Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lest we forget

It has seemed to me for a long time now that criticizing World War I has become too easy. People, especially in Britain, like to point to this war as an illustration of the pointlessness and badness of war. Of course it is that, but it's such a comfortable example that it encourages not thinking rather than thinking. The tendency to act thoughtful and sad, to do the things you are expected to do during a minute's silence, without being thoughtful or sad also produces empty words. I had a student a few years ago end an email with the words, "Lest we forget!" He seemed to think that these words meant "Let us not forget" rather than "So that we don't forget." The words need to be attached to a memorial to make sense, and using them in ways that don't make sense shows thoughtlessness, the very opposite of the thoughtful remembrance supposedly intended. Of course students will always make mistakes, but now here's John Quiggin making what appears to be exactly the same mistake. Of course people who are not students will always make mistakes too, but I take this as a sign that the rot has really set in.       


  1. as practices/innovations/living-metaphors get institutionalized they will by and large die, part in my mind of the sort of tyranny of the means where we forget (or in the case of memorials perhaps never experienced) the context which spawned/sparked them and they become a sort of formal manners, what They do/say as Heidegger noted.
    part of why I love this Emerson address even tho I don't share his faith in anything like an Oversoul/vitalism:

  2. Quiggin says: "Intellectually, I know that wars will always turn out badly, but still when a new conflict erupts, I find myself picking sides and cheering for the good (less bad) guys.

    "Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems? And why is it so hard to end a war once it has started? I have some half-formed ideas, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss."

    Smedley Butler says: " War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses...

    "I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested."

    "During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents." [http://fas.org/man/smedley.htm]

    Seems to me there isn't much there for Quiggin to forget seeing that he hasn't even learned lesson one.

    1. I suppose the desire to remember people's sacrifices and losses without getting political is understandable. But ritual solemnity runs the risk of actually insulting the people it claims to honour, when the ritual becomes too obviously empty.

      Which is not to say that the political side should be ignored, even if it isn't made part of Remembrance Day.

    2. But that's it really. Of course the desire to remember the fallen is understandable. Part of that is to remember why they fell. What's more: Remembrance Day is political: it is theatre. Propaganda. And if it has one purpose it is this: Not to make clear what for or why it is those being remembered fell. And Quiggin's talk of at least being on the side of the good guys so that justifies his cheering is just ...

      "Neither is it that US foreign policy is cruel because American leaders are cruel. It's that our leaders are cruel because only those willing to be inordinately cruel and remorseless can hold positions of leadership in the foreign policy establishment; it might as well be written into the job description. People capable of expressing a full human measure of compassion and empathy toward faraway powerless strangers - (let alone American soldiers - do not become president of the United States, or vice president, or secretary of state, or national security adviser or secretary of the treasury. Nor do they want to." From 'Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower' by William Blum

    3. Yes, I (think I) take your point. But I was thinking about all the people I know who posted on Facebook about people they knew personally who had fought, and in some cases died, in various wars. If I had responded with a political point it would have seemed (to me, at least) not only likely to be unwelcome but also unjustifiably rude. You don't interrupt funerals and memorials to make a political point. Which is not to say that you can't make those points on many other occasions.

      A danger, though, is that all meaning can be drained from memorial occasions if they lose too much contact with reality. The theatrical element needs to be eliminated or minimized, or at least those theatrical elements that are not expressive of real emotion do. And the relevant, acceptable emotion is grief or sadness, not patriotism, say.

      Political uses of remembrance are, of course, despicable. But you don't have to be deliberately cynical to be part of the problem. I take Quiggin to mean well and to be far more thoughtful than the average person. If even he is capable of spouting bull in connection with stuff he cares about, then we all need to be on our guard. Maybe he isn't thoughtful enough, but then I don't claim to be so either.

      Can we be properly respectful to the dead without getting political about their deaths? It isn't respectful not to care or look into why they died, but there's something to be said also, I think, for simply mourning the loss of their lives without always or instantly linking this loss with the social or political or moral agents or phenomena that caused it. (Even though it would be bad to always ignore these agents and phenomena. The path to walk is thin.)

  3. Point taken. Loss is loss. It's the decked out sacrifice talk I find galling. But then I'm speaking mostly on the million poppy travesty that has just been staged in the UK and all the talk surrounding it. And it is the sacrifice talk and the way it is linked to the propaganda rationale for wars that feeds into future wars. Quiggin is saying, wars don't solve the problems they are meant to address, as if they were in fact meant to address them. For instance, that the US went into Iraq to get their WMD's and bring about democracy. That is not the reason. On my way out of Iraq in August 2003, I met a young boy of about seven selling this and that from his father's cart on Rashid Street in Baghdad. At that point the Hollywood production of Mission Accomplished had already gone stale. (NB: One should, if the warmongers thought it was accomplished then, ask what the mission really was.) So I asked this seven year old: What do you think now that Saddam has gone and Bush is here? He said: "Little Ali Baba is gone, big Ali Baba is here." Ali Baba, for those who may not know, was the head of the forty thieves. This is a seven year old Iraqi boy speaking. Seven. I filed a report then saying this is going to spiral out of control and my editor asked if I would stick with the assessment given that everyone else, left and right, was caught up in "USA! USA! USA!" fever. I said yes, thinking the worst that could happen was that I got it wrong and I would have loved for that to have happened. I'd like to add it had nothing to do with cynicism but with what I had seen and heard and made note of. Now I hear US troops are heading back into Iraq. Surprise? No. The economy is tanking, something needs to be done to turn a profit. People should read Karl Kraus on this.

  4. Or, barring that, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly will do nicely:

    There died a myriad,
    And of the best, among them,
    For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
    For a botched civilization.


  5. Dear Duncan, I'm ranting, sorry. I'll get my coat. Peace.

  6. But before I leave you might like to look at this and the comments BTL.


    1. You're not ranting at all. And thanks for the link.

      I'm post-poppy now myself, which is slightly weird given the God-shape (as in God-shaped hole) that has been given to the two world wars in Britain. Evil is the Nazis (obviously) and good is Britain-pulling-together-against-evil (or something like that). That was the morality I was raised on, and still partly believe in. It's implicit in the Guardian cartoon, after all. But the poppy business has gone too far even for me.