Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lest We Forget - The Abject Horror of Total War

What do we remember? What are we trying not to forget?

It is never clear if we are remembering solely to honour the fallen, a worthwhile task in itself no doubt, or whether we are remembering the democidal horror of war, of total war in particular, and the extraordinary folly and evil that combines to unleash it on humanity.

Memory is selective. Reflecting on my past couple of posts, there a proposition out there that anyone who reaches for the 'Hitler/Nazi' analogy should automatically lose an argument. I have some sympathy with this, but there is also an argument that says we have not learned the lessons of the past, whether from Nazism, Vietnam, or the Great War, and that lively recollection and debate about their relevance does no harm.

History weighs on my mind in many of Australia's racial, ethnic and population fault lines. I don't think about it because I want to be specious, I think about it because I've always been interested in history and I feel a certain churn in my stomach when I see things I thought and hoped I wouldn't see in my country. The Right has long relied on an extraordinary link drawn between the brutal totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th Century and wet, soft, democratically accountable government interference in the economy or the like. If such a self-evidently long bow, no not even a bow, a bamboo suspension bridge drawn into a hoop, can be given credence by any sane person, what is it about the Cronulla riots, the targetting of anyone of vaguely mediterranean appearance for brutal violence, the overt racial nationalism, that doesn't bring to mind the horror of the late 1930s and the vicious, paranoid bigotry unleashed upon the Jews?

It is not that there are pogroms, or mass murder. It is however that one thing led to another.

Behind such particular, smaller scale, analogies and partisan arguments, played out in nations largely benefitting from a sustained pax, there is the big thing that happened in the two World Wars. There is total war. Slaughter of millions. Loss of entire generations. Loss of cultures, great historical buildings and artifacts, loss of humanity.

I don't think we remember that, not really, and I don't think it's an issue of left or right. My greatest fear is not World War II, the model of the rampant dictator who can't be placated, but of the Great War, the combination of belligerent (if not quite Hitler-esque) leaderships, appalling diplomatic blunders, and the suction created by a set of interwoven alliances that draws nations that have no real gripe with each other into an unending slaughter.

Over all the others, all the other sacrifice, all the blunders and all the worthy causes properly fought for, it is the Great War I remember.

It is the Great War that we are most at risk of repeating. We, being Australia, not America, not China, not Japan. Australia. Lest we forget.

More comment on what I've suggested here over at LP.


JahTeh said...

Can you imagine this time 100 years ago and being able to protest as we are doing now, about Iraq and Afghanistan? There are still wars but we can stand up and say "Hell no, we won't go!"
Receiving a white feather these days would see it being worn as a mark of defiance.
And saying all that doesn't mean I don't respect the men and women who decide to join the armed forces, not to kill but to protect.

Armagnac Daddy said...

"There are still wars but we can stand up and say "Hell no, we won't go!" "

Arbitrary. We didn't have that choice in Vietnam though, and again, back to forgetting etc, that appalling abuse of power has never been confronted and conclusively addressed, that is, it is not an accepted concluded position that conscription will never be brought back in... and it wasn't brought in for the first world war...

JahTeh said...

I always felt that when the voting age was lowered to 18, it was the end of conscription and governments that that wanted it.

The world has changed so much since Vietnam especially when trusting our leaders to tell the truth about anything. If we'd had the internet back then I doubt they'd have gotten away with conscription.

I oppose conscription because I will not expect another woman's child to fight and kill on my behalf.

JahTeh said...

I should have said, 'forced to fight and kill'.