In Britain over the last weeks and months we’ve been inundated with a succession of memorial events about the First World War, or Great War, or War to End All Wars (which patently failed to achieve that aim, at least). In many ways this has been very appropriate. Until recently, thinking about WWI tended to be overshadowed by memorialisation of, and academic work on, WWII: more immediate, more accessible to recent memory, and a conflict in which the moral lines — at least to contemporary eyes — seem a good deal clearer. Having attention turned to the moral (and physical) quagmire of WWI seems right, and if any occasion for doing so is right, it’s surely the centenary of the outbreak.
Moreover, I’ve appreciated the stalwart efforts of institutions like the BBC, not known for their radical credentials, to include the alternative perspectives on the conflict. There have been programmes on women in the war, on the (non-white) colonial citizens who fought and died for the motherland, and on the conscientious objectors to the fighting. On the long evening of 4 August, when the BBC walked us thorough the official commemoration of the outbreak of war, we did so in the company of Shirley Williams, daughter of Vera Brittain (the author of the scalding “Testament of Youth”), who had a few caustic things to say — live and unstoppable on air — about war, women, and memorialisation.
There is something I am finding disturbing, though, and its exact nature has surprised me. Virtually all of the commemoration events have been focused on the human impact, the subjective experiences of those who went through the fighting or their families who coped with the aftermath; and again I think it’s a good thing to ensure these stories don’t vanish from sight. What’s happening, though, is that these personal accounts are corralled within some very restrictive scripts. Men who marched away, particularly if young, were heroic and deluded and made the ultimate sacrifice. Bereaved families were devastated. Families struggled but stayed together. Their descendants, present at the commemorative events, are invariably proud.
It would be nice if those accounts could be leavened by the counterstories. Of the women who were liberated by the disappearance of the male breadwinner because they were able, at least for a while, to take up the men’s jobs and who, like my grandmother, never looked back. Of the women who, while not wishing their violent and abusive man dead, were nonetheless mighty relieved when he never made it back home. Or of the men, like my grandfather, who made it alive through the war largely because (as far as we can make out) they spent a significant amount of it in the brig.
This isn’t to say that only the worst of the stories should be told either. It’s just that it would be good (actually, more than that: it’s necessary) for anyone interested in the rights and wrongs of war and violence to deal with the full range of ambiguity and ambivalence, whether in history or in contemporary sites of conflict.