered literally so in the films of Steven Spielberg.
As only a few critics noted at the time of its release in 1993, Schindler’s List presents a version of the second world war that is historically and ethically misleading. “Only Steve could make a movie about the Holocaust in which no Jews are killed,” Stanley Kubrick said. Jason Epstein, writing in the New York Review of Books, showed how questionable it was to make a hero out of a figure as ambiguous as Oskar Schindler, and to tell a heartwarming story of a few thousand saved rather than the millions murdered.
One man who claimed to be profoundly affected by the film – in a way that may even have changed history – was Tony Blair, who saw the movie just before he became Labour leader in 1994. “I was spellbound throughout the whole three and a quarter hours,” he said. “We sat through it, missed our dinner, and talked about it long into the night.”
What Blair drew from the film was a moral, that there can be no “bystanders” in any conflict between good and evil: “You participate, like it or not. You take sides by inaction as much as by action … Not very practical is it, as a reaction? The trouble is it’s how I feel,” he said. “Whether such reactions are wise in someone charged with leading a country is another matter” – which seems a fair question.
He would say later that “you go back to the 30s, to the start of the persecution of the Jewish people, the murders and the wholesale plunder of their wealth and you think these things were there in 1935, 1934 even, and it was only in 1939 that they got round to doing something. They said this has got to be stopped. I think there are some interesting reflections on all that.”
So there are, if not perhaps the reflections he intends. Great Britain did not, of course, go to war in 1939 to save the Jews from persecution, and if that had been the purpose, we would not have succeeded. On the other hand, if the lesson of the Shoah and the second world war was that we must “participate, like it or not,” then it would seem in seriousness that this cult of the Good War has continued to have dreadful consequences in our own day.
That is an extreme case of misreading the second world war – and ennobling “good wars”. What, above all, characterised the 1939-45 war was the fact that so many more civilians than soldiers were killed, something that should have a special resonance in Britain – because the most distinctive British contribution to the war was the bombing that destroyed the cities of Germany and killed hundreds of thousands, mostly women and children. By some counts, those civilians outnumbered the British servicemen who died.
In December 1914, German warships bombarded Scarborough on the North Yorkshire coast, killing a number of civilians. Churchill denounced the German navy, saying that “the stigma of the baby killers of Scarborough will brand its officers and men while sailors sail the sea”. What was he branded with 30 years later, when 100,000 German children had been killed by RAF Bomber Command?
Our generation is exceptionally ill-placed to deride or condemn those who fought in the Great War
Not only is our reverence for the “good war” a sentimental misprision, our generation is exceptionally ill-placed to deride or condemn those who fought in the Great War. This is a worse than usual case of the condescension of posterity. The idea that the upper class sacrificed the sons of the poor is plainly untrue. A junior officer on the western front was three times more likely to be killed than a private soldier, and the 21,000 British dead on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme, included 30 officers of the rank of lieutenant colonel or above.
One little-remembered detail of the Great War is that between 1914 and 1918 no fewer than 22 sitting members of parliament were killed in action – a fraction of the MPs who served. There were 85 sons of MPs killed, including the eldest son of Herbert Asquith, the Liberal prime minister when the war began, and two sons of Andrew Bonar Law, the Tory leader of the opposition.
It is almost too easy – though not unfair – to compare this record to that of the governments that have launched our more recent good wars, beginning with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in which no minister of any rank would dream of volunteering. Nor, as far as I know, have any of the journalists who cheered those wars followed the example of CE Montague and joined up themselves.
At the time of the Iraq war, many seemed to be deluded by the idea that we couldn’t be bystanders and “must participate”, to the point they failed to see the true way in which an Iraq war would resemble the “good” second world war rather then the “bad” first world war. The overwhelming majority of those killed in Iraq since 2003 have been civilians, many of them killed by western bombing.Maybe there is no such thing as a good war, but there may be necessary wars, and a case can be made for 1914 as well as 1939
, which cannot be said of our latest wars. What passing-bells for the Iraqis who die as cattle? No, our generation had best stand silent as we remember the days when our rulers were at least prepared to die in the wars they began.
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Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of Yo, Blair! and the Strange Death of Tory England
• This article was amended on 10 December 2014 to correct a line from Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen. It has been corrected to say: “shall grow not old as we that are left grow old”.