Monday, 5 May 2014

WWI: Commemoration or excuse for soap operas?

Most reviews of the Crimson Field, the latest new programme from the BBC`s First World War centenary season stated correctly that it was "an opportunistic mishmash", with pretty girls, "predictable lines" and, of course, a very sanitised  view of the war.Isn`t this exactly what many people feared the centenary commemorations would lead to, the unrealistic portrayal of war, more Mills and Boon than realism, romantic history rather than accuracy? Unless war is going to be shown with all of its terror and horrors, the result will be misleading, and the message confusing.Commemorations are better without political point-scoring,and the parties` leading lights competing with each other for the most sincere speech, or the most nationalist and patriotic soundbite.
     Politicians clearly prefer for the people and their children to be spoon-fed a false version of history; it has proved successful before. Didn`t the royalist, jingoistic and imperialist history churned out at the turn of the last century play an important role in providing politicians with the cannon-fodder needed for the slaughter in the 1914-18 war? Doesn`t Gove want schools` history today to be based on rote-learning of chronological facts rather than evaluation and analysis? Young people who think in too much depth about wars tend not to be their most avid supporters!  
    The news that the Ministry of Defence has recently attempted to suppress the publication of a book* which describes how aggressive tactics of the British forces, such as using huge amounts of air strikes and dropping tons of explosives, with inevitable civilian casualties, caused the Afghans to hate the British more than the Taliban, is,sadly, not surprising. Gove`s examination proposals for History, which increase British content to 40%, suggest that the aim is for students to study what ideological politicians decide what is best for them, rather than what should be deemed essential for growing up in the 21st century. The idea that Britain only ever fights "just" wars is, apparently, one which must be drummed into pupils` heads, whatever analysis of the evidence shows, and it looks like broadcasters are the government`s willing partners in the case of the first world war. With television presenters cashing in on the centenary with their "history" books, the public appear to be getting a raw deal.
    Jeremy Paxman has recently commented about "British generals struggling to fill a trench" because young people are "bubble-wrapped by a feckless culture", but it`s not so much the "changing nature of warfare" that is the reason for the war-weariness of the country, and the young in particular, but the lack of trust for politicians. The undertaking to send our soldiers into unwinnable and unecessary wars, often for reasons which politicians have deliberately created to generate both jingoistic support and exaggerated fear of the so-called "enemy", allied  to Britain`s position in world affairs as America`s poodle, at her beck and call to appease her rightwing bias and warmongering defence industry, go a long way to explain why the young are "war-shy". Could this be the underlying reason for many of the education reforms, and the continued justification for supporting Britain`s aggressive foreign policy?  
     Just because Downton Abbey provides millions every week with something alluding to the establishment`s view of how servants lived, does not mean that the first world war should get similar treatment. A huge disservice to the millions who died and suffered will be done unless dramas about the war actually show the true horror; how could there be a dressing station or field hospital near the front without terrifying noises, filth and blood? Do we want to send yet another generation to war who know little about the realities of past wars?
      The truth is that wars are so horrific no-one should be able to watch dramas about them without being shocked and horrified. If the television companies are going to take part in the war commemoration, they need to remember that they have a responsibility to history; it is not an excuse to celebrate war!

* An Intimate War -An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict by Dr Mike Martin

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