Forget Harper’s history, World War I was a senseless slaughter

Photo: No Glory in War
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Wars are impossible without lies.

Just look at the Israeli government’s current assault against Gaza. In June, Prime Minister Netanyahu blamed Hamas for the kidnapping of three teenage settlers in the West Bank: “Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay.”

Netanyahu lied. And more than 1,800 Palestinians have already paid for this lie with their lives.

As we’ve noted here at Ricochet, the Harper government has stood out, even among traditional supporters of Israeli occupation and war, for its shameless echoing of the Netanyahu government. They have stubbornly refused to criticize Israel’s repeated massacres of civilians, and while even the US administration has declared the bombing of UN-run schools “appalling,” Harper has blamed the victims of these massacres.

Myths, often, are simply lies repeated over time. That’s why, in addition to being outraged by Harper’s cheerleading for the current Gaza massacres, we should pay attention to the way this government talks about Canada’s past. The Conservatives are engaged in a long-term effort to reshape Canadians’ self-image, in part through a particular telling of our military history. In this effort, much like in his full-throated support for Israeli war, Harper has been virtually unopposed by the so-called opposition parties.

Harper’s History of WWI

On Monday, for example, Stephen Harper issued a statement on the 100th anniversary of World War I:

“It is a time to remember and honour the sacrifices and tremendous achievements of the more than 650,000 brave Canadians and Newfoundlanders who left their families and the comfort of their homes to serve their King and country, as well as to preserve the universal values of freedom, peace and democracy that we hold most dear. . . .

“It is a source of deep national pride that the bravery and courage of our service members helped ensure Allied victories in important battles at places like Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and Amiens. These efforts played a vital role in finally bringing about the negotiation and conclusion of the Armistice, which ended the First World War at precisely 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918.

“The dedication, courage and determination demonstrated by our brave soldiers, sailors and airmen, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with like-minded allies to fight for what they believed in, resulted in Canada emerging as a proud, victorious nation with newfound standing in the world. . . .

“Lest we forget.”

This familiar storyline — as Harper puts it, that Canada was “forged in the fires” of World War I — is a whitewash, and in fact a disservice to the millions of young people who were sent to slaughter in a savage and senseless war of attrition caused by capitalist and imperial competition. Harper’s telling of events leaves out the crucial role that the German working class played in ending the war (not to mention the role of the anti-war Bolsheviks in Russia.) Harper’s history also conveniently elides the widespread unrest and opposition, especially in Quebec, to military conscription during World War I.

The dominant mythology about World War I might seem fairly innocuous, but it’s not. These are foundational myths that contribute to the justification of contemporary militarism and war. The simplistic rhetoric conflates the history and particularities of World Wars I and II and is sometimes explicitly used to justify present-day wars.

For example, in 2007, at the ceremony marking the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Harper tied the history of World War I to advocacy for Canada’s aggressive role in the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan. According to a report by CBC news, Harper “drew a direct line” between World War I and Afghanistan, saying, “Canadians did not go to war then, nor will we ever, to conquer or to enslave. . . . But when the cause is just, Canada will always be there to defend our values and our fellow human beings . . . as prime minister, my thoughts these days are never far from Afghanistan."

As it happens, the following year I ran into then-rookie MP Justin Trudeau, while he was campaigning for Liberal Joyce Murray in a Vancouver riding by-election. I asked him why he and the Liberals had voted with Harper to extend Canada’s war in Afghanistan. In his response, he almost immediately cited Vimy Ridge, implying, one supposes, that Canada had no choice but to continue our tradition of paying blood tribute to the reigning empire of the day.

Needless to say, as with the current Gaza massacre, Trudeau and the Liberal Party did nothing to differentiate themselves from Harper on World War I.

Celebrate war resisters

Counter to Harper’s narrative of war-as-defence-of-freedom-and-birth-of-a-nation, we should also mark the centennial of World War I by celebrating all those who resisted the slaughter. Highlighting these stories does not diminish our solemn remembrance and tribute to all those who lost their lives in battle. Papering over the real history of World War I is, in fact, a disservice to the millions whose lives were tragically cut short.

Initially, at least in Britain and Europe, the anti-war camp was a small minority of suffragettes and socialists, along with a handful of public intellectuals.

Many layers of society were swept up in the general chauvinist hysteria upon the outbreak of war in August 1914. This included, shockingly, the large majority of social democratic parties. Left political leaders who stood firm against the war, people like Rosa Luxembourg in Germany and Kerr Hardie in Britain, were isolated. In France, anti-war forces were left reeling by the assassination of socialist leader Jean Jaures on the eve of the war.

On the battlefields, the first months of the war were bloodier than anyone could have imagined. Tens of thousands of young men were mowed down by a terrible new weapon, the machine gun, as inept generals were slow to adapt old tactics to the new realities of war.

At least one glimmer of hope emerged that a different, peaceful world was still possible. On Christmas Day 1914, soldiers came out from their trenches, raised white flags and fraternized with enemy soldiers. The German, British and French troops took a brief respite from killing each other to share food, drink and cigarettes. The Christmas Truce, as it became known, offered a reason for optimism to anti-war campaigners, and Hardie wrote, “The workers of the world are not enemies to each other, but comrades.”

World War I quickly became bogged down in futile trench warfare. As it dragged on, and the body count mounted inexorably, dissent took new forms. In a number of countries the introduction of conscription proved extremely controversial and sparked widespread anti-war protest, including in Canada. BC labour and socialist organizer Ginger Goodwin was killed by a deputy in the woods of Vancouver Island as he camped out to evade conscription; his murder sparked widespread labour protests across the province.

In the aftermath of World War I, writers, poets and playwrights produced many works reflecting on the barbarism of the conflagration and imagining a world without the scourge of wars. Canadian novelist Charles Yale Harrison wrote the classic book Generals Die in Bed, capturing the human suffering of the men in the trenches: “We learned who our enemies are — the lice, some of our officers, and Death.”

The war itself also spurred on revolutions and workers movements worldwide. One almost-forgotten coda to World War I: In 1918-1919, after the end of the war on the western front, Canadian troops were dispatched to Siberia to bolster counter-revolutionary forces in the Civil War, which followed the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The mission was a disaster from the outset, and included a mutiny by one Quebec battalion as soldiers were marched through the streets of Victoria, BC, to their troop ship heading to Russia. Labour historian Ben Isitt has documented this important episode in his book From Victoria to Vladivostok.

These are just a few examples of the tradition and the history Harper wants to keep buried; this is the tradition we should honour, and the history we should remember.

When we know our own past, we can better see through the lies of the likes of Harper and Netanyahu.

Israel’s campaign in Gaza confirms the judgment of Harry Patch, who was the last surviving veteran of World War I. In 2005, Patch told then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “War is organized murder, and nothing else.”

We can do better than Harper’s history.

We should spend this centennial honouring the memory of all those who died and all those who risked so much to speak out against the war.

Lest we forget.

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