Tuesday, May 12, 2020

How wars end

There's a curmudgeonly strand of the left that sneers at celebrations and patriotic sentimentalism. It mocks the street parties and denies the validity of popular pleasure. This joyless, censorious, and snobbish miserablism is a self-hating and self-righteous product of the 'anti-imperialist' left. However much I loathe it, I still felt uneasy about last weekend's brand new VE Day bank holiday.

It's new because the Conservative right have long hated the May Day holiday, which they associated with the European left. They've wanted an alternative for ages. The 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe was the perfect opportunity for them to ditch it. May Day was cancelled to be replaced by VE Day. The quiet dignity of Remembrance Sunday, commemorating the end of World War I, was to be eschewed in favour of public parties and singalongs. Officially sanctioned fun is not my thing and I was astonished that the call for celebrations was not cancelled because of the pandemic. But that wasn't the reason why I was uncertain.

I had a number of minor concerns, but they weren't the most important. It's imperative to commemorate the defeat of fascism in Europe, though I would have favoured solemnity over kitsch. This touching essay by Otto English about his father echoes with some of the stories I grew up hearing from my family. But then my response is personal and I wouldn't condemn anyone who enjoyed a knees-up celebrating the defeat of the Nazis.

Then there is our unhealthy relationship with the Second World War. It's divorced from the reality of experience and expressed in nationalist myths, such as us the one about us 'standing alone.' This was never true, even in 1940. Instead, we were part of an immense international collaborative effort. David Edgerton demolishes this particular one here.

These always bother me, but there was something that mattered more this time. It's about what shapes our attitude towards wars more generally. The way we remember is often decided by how wars end - not just victory or defeat, but the way they finished and by their consequences. 

VE Day wasn't the end of the Second World War. It lasted for another three months with vast loss of life. It wasn't over until the Japanese surrender on August 15th. Why don't we have a party for VJ Day instead? Part of the reason may be that making VJ Day the most significant commemoration would be to celebrate the use of the nuclear weapons. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made the Japanese surrender. Nuclear war feels qualitatively different to the conventional methods that, despite their horrors, defeated Germany. It would be uncomfortable to approach this anniversary with anything other than solemnity and ambiguity.  

And then there's the First World War. Our image of it isn't shaped by the allied victory, but by the war that followed twenty-one years later. Much of the trope about the war's futility springs from its failure to secure a long-lasting peace. Whether rightly or wrongly, we talk about the failure of Versailles and remember the experience of the trenches, as seen through the filter of the literature it produced. We remember "the pity of war," its tragedy rather than its triumph.

How about a much more recent example? The Iraq war is rarely mentioned without the adjective 'disastrous' being tacked on to it. Why when an aggressive and murderous fascist regime was removed remarkably swiftly and efficiently? The answer lies in the post-war chaos, which was neither expected nor planned for. If a relatively stable, democratic republic had emerged from the war, it wouldn't be controversial. 

In contrast, VE Day is easy to celebrate. Not only was an unambiguous evil defeated, but the consequences, in Western Europe anyway, were benign. This didn't happen by chance. The successful post-war settlement rested on the deliberate building of national collectivist institutions - welfare states, universal health care, liberal democracy, mixed economies - and frameworks for international collaboration - most notably the European Union that Churchill repeatedly advocated in the aftermath of the war. The victory was the basis on which peace was built. And this is the reason for my misgivings. The government that was cheerleading socially distanced congas is ideologically opposed to much of the settlement that made the war one to celebrate.

We have already, tragically, left the European Union. This was the right's key demand. They have other targets now. The BBC, whose war-time role was vital, is subject to continuous attack. But the pandemic has provided a surprise defence. The welfare state has shown its worth. Collective action to secure incomes holds back the worst of the economic crisis, while the disease has mobilised the vast public sentiment behind the NHS. The right's ideological commitment remains, but will be much more politically difficult to achieve. In the middle of the economic dislocation caused by the virus, it's hard to see much popular enthusiasm for Brexit, especially for ending the transition earlier than necessary without a deal. 

And that's why I felt ambiguous. The government that was promoting celebrations wanted to dismantle much of what was worth celebrating, all under the cover of popular patriotism. It made me sad. It made me sad about the loss of our EU membership and about the state of the public sector. It compounded my anxiety about the future. And while I could celebrate the liberation of Europe, I was also mourning the casual way with which we are treating the gains that the sacrifices of the previous generation brought us. Rather than being a celebration of the past, VE Day in 2020 was, in David Reiff's phrase, "little more than the present in drag." And it's a present that I don't like.

1 comment:

looby said...

Interesting and enjoyable as usual Peter, thank you.

I'm delighted to see the virus doing at least some good, into forcing the Tories into enacting at least temporary policies that no recent Labour party would have been able to implement. Though of course, on the quiet, under the radar, they're still closing fire stations and freezing NHS pay awards.

Your captchas are very hard Peter. Any chance of easing them as our eyesignt collectively worsens?