Tomorrow I will be wearing these medals given to my Grandfather, Thomas Goodman. They only came to light a few years ago.
I wear them for his memory, but not to support the Imperial folly that was the 1914-18 murder.
The memory invoked by the black and white imagery of guns and barbed wire on TV, remains as necessary to our brief existence in our safe houses as the air we breathe.
General Melchett to Private Baldrick before the big push: “If you should falter, remember Captain Darling and I, are behind you”.
Captain Blackadder: “About…35 miles behind you”.
What we of course need to remember is the causes of the war so that we might, just might, see the current lies as being the same old lies told to ordinary men and women for centuries.
The old lie is this:
‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori’ ‘How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country’.
The chapel at the Royal Military College Sandhurst has it inscribed in Latin on its wall.
The Roman poet Horace wrote:
How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths.
‘Of battle-shy youths’! White feathers were given to teenagers during the 1914-1918 mass murder. At least one boy of 16 was shot for ‘desertion’. The army knowingly accepted teenagers as young as 15 to send to do their ‘patriotic duty’ but they were willing volunteers often as part of PALS regiments. We may wish to think about what sort of culture encouraged, if not coerced, very young boys and men to go and fight and die. How was war fervour kept up, why did youngsters feel they had no choice?
Jessie Pope, in poems such as “Who’s for the Game”, encouraged young men to join up for the Western Front. It was in response to such misplaced patriotism that Wilfrid Owen wrote his poem. Pope’s invocation of a ‘Game’ demonstrated the absolute poverty of thinking, the banality of asking men to die, as if it were a rugby match, on behalf of ‘the country’ at the time.
Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?
Who’ll toe the line for the signal to ‘Go!’?
Who’ll give his country a hand?
Who wants a turn to himself in the show?
And who wants a seat in the stand?
Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much-
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?
Come along, lads –
But you’ll come on all right –
For there’s only one course to pursue,
Your country is up to her neck in a fight,
And she’s looking and calling for you*.
(*.. and to die for your country is thus sweet and honourable.)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:
Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Imperial Britain has left a legacy of such messages and imagery, extolling ‘victories’ in place names all over the country to this day. Who does not know the relevance of a ‘Wellington Road’, ‘Trafalgar Square’ or Waterloo Station? Militarism runs through Britain’s veins as its very life blood. We abhor war, yet we fall for the old lie time and again.
Why do we still go to die in foreign lands? Why do we send out young people to ‘die for our country’, is that why they are really going?
I suggest many go to support each other, rather than for abstract notions of King and Country, or because they feel they have little choice, or because war and military service is glorified and an attractive option for otherwise dull lives, or because precarious unemployment in a cold northern town is shit, or because they are patriots who’ve been sold a lie, or because they have a history of familial military service.
Some however, are filled with nationalist fervour and believe in God, King and Country. Some do believe in the superiority of their race, culture and identity. Some do believe in the need to cleanse and purify. Some are ‘stupid’.
But many don’t go knowingly to defend capital accumulation and Empire building. No one wants to die for the East India Company, Exxon, J P Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Rio Tinto Zinc or Sports Direct. This is the real reason for many wars…struggles between Imperial powers for prestige and power in order to accumulate wealth and capital. Nationalist mythologies exist independently of this drive, and thus can also be strong motivators. Capital Accumulation does not need Nationalism to fight a war, but it really helps. Nationalism on its own cannot fight a war…it needs Capital.
In every epoch, every society ever since we began to settle and farm, is characterised by the struggle for power, resources and prestige. Each agricultural society, and on up to mercantile capitalism and beyond, produces its class of priests, kings and generals. As Aristotle noted, there are ‘lovers of money’, ‘lovers of honour’ and ‘lovers of wisdom’. The ‘lovers of money’ have been recently called the bourgeois class. This class has always literally either fought for prestige and power or supported that fight, along with the ‘lovers of honour’, with ideological justifications based on supernatural notions of ‘Divine Right’ or ‘God’s Will’. ‘Divine Right’ mixed monarchy and theology together, enabling dissent to not only be countered as mutiny against an earthly order, an order merely backed by custom and practice, muscle and sword, but also as against God, and thus as heresy which forfeits the heretics right to life by definition. Today we still have Kings and Priests willing to peddle the old lie. They have been joined of course by Presidents and their backers in the bourgeois class. Some of the ‘lovers’ of wisdom’ have also succumbed to murderous ideology based on spurious notions of nation, of ‘blood and soil’.
In the modern and late capitalist epochs, the ‘most revolutionary class’ swept away old Feudal social relationships to replace them with very often violent imperatives of capital accumulation. The imperative to accumulate capital took the forms of mercantile, then industrial and now financial capitalism. In each form, war was just another means of furthering the nationalistic and accumulative interests of the bourgeois classes. Britain, Spain, France, The Netherlands and Portugal and later Russia, Germany, Japan and the United States fought imperialist wars over access to gold, silver, spices and the right to colonise and control overseas territories. The bourgeois class in each country created alliances and broke alliances with other bourgeois and in order to further their interests enrolled the help (conscripted) the working class to do their bloody bidding. In each case they invoke ‘King and Country’ and the old lie. For the 1914-1918 murder:
Private Baldrick asked Captain Blackadder how the war started:
Lt. George: The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire-building.
Edmund: George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front.
George: Oh, no, sir, absolutely not. [aside, to Baldick] Mad as a bicycle!
Baldrick: I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich ’cause he was hungry.
Edmund: I think you mean it started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary got shot.
Baldrick: Nah, there was definitely an ostrich involved, sir.
Edmund: Well, possibly. But the real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort not to have a war.
George: By Golly, this is interesting; I always loved history…
Edmund: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
Baldrick: But this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?
Edmund: Yes, that’s right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
George: What was that, sir?
Edmund: It was bollocks.
Queen Elizabeth 1st vied with King Philip of Spain for Global supremacy. The overlay of a religious war veiled this fact. The right to rule either nation was based in a religious justification contradicted by the other monarch’s claim to be God’s chosen. If God was a Catholic, then Philip was the rightful monarch of Spain and England should also have a Catholic Monarch. This was a position that of course protestant aristocratic and bourgeois England could not stomach. For them, God was a Protestant thus any Catholic claim to monarchy was heresy. It is of course the case that two Catholic Monarchs could come to blows over territory, but this merely rips apart the veil of religion to reveal pure naked aggrandisement as the basis for war.
Queen Victoria as Empress acted to defend the imperial interests of British private capital across the globe. She did so as titular head of the bourgeois class, while the sons of the poor welsh miners died in Zulu wars to protect what exactly? Access to South Africa’s diamonds?
Hitler did not waft into power out of nowhere. He rode the tides of nationalism, discontent, unemployment and the fear of Communism. He had the backing of the bourgeois class, as The ‘Supermanagerial Reich’1 took shape before 1939.
“Before Hitler achieved his genocidal powers, there were years of what we would now call “intense partisan bickering,” decreasing prosperity, and violence in the streets. In the end, Hitler cobbled together a rickety coalition of business-minded technocrats, traditional conservatives, military interests, and his own radical ethno-nationalists into a plausible government… In Nazi Germany, economic history shows us a rapid change in the distribution of income and the emergence of a managerial elite who obtained an outsized share of national income, not just the now-proverbial one percent, but the top 0.1 percent. These were Nazi Germany’s equivalent to today’s so-called “supermanagers.”
Jair Bolsonaro now governs Brazil with the overt backing of many of Brazil’s business elites2. Of course, US politicians in both parties have powerful and wealthy business backers3.
We must separate superficial explanations for war such as nationalism or religion, to reveal the difference between appearance and reality.
Rip apart ideological veils and you will very often see capital accumulation driving national motivations. The fact that nationalists believe their own cant, overlooking capitalist economic imperatives, is a human tragedy, which in every era, must be faced down and defeated. Nationalism and the imperative for capital accumulation4 are two very dangerous bedfellows.
Kings identified themselves with territory, territory thus became sacred as a ‘blessed plot’:
“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,–
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”.
(William Shakespeare. King Richard II Act 2 scene 1)
Majestic poetry such as this, stirs the soul, and emboldens the nerves. I wonder if some Spitfire pilots recited it to themselves as a bulwark against the fear of death? In ‘Notes on Nationalism’, George Orwell wrote:
“Somewhere or other Byron makes use of the French word longeur, and remarks in passing that though in England we happen not to have the word, we have the thing in considerable profusion. In the same way, there is a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject, but which has not yet been given a name.”
In 2018, we still have ‘the thing in considerable profusion’. Many people in Britain are afflicted with ‘longuer’ and we have some names for it: ‘post-colonial melancholia’ and ‘nationalism’. The first is a yearning for a return of our Imperial Glory, the second is a feeling that the interests of ‘our country’ comes first. The yearning is for a time when we ‘stood alone’ against continental tyrants. The Spitfire is not only a beautiful piece of machinery, it is also a very potent symbol of patriotic pride which for some also includes nationalistic pride. This is why Churchill is still a national hero, the white cliffs of Dover a potent image and the Monarchy goes almost unchallenged.
You hear ‘longuer’ voiced by the more fanatical wing of the Brexiteer camp today. They have a visceral hatred, and mistrust, of European capitalist elites. They yearn for taking back control without realising they will merely hand back a veneer of sovereignty to home grown capitalist elites, but because these ‘Greedy Bastards’ wear Union Jack waistcoats, that will be just fine.
“As the nearest existing equivalent (for longeur) I have chosen the word ‘nationalism’, but it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation — that is, a single race or a geographical area. It can attach itself to a church or a class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty”.
Orwell writes here of ‘emotion’ and this is key. To understand why people will undertake acts of heroism, or folly, don’t underestimate the role of emotion. Those who have strong moral foundations5 based in ‘Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity’ will have very strong feelings guiding action towards loyalty to nation, the authority of monarchy, or Presidents, and of the righteousness sanctity of their cause; “One Nation, Under God” for “God Blessing America” for “King and Country” and for crying “God for Harry, England and St George”. These feelings can all too easily be mustered in the service of Capital for foreign wars in order to secure commodities such as oil.
“By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad”. Here Orwell prefigures work on ‘dehumanisation’ by, for example, David Livingstone Smith6.
“But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
I think you can hear in the pronouncements of Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Modi, Bolsonaro, Johnson, and Duerte echoes of the need for the securing of power and prestige of their respective countries. ‘America First’ is an overt call to advance America’s interests. And is described in detail in ‘Rise to Globalism7’ Many Americans do believe that their way of life is the best and have forced it upon others as ‘leaders of the free world’. US military action since 1945 would stretch the definition of ‘defensive’ to its limit.
I think both notions, nationalism and patriotism, were invoked in the 1914-18 murder. Defensive patriotism was wrongly invoked for action against the Kaiser as this primarily an Imperial war between members of the same monarchic families. The roots of the war are varied and contested, but to ignore empire building, the jostling for prestige and power around the globe and the absolute requirement for continuous and unending capital accumulation by powerful and wealthy capitalists on many European countries, would be to misunderstand why young men were encouraged and coerced to die ‘for their country’.
The roots of the 1939-45 murder include the revenge by capitalist elites enacted upon their bourgeois competitors in Germany at Versailles, fuelled no doubt by nationalism and half an eye on an opportunity to exclude German bourgeois competitors from encroaching on established empires. Hitler, aided by the bourgeois ‘supermanagers’ of the Reich, was thus able to exploit this crisis and competition between the nationalistic and greedy bourgeois classes.
What underpins competition, threat and counter threat today between the United States, China and Russia?
Who are the most vocal in promoting the old lie in our media on political platforms?
To die to protect one’s own family and community from the threat of slavery and death is understandable and necessary. A call to arms is not always wrong. Getting of of Hitler by force was necessary as his threat was not ideological. It was demonstrated. I don’t think the same was true of the Kaiser in 1914.
“They died for us, for our freedom”
Today, I hear children that “They died for us, for our freedom” in the 1914-18 murder. What evidence do we have that Germany was planning to invade Britain in 1914? In 1897 Admiral Eduard von Knorr, commander of the Imperial German Navy, did indeed consider drawing up invasion plans. This was against a background of increasing Anglo-German rivalry and German naval expansion. The plans followed on from German Emperor Wilhelm II who abandoned, in 1888, Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck‘s restraint in international affairs. He adopted an aggressive foreign policy in an attempt to claim for Germany a leading position on the world stage. The fact that Britain had been adopting aggressive foreign policies to gain an Empire cannot ablsove Britain from blame. The “Kruger telegram” of 3 January 1896 precipitated a deterioration in Anglo-German relations which was accelerated by a German naval expansion designed to challenge British naval supremacy and to lead to the German Empire supplanting the United Kingdom as the dominant world power. The invasion plans were shelved in 1899. The British ruling class certainly did fear loss of supremacy and dominance, while the German ruling class tried to challenge British supremacy. Children should be taught that “They (the British and German working class) died for ‘us’ (the British and German ruling elites’ territorial and capital accumulation interests); for ‘our’ (meaning the ruling elites’) ‘freedom’ (to continue to rule an empire and benefit from capital accumulation).
The invasion plans were shelved 15 years before the outbreak of war as impractical. If Germany had prevailed in 1918, are we to believe that the Kaiser would have put in place a German Prime Minister? Well, it is possible, but I think the evidence is overwhelmingly that this was a war of rights to colonial territory, an Imperial war over which set of monarchical, aristocratic and bourgeois elites would be dominant using ‘the nation’ as a smokescreen and the working class as a sacrifice. Children today should be taught an alternative narrative, to give them the tools to use when they are asked to go and die in a foreign field.
We must not be fooled again by the motives of the powerful who invoke the flag and then avoid retribution being visited upon their heads, for the deaths of millions, by their deflecting understanding of the actual causes. The ‘Heroes’ trope is used cynically perhaps by some who know they sent men to die in the Middle East for…oil, or to secure nationalist interest, power and prestige in that region? The ‘war on terror’ is a bogus war.
Yes, they are ‘heroes’ but not for the reasons the politicians, capitalist apologists and the capitalist press often imply – in 1914-18 they did not die for ‘us’, i.e. the country, they died for each other; but were sent to secure the reputation and interests of the capitalist class and the political power elites in an Imperial war. Tommy and Fritz had more in common with each other than the bastards that ruled them.
But to get them to do it, they must be told a lie. The other side must also be dehumanised to legitimate slaughter on mass scale. Threat must be ramped up and the threat, if seen as coming from an invader, can help galvanise patriotic defensive duty. It is perhaps a necessary fiction to get ordinary men and boys to put themselves in mortal danger and to kill: to protect old maids cycling to church in the morning mist, for cricket, for an English country garden, warm beer and the FA Cup.
Rarely is that the real reason.
We shall remember them, but I shall not forget the bastards who send them.
1. Chaudhary A and Chappe R. (2016) The Supermanagerial Reich. Los Angeles Review of Books. November 7th. https://lareviewofbooks.org/arti…/the-supermanagerial-reich/#!
2. Doering, H. Morgan, G. and Gomes, M. (2018) Jair Bolsonaro: How business elites helped him to power in Brazil – and why they might regret it. The Conservation. October 29th https://theconversation.com/jair-bolsonaro-how-business-eli…
3. Cain, A. (2018) The 30 Fortune 500 companies that have thrown the most money at Republicans and democrats in the last decade. The Business Insider. UK. March 4th http://uk.businessinsider.com/fortune-500-companies-republi…
4. Harvey, D. (2011) The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. Profile Books. London.
5. Haidt, J. (2013) The Righteous Mind. Penguin. New York.
6. Livingstone Smith, D. (2018) Less than human. Why demean, enslave and exterminate others. St Martins Press. New York.
7. Ambrose, S and Brinkley, D (2012) Rise to Globalism. Penguin. New York.