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celebrating war




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- celebrating war
- painting peace – the peace machine
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- when the rain returns
- working together to arm the globe
- G8 countries spending on arms

Prince Charles and wife pretending to shoot down planes In the ‘living museum’ in Regents Park

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WHATEVER ‘militarism’ means, few people these days will put their hands up in support of it. Indeed, most people who think about it are likely to condemn it. It’s associated with fascism and Nazism, for a start. Before that, one of the excuses for the First World War was the crushing of Prussian ‘militarism’. Prussia has gone now: first embraced by Hitler, then incorporated into a Germany now deeply unenthusiastic for military adventures.

Indeed it is likely that few people today think of the military as representing the forward progress of their society as a whole. Few think of civilian populations as dependent on the military and therefore subservient to military needs and goals. But perhaps that’s an old-fashioned notion of militarism. There’s no doubt, for example, that modern America’s brand of militarism is deeply entrenched in its economy, its world-view, and its cultural idioms. Militarism is adept in concealing itself – though, once noticed, it becomes, in one guise or another, increasingly easy to find.

Computer spellcheckers are famous for the comical alternatives they throw up, programmed as they are by the cultural bias of the dictionaries on which they are based. My software, despite my best efforts, defaults to what it calls US English. Should I type ‘unknown’ and ‘soldier’, the computer insists on ‘Unknown Soldier’. Well, most people won’t have reason to link those two words very often, but who knows, there may be a few students in America who have absorbed the subliminal message that what the words represent is ‘important’.

Brainwashing takes many forms. Young Britons can measure their increasing height using the ‘Growing Soldier Growth Chart’: ticking off the inches (no foreign centimetres) against a roll-up lifesize picture of a smiling soldier. He wears a red coat and bearskin, has medals on his chest and a sergeant’s stripe on his shoulder, and holds a harmless-looking toy gun. You’re never too young to be made comfortable about soldiers, war medals, and guns.

So what about the children who took part in the international Drumhead Ceremony at Portsmouth, after the Trafalgar naval love-in between the Red fleet and the Blue? What did they make of this military religious service? Here the saviours of souls joined with the destroyers of bodies to justify war. Crosses and guns were, as so often, comfortable together, and in the flypast overhead screaming jets released their jets of red, white and blue smoke to seal the patriotic pact.

According to the Guardian, people had come ‘to remember those who had made the ultimate sacrifice’. Why is this phrase so rarely challenged? Why is it only used of those who were killed in war, and rarely of people who have died, say, in attempting to rescue somebody? The words override the real crime, the real outrage, of uniformed men being sent to unnecessary death. And remembrance of Trafalgar’s dead was invoked to justify yet another massive parade of military hardware and a ‘re-creation’ of 1805’s brutal killing with the added treat of a ‘spectacular’ firework display.

When they are a safe distance from it, people seem to enjoy war. Here we are now in St James’s Park, and here are the Prince of Wales (son of the armed forces’ C-in-C) and his wife putting an anti-aircraft gun through its paces a stone’s throw from the royal gates. The Park’s week-long display ‘to mark the end of the Second World War’ was, according to the organisers and without conscious irony, ‘a living museum’. Its emphasis was ‘on realism, to make the Second World War relevant’– especially to the young.

And ‘making war relevant, especially to the young’ is the standard explanation for most displays or promotion of any amount of pretentious military tackle. This year’s high-profile ‘marking’ of the Second World War is hard to escape from. It’s disturbing to see impressionable young children invited to be fascinated by it – and pressed to ‘remember’ something they never knew and which they should be helped to understand and deplore.

Norman is a sprightly old veteran with the statutory chestful of medals. He marches alone for the camera, round a vast empty playground, before planting his flag in the middle of the school gymnasium. ‘What was the war like?’ asks a young lad. ‘I was told to go, so I had to go, and that was it,’ says Norman, emphasising the last point with a jabbing finger. This was the lesson Norman was teaching. Let’s hope it won’t be well learned. Not militarism in its old-fashioned, full-blooded sense, certainly, but still a powerful mix of blind respect for authority and acceptance of martial values.
And doubtless the same respect and acceptance is being ‘taught’ by the military as its representatives visit schools up and down the country in search of future recruits. Their task is always harder in times of full employment but much harder at time of war: soldiering as a means of getting a job or a trade is one thing, but front-line dealings in death have little appeal to most teenagers. The days of patriotic cannon fodder are over: which is why money is lavished on expensive hi-tech war-at-a-distance. But it seems that the military still need ‘men on the ground’, willing to risk that ‘ultimate sacrifice’.

Norman fingers his medals. ‘You’ve got freedom now,’ he tells the schoolchildren, ‘and you must make sure you don’t lose it.’ He’s right on message. ‘They died that we might live’, as the British Legion would put it. But isn’t it time the old soldiers, and the people who parade them for their own financial and political interests, stopped guilt-tripping the young? Some impressionable, sensitive children could be in danger of feeling guilty for being alive.

Ah well, the Minister of Defence no doubt approves. Although John Reid denies it, we know that the development of Britain’s so-called ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent will go ahead. Is this the world 50 million people died for in World War Two: so that ‘we’ can have weapons capable of incinerating a million at a time? It is civilians, now, who are killed in large numbers by war, and no-one speaks of their deaths as ‘the ultimate sacrifice’. How are they to be remembered?

At the heart of the Remembrance business is a dark lie. We are encouraged to think of the world wars in a way that has no relation to their reality. In the process of insisting that we ‘remember’, important truths are obscured. Wars are not inevitable, or the work of ‘evil’ people. They are the product of social systems under the sway of authority and attached to violence: the characteristics of modern militarism. After the world wars, after the genocides, people say ‘Never again’. That’s what we should be ensuring, and not celebrating war in ritual commemorations, solemn pagentry or those shoddy bloodless ‘recreations’.

Jan Melichar




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