What attitude do we take toward those who died fighting on the “wrong” side? Does it make sense to do things in honor of our people who followed the wrong orders and suffered as a result?
Reagan had to deal with this question over the SS cemetery thing: “These men too were victims.”
Yes, they were victims, and many were also perps. Since Nuremberg, it’s pretty well-established that “following orders” doesn’t get you off the hook by itself.
Some are conscripted and subject to the firing squad for insubordination. That’s certainly a mitigating factor. So is being brainwashed and subject to an “economic draft”. All this would give lawyers a jolly time thrashing it out in the courts, if it ever came to the courts.
But let’s go back to the basics: Why do we “honor the dead?” Do the dead care? They’re dead, remember?
Or maybe I should punctuate that differently: “They’re dead. Remember.” But first, a long rant.
When we see ceremonies these days that seem designed to “honor the dead”, it harkens back to a time when, along with belief in dragons, witches, and a geocentric universe, people believed that spirits would haunt them if they didn’t appease them with an offering once in a while. People certainly are still haunted by the spirits of the dead. It’s called a “dream”. In other times, in other cultures, people didn’t make such sharp distinctions between the waking world and the dreaming world as we do.
So why do we still go through such rituals now? It does nothing for the dead, so it must do something for the living, or people wouldn’t do it. I’ll try to trace a certain progression here, hypothetically, from prehistory into history.
“Mom died. If we don’t eat her, the dogs will. Bad enough she died, I don’t want to watch her get torn apart. Better bury her.”
“Mom came to me last night (in a dream, but no real distinction is made, remember) and asked me why I stuck her down in a hole with no food or water.”
“So what are we supposed to do? Keep feeding her after she’s dead and can’t eat?”
“I don’t know. But let’s just bring her a jug of that beer she liked, pour it over the ground and talk to her. Maybe do that once in a while when she asks for it.”
“Chief Hoohah died. Man, we’re gonna have a tough time if those guys in the other village get uppity again. We don’t have our best ass-kicker any more. Better at least bury him with his favorite club. Maybe he’ll find some way to help us out when the time comes. I’ll go to his grave and try to keep him updated on things.”
“The wise old dandruff woman, died. Damn, she taught us a lot and settled a lot of disputes. What are we gonna do without her? Maybe she’ll still talk to us (in our dreams), or we’ll remember what she told us better if we go to her grave once in a while with some figs. She loved figs.
Chief Killemall died. Glad we still have his laws written on these skins, or we’d never remember his rules. They were the best laws anybody’s come up with, and we need to keep them. Once a year, we oughta go to the chief’s grave and remind everybody what an awesome dude he was.
You see what I’ve ended up with here. It does something for the social order to remember the dead. When writing was invented, finally, the dead could really talk to the living, though it’s a one-way conversation. There came to be large accumulations of writings that were held as precious, becoming a body of knowledge, or whatever passed for knowledge, that societies lived by. “Honoring the dead” reinforces that people should pay attention to the writings, or the people who read them, or pretend to read them. “Do this in remembrance of me” so you’ll pay attention to what the priests tell you.
So how does this apply to large numbers of people who died as a group in some disaster, like a war? Many lives were cut short by one event. It’s not as if they all collectively left some writing behind that we need to revere. It’s more to remember the event itself, and whatever lessons we might derive from it. Remembering the Titanic should remind us that industries need regulation. Remembering 9/11 should remind us that all our money and whiz-bang technology won’t keep us safe from a cunning, self-sacrificing bunch of fanatics. Remembering the dead of “The Great War” reminded people how utterly pointless war is for most of the participants, though a few might still use it for jingo purposes.
It’s really just a question of what spin you put on it.
Digression on “The Great War”
Some of my readers might not be aware of what a watershed event “The Great War” was. (WWI, as it was called after the sequel) It’s not on the order of the invention of writing or agriculture, but I’d rank it alongside the rise of Christianity, the Black Death, Newtonian physics, and the assembly line for its influence on Western culture.
If you already know the history, skip ahead to the “Honoring the Dead” heading below.
I’ll start with what basically happened:
Britain, France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Canada, Belgium, Australia, and Bulgaria all lost far more men on the battlefield in the “Great War” than in its much larger sequel. When it ended, there were large areas where roughly a third of the men of military age were dead, and another third permanently injured. That’s one meaning of the phrase “lost generation”. (Notice I said “on the battlefield”. WWII easily overshadows it in other ways.)
In only the first couple of months it matched the cost of any previous European war, and then it went on for another four years. It was a shock to Western society that might be hard to understand now.
Without such an apocalyptic event, it’s likely that certain things would not have happened, or would have happened much later, under different conditions:
— Several socialist revolutions, including the Russian one
— The rise of fascism and all that followed from that
— The loss (at least formally) of European empires around
— The end of most of Europe’s old class system
… and most notably:
— The end of the tremendous respect for the military that had
prevailed in Western society until that time
The last might take some explanation. The battlefield losses were so high in this war, compared to others, mainly because the generals were very slow to catch on to what technology had changed about war. It wasn’t just entrenchment. That had been used very effectively in medieval sieges. It was cheap barbed wire, machine guns, and a cheap, good, repeating rifle in every infantryman’s hands. The generals were very slow about noticing how difficult it was to attack an entrenched enemy, once there had been time to construct two or three lines of defense. Also, the size of armies made it possible to fortify a line several hundred miles long, with no way around it. Massive attacks produced hundreds of thousands dead, with nothing gained on either side, until tanks came to be effective very late in the war.
The immovable front across eastern France (and in other places), and the generals’ continual promises of “victory just around the corner” pretty well ruined the reputation of the military class in Western society.
“The military class”: That’s the old aristocracy, which was very much alive in most of Europe until this time. Part of the ancient social order. Professional thugs who collected taxes and enjoyed many privileges in return for protecting the larger society from other thugs. Religions endorsed their “God-ordained” rule. A man of the aristocracy was considered to be lowering himself if he went into business. The military, on the other hand, was a very “honorable” profession, and Europe’s armies were full of aristocratic officers.
The Great War clearly showed what a failure they were. It also killed or disabled most of their men.
The war’s propagandists had to make it a “War to End All War”, promising the moon and stars, when it became clear that no political advantage for either side could ever be worth the cost of the war.
Causes, as if they mattered…
One could make a pretty convincing case that this war was inevitable, with international relations as they were at the time.
The French wanted revenge for what they had lost in the Franco-Prussian war (a war that the French had started on the silliest of excuses).
The Germans and Austro-Hungarians felt shut out of the global economy, having lost the race for colonies to exploit.
The British were paranoid about Germany’s emerging industrial power, and wished to keep their stranglehold on much of the world’s trade.
The Russians thought it was their God-ordained duty to protect their Slavic, Orthodox brothers in Serbia (with an eye toward expansion in that direction, of course).
Some Serbs wanted a South Slavic empire carved out of the declining Habsburg and Ottoman realms.
As often happens, it was the player with the least power, and the least to lose, who set it off. A secret society of Serbs, connected to the government, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. This was like a 9/11 for Austria.
The Austrian reaction was very 9/11-like, too. Not just “Turn over the perps.” or “Pay some reparations”. They demanded effective rule over Serbia. It was over the top, but that’s what such events lead to. The pattern of alliances then kicked in, and the diplomats tried to work something out. But there was a ticking time bomb on all negotiations.
For geopolitical reasons, the German generals couldn’t wait. Faced with a likely two-front war, there was only one way to survive: Knock out one opponent immediately. The logical one was France, of course, with its industrial base and center of transportation (Paris) so much closer than any such target in Russia. The only real plan they had on file, with detailed railroad timetables and all, meant knocking out France before Russia could fully mobilize. When Russia ordered partial mobilization, it was all over. The Germans had to order full mobilization, and everyone else followed suit.
When it was over….
At the price of putting Western Civilization through a meat grinder, the Serbs had their South Slavic kingdom, “Yugoslavia”, for a time. Congratu…frakking…lations.
France had lost a whole generation and had its northeastern industrial base blown to bits to get Alsace-Lorraine back.
Britain had lost a generation to keep a nominal status quo for twenty years.
The Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires didn’t exist any more.
Germany had lost a generation AND was stuck with a huge “reparations” debt, on top of the crushing war debt, for being the loser. Oh yeah, the German Empire didn’t exist any more either.
Looking back on this, can anyone honestly say that one side or the other was “right”? Pretty safe to say that they were all wrong, actually. The press of the countries involved did their best at the time to demonize the enemy: “German atrocities in Belgium”, and all that. When it’s over, the atrocities all blend together, and they all pale by comparison with the atrocity of the war itself.
Honoring the Dead
Now, in later years, when people erected monuments to the victims of this war and held ceremonies on Veterans Day (or their local equivalent), what point were they making?
Were the Russians saying: “Yeah, don’t spook the Germans. They’re paranoid and will attack any time there’s a military advantage to taking the initiative.”?
Were the Germans saying: “Hey, don’t tie yourself to somebody who’s going to jump off a cliff at a bunch of Balkan terrorists.”?
Were the French saying: “Yeah, it really sucked losing Alsace-Lorraine. It sucked a lot more getting it back. (Insert colorful French profanities here.)”?
If they were saying to the dead: “Please, please give us a break and don’t haunt us for being so stupid!”, that might have made some sense on all sides.
There was, in fact, a strain of thought that arose from this war that had rarely been expressed much in Western culture. Some socialists had encouraged workers of all “nations” not to cooperate, with little success except toward the end in Russia and Germany. It somehow got driven home to people that there’s no glory in war, and any “winning” it offers is temporary, and usually trivial.
This was not, by the way, anything that really made it into coherent policy. There was the isolationism in the U.S. that simply blamed it on the silly Europeans, but offered no initiative to keep the peace. There was appeasement offered to Germany much too late to prevent extremists from arising there. The plutocracy in all countries was much more afraid of socialism than of war, and supported fascists. Thus began the sequel, sometimes called the “Good War”. That’s another essay. All I’ll say right now is that it was the logical outcome of the Great War.
But we still have that tradition, with the Great War as the perfect example, if we remember it, of knowing that ordinary people have nothing to gain by war, and everything to lose, no matter what jingo nonsense our corporate media tell us.
Then there’s the other tradition. It’s probably something very deep in our neurological makeup. It’s called “optimism”. Seeing the worst of undeniable disasters, people still want to find some silver lining. A segment of humanity cannot accept that the most obvious loss was absolutely pointless. You could still see writings about how our boys had heroically kept the “Hun” under control. Yeah, right.
For the losers, these rationalizations are even more strained, of course. It was a standing joke in my childhood that some old Confederates insisted that the South had won. Some Germans claimed that the German military could still have won the Great War if it hadn’t been betrayed by socialists and Jews. Sound familiar? (“We actually won in Vietnam. It was the hippie peaceniks that lost it for us.”)
That other tradition of thought, that says the worst of sacrifices must be for SOME kind of good, just because it’s unacceptable to think otherwise, is what peaceniks find themselves fighting all the time. The Great War probably intensified this feeling, “making the unthinkable thinkable”, as some scholars have said. The previously unthinkable losses of the Great War might have made the “Final Solution”, wholesale bombing of civilians, and nuclear war thinkable.
Now back to our present case
The invasion of Iraq was clearly, brazenly, illegal. It is the worst of crimes: starting an aggressive war. All the massacres of civilians, famine, disease, rapes, tortures, and everything else that happens during war is a result of this initial crime. A soldier who obeyed the order to invade, unless under some serious duress or lied to in a convincing way, is complicit in that crime. The invaders were definitely fighting on the wrong side.
Without launching into the current “wrongs” of staying in Iraq and Afghanistan, a war to control any country on the other side of the world will lose sooner or later. The British couldn’t even control Ireland for more than a couple of centuries, not to mention India. These wars will lose, in shame, sooner or later. Which is better, sooner or later?
But the public seems to be suffering from attention fatigue and partisan maneuvers to deflect attention.
As our rulers try to wind down the occupation of Iraq, as Nixon did in Vietnam from about 1972 on, Iraq loses its saliency in Americans’ consciousness, as the antiwar movement began to die in 1972. People want very badly to believe, so they believe, that some progress is being made, however slowly, toward getting out. As long as the public isn’t paying attention, the politicians can take their sweet time, and even pursue their arrogant schemes to still get something out of the wars.
Given that situation, any reminder of the cost of these wars can be considered worthwhile. Let the lawyers figure out who’s “guilty” if they ever get a chance.
It’s all in the presentation. Are you honoring the dead to remind people of the losses, without glorifying their mission? If so, it’s good work.