Monday, 20 January 2014

WWI - Tories Try to Turn an Imperial Bloodbath into A Just War

It's the opening month of the centenary year of the outbreak of World War I and the Conservative government, via Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has already launched its ideological offensive on how we should remember that war. This is unsurprising in itself, of course, given this government's desire to promote a school history curriculum that tells a narrow heroic 'island story' that sanitises the past and is designed, in PM Cameron's view, to make Britain 'feel good' about the War.

I reprint below Michael Gove's article in the Daily Mail newspaper in which the just war case is made, as is the claim that Germany's elite was alone to blame for the war, and that Britain was right to resist aggression against the 'international order'. Despite my belief that this argument is fundamentally problematic, it is as well to keep it in mind as this year, and the next several, unfolds because it will be repeated ad nauseum.

And to take such dominant viewpoints on, it's important first to understand them. I have highlighted sections and phrases that appear especially critical to Gove's argument. But immediately below I've tried to put it in a nutshell:

The war is relevant for the world order and British foreign policy today
The war was patriotic and therefore just
Those who fought in it were consciously fighting for King and Country
Anyone who dares challenge this is wrong and usually left wing (and therefore always wrong) and challenges our nation's story
The Germans were ruthlessly bent on global domination due to their social Darwinism
We were protecting a civilised world order based on freedom to which we owe our current freedoms

So please 'enjoy'!

Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?

By MICHAEL GOVE, Education Secretary
The past has never had a better future. Because history is enjoying a renaissance in Britain. After years in which the study of history was declining in our schools, the numbers of young people showing an appetite for learning about the past, and a curiosity about our nation’s story, is growing once more.

As a Government, we’ve done everything we can to support this restoration. We’ve changed how schools are judged, and our new measure of academic success for schools and pupils, the English  baccalaureate, rewards those who study history at GCSE.

And the changes we’ve made to the history curriculum have been welcomed by top academics as a way to give all children a proper rounded understanding of our country’s past and its place in the world.
Captain Coward: Tony Robinson as Private Baldrick, left, and Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder in the titular sit-com, which Education Secretary Michael Gove blames for distorting attitudes about the First World War
Captain Coward: Tony Robinson as Private Baldrick, left, and Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder in the titular sit-com, which Education Secretary Michael Gove blames for distorting attitudes about the First World War


That understanding has never been needed more. Because the challenges  we face today – great power rivalry, migrant populations on the move, rapid social upheaval, growing global  economic interdependence, massive technological change and fragile confidence in political elites – are all  challenges our forebears faced.

Indeed, these particular forces were especially powerful one hundred years ago – on the eve of the First World War. Which is why it is so important that  we commemorate, and learn from, that conflict in the right way in the next  four years.

The Government wants to give young people from every community the chance to learn about the heroism, and sacrifice, of our great-grandparents, which is why we are organising visits to the battlefields of the Western Front.

The war was, of course, an unspeakable tragedy, which robbed this nation of our bravest and best.  But even as we recall that loss and commemorate the bravery of those who fought, it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict.

Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country  and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.

The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.
Professor Sir Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian and Guardian writer, has criticised those who fought, arguing, ‘the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong’.

And he has attacked the very idea of honouring their sacrifice as an exercise in ‘narrow tub-thumping jingoism’. These arguments are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.
The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war. Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford, laid out the ethical case for our involvement in a superb essay in September’s Standpoint magazine.

The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.
And the war was also seen by participants as a noble cause. Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.
Other historians have gone even further in challenging some prevailing myths.

Generals who were excoriated for their bloody folly have now, after proper study, been re-assessed.

Douglas Haig, held up as a crude butcher, has been seen in a new light thanks to Professor Gary Sheffield, of Wolverhampton University, who depicts him as a patriotic leader grappling honestly with the new complexities of industrial warfare.
Even the battle of the Somme, once considered the epitome of military futility, has now been analysed in depth by the military historian William Philpott and recast as a precursor of allied victory.
Rehabilitated: Even Field Marshal Douglas Haig, popularly known as 'the butcher of the Somme', has been seen in a new light thanks to Professor Gary Sheffield, of Wolverhampton University, writes Gove
Rehabilitated: Even Field Marshal Douglas Haig, popularly known as 'the butcher of the Somme', has been seen in a new light thanks to Professor Gary Sheffield, of Wolverhampton University, writes Gove


There is, of course, no unchallenged consensus. That is why it matters that we encourage an open debate on the war and  its significance.

But it is important to recognise that many of the new analyses emerging challenge existing Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.
Instead, they help us to understand that, for all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage.

Indeed, the more we reflect on every aspect of the war, the more cause there is for us to appreciate what we owe to our forebears and their traditions.

But whatever each of us takes from these acts of remembrance and hours of debate it is always worth remembering that the freedom to draw our own conclusions about this conflict is a direct consequence of the bravery of men and women who fought for, and believed in, Britain’s special tradition of liberty.



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