Should Britain spend £55m to commemorate the first world war?
The government has come under fire for its costly plans to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war in 2014. Historian Hew Strachan and novelist AL Kennedy debate the issue
Hew Strachan, professor in history of war
Nobody in government is using the word "celebrate". There is a natural and proper sensitivity with regard to any triumphalism, about the first world war as about any war. But there is of course an educational and historical challenge.
Britain entered this war conscientiously and reluctantly, for good strategic reasons, but also for ones that reflected its understanding of international law, and its determination to uphold the rights of small and neutral nations. The cabinet's members may not have realised the full cost of what they were undertaking, but they did not underestimate the momentousness of the decision or its potentially awful cost for Europe.
By the time the cabinet was sufficiently united to commit itself to the conflict, it was lagging behind the weight of public opinion. Moreover, ultimately Britain and its allies won the war. That victory, however flawed we may now in hindsight think it was, is just as much part of the legacy of the war as its loss of life.
So, as so often with issues surrounding war, (and the current situation in Syria can only serve to re-emphasise the point) the choice to fight involves balancing which is the less bad of two evils. The real challenge of the centenary will be whether we take the opportunity provided by the controversies that the first world war still generates to debate that point.
If we can use this war to understand war better, to think through when we may – albeit reluctantly – have to fight and when we should not, we shall have given the commemoration of the first world war a purpose that will honour those who served in it.
AL Kennedy, writer
I find myself unable to be so optimistic. It would be wonderful if the government did take this as an opportunity "to understand war better" – but successive governments have now spent 100 years failing to do so.
One of the world's major arms exporters would find it tricky, for example, to really discuss the implications of basing one's economy on equipment that requires war.
Meanwhile, the dead become Glorious, the Cenotaph a clean and noble monument. This happens with any war: initially those who can remember may not wish to, witnesses slowly die, politicians love to appropriate the bravery of others. I'll believe you on the figures and hope the educational work is of high quality. But I also know our political classes now take pride in being faith – and not reality-based.
In the absence of those who served, they can appropriate a historical event during which (among many other things) under-educated public schoolboys led the suitably enthused masses into harm's way and rebrand it, at public expense, into a degrading force multiplier for armed forces still used as political and economic pawns.
The first world war was a dirty and complex bloodbath. The swagger and display that recruited young men to be destroyed at Ypres and the Somme, even the carefully choreographed moments of remembrance, will most likely be used to avoid discussion.
Hew Strachan: I am sure that it is not the government's intention to appropriate the first world war for the purposes that you suggest, and I say that because the Ministry of Defence has been clear throughout that it should not be the lead institution in the commemoration; that is not going to be the case in all the other countries marking the centenary.
The ministry that has been given the co-ordinating role is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with the clear emphasis on the first of those three assorted missions. This reflects the centrality of the Imperial War Museum in the government's thinking, since the museum is under the aegis of the culture department.
Indeed, I would be tempted to say that the government's view was, certainly, initially, much closer to yours than you think. If, by referring to the Cenotaph, you are reflecting a fear that what will happen will be "Remembrance Sunday writ large" (if I can be forgiven for quoting myself), I share it.
The Cenotaph does, however, make two points we need to bear in mind. First, in the immediate aftermath of the war it spoke so powerfully to the bereaved that what was intended to be a temporary structure became a permanent one. By belittling its emotional pull we remove one connection to those who suffered directly because of this war.
The second arises precisely because of that connection. None of us alive today has any memory of this war, and so we should be wary of imposing a uniform interpretation on it. Then, even more than now, there were many competing narratives. It is these, in all their variety, that we need to unlock. The power of the Cenotaph's "clean and noble" face was that it was one on to which so many of them could be projected.
AL Kennedy: Your faith in the powers that be is touching and to be expected. I do find it naive that you imagine all will be well when the government overseeing commemorations has repeatedly been upbraided for the manipulation of factual information for its own ends.
George Osborne's use of the six dead Philpott children to promote his own agenda was simply another example of an established political device – the manipulation of the voiceless.
The government agenda is depressingly uniform when it comes to making history available and whether the MoD takes the lead or not, it will provide the visible underpinning for the spectacle and will, as it has for centuries, promote its available brands with efficiency and style.
I'm sure the Imperial War Museum (IWM) will be a great resource, it always is, but if we only consider that education and museum budgets are being slashed and standards of curation are hard to maintain, those unable to visit will probably be poorly served elsewhere. The other, wider histories will only be provided by ad hoc, alternative events.
I am more alarmed than you by the involvement of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, rather than Education. Your emphasis – measured, calm, untriumphal – sells the educational benefits of remembering. And those benefits are, of course, incalculably precious. But this is being packaged as a cultural event, something more about influence, spectacle and spin.
Hew Strachan: I don't underestimate the capacity of government to spin or manipulate, but it has taken those of us who work with bodies associated with the commemoration and understanding of the war more than two years to get to the point where it has fully woken to its responsibilities. It cannot be accused of malign intent, only of incipient neglect. The fact that so many other governments have been planning for much longer and on a more lavish scale gave that of Britain no choice, politically or diplomatically, other than to be involved.
AL Kennedy: War in its absence is always impossible to convey and our cultural love affair with it after the event continues. The pain fades and is redirected, often with, if not malign, then certainly with selfish intent.
The Cenotaph is a highly emotive and yet increasingly undefined symbol. Its simplicity was wise – millions of experiences could be rested upon it with dignity. But it has always been appropriated.
In the early 1920s a "spirit photographer", Ada Deane, conned the nation for a while with faked pictures purportedly showing the returned dead around the Cenotaph on Armistice Day. She used the pain of the bereaved and the sacrifice of the fallen to promote a deeply flawed world view and her own popularity. I have no reason to believe that my current leaders will not do the same next year.
It's too late to give the veterans the £10m and they didn't get their land fit for heroes – something approaching that was finally won by the generation who came through the second world war.
The last of that inheritance is being sold at bargain rates and citizens are increasingly being offered simplistic spectacle in the place of good governance and public service. I'm happy that discussions around the commemoration will bring other options to light.
AL Kennedy is a signatory of the No Glory in War open letter. Read the letter and add your name here...
Source: The Guardian