Tarnish on their Great War

January 16, 2014

Independent columnist Mark Steel points out that "the war to end all wars" didn't.

NOW THAT the centenary of 1914 has gotten going, we should do as the British government's Education Secretary Michael Gove suggests and celebrate the First World War, instead of taking notice of "left-wing academics" who complain it was a regrettable waste of life.

But on the morning of January 8, they played a radio interview with Harry Patch, the last man alive who fought for the British in the war. Harry said: "Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder."

Who let him on Radio 4, the dirty, unpatriotic, left-wing academic? It was all right for Harry, swanning about the Somme with his Marxist intellectual friends, lazing in the trenches and discussing "peace studies." But to really know what went on, you have to rely on those with firsthand experience, people like Michael Gove. Because as he made clear, he's read a book on the subject and an article in a magazine.

Education Secretary Michael Gove
Education Secretary Michael Gove

It's the same with these other pretentious academic types who criticized the war, like Wilfred Owen and those poets. Just because they spent a few years being gassed and shot at, they thought that gave them a right to criticize it. Well, if they'd joined the real world, like Michael Gove, they might not be so full of airy-fairy pacifist nonsense.

Hopefully, Michael Gove will now remove these left-wingers from the school curriculum and replace them with proper poets of the time, such as the one who wrote: "I've been shot in a trench somewhere Belgian or French / I'll not walk again say the medics / But I'll go home in glory as one day / A Tory can use this to bash leftie academics."

Gove insists it is time to reverse the "myths" spread about the war by relentless left-wing propaganda. The evidence he gives for this tide of pacifist mythology is an episode of Blackadder. And it is hard to see how anyone can counter a constant barrage of brainwashing, such as a half-hour of situation comedy broadcast 25 years ago.

A few brave souls over the years have tried to counter this tyranny. There are Remembrance Day parades, and the insistence that anyone on television has to wear a poppy during the month before, or be denounced as a gargoyle. There are prime ministers posing in tanks, and hymns, comics and computer games that glorify the war, and statues to the generals, including one of Commander Haig in Whitehall. But that can hardly be expected to make an impact in the face of a comedy show from 1989.

SO THE fightback has begun, with Gove attacking the academic Sir Richard Evans, for saying: "The men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for a better world, a war to end all wars...They were wrong."

I wonder which bit of that statement Michael Gove disagrees with. Presumably he thinks that those who insisted the war would end all wars were right, and it did end all wars. He must think that the First World War was the last war ever fought and must even be puzzled as to why it's called the First World War, seeing as there haven't been any since. He's going to feel so disappointed when he finds out.

His next point is that those who joined up "were not dupes, but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the Western liberal order." Well, yes, that's what they were told they were fighting for. So his case seems to be they can't have been fooled because they believed what they were told. This means all those who've been mis-sold payment protection insurance shouldn't be compensated. They can't have been fooled, because they were conscious believers that they were buying an insurance that would make them better protected.

Those who fought were told that the war was against tyranny, dictators, terrorists, and to defend "brave little Belgium"--all the usual stuff that justifies wars, as well as the "war to end all wars" line. Most of the survivors spent the rest of their lives feeling they'd been duped. But if only they'd read that magazine article, like Michael Gove, they'd have known the nightmares and missing limbs were worth it.

The war was "plainly a just war," says Gove, because of the German attitude toward expansionism. And we certainly couldn't stand by while another country fancied a bit of expansionism. Luckily, the one thing that you can say about the British in the century before 1914 is that at no time did it consider expanding or taking over anywhere or swiping anything from abroad.

The one disconcerting element to Gove's article is that it contains no facts and no evidence, and it is based on prejudices such as "left-wing academics." If it were handed in as an essay by a 12-year-old, it would be handed back as a piece of nonsense. But it was written by the Education Secretary.

So we should suppose that the next exam system he brings in will be one in which you're no longer marked for research or making a case, but for how patriotic you are. If you want top marks for an essay on how water turns into steam, just put "Ingerland, Ingerland, Ingerlaaaand, two world wars, one world cup, boils and then goes floating up. Academics, academics, you're not fit to wipe my arse, you're not fit to wipe my arse." Then you'd be guaranteed an A-star.

First published in the Independent.

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