Lindsey German makes the connections between recent war remembrance and today’s Chilcot report
The many commemorations of the first day of the Battle of Somme were very moving. We heard personal experiences of soldiers and their families. We saw schoolchildren following some of these histories and learning some of the horrors of war.
This was after all one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, nearly 60,000 British soldiers killed or wounded on its first day, sent over the top by generals with no regard for the sacrifice of human life.
I did not watch much of the coverage, distracted like many by the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and the fallout from the referendum vote. But it seemed to me that there was very little that was critical of the conduct of the battle on either a military or a political level. Since then I have seen right wing historians say, yes it was bloody and horrible but it was a necessary evil to win the war and spread peace and democracy.
This may sound familiar to some of you. It is a refrain we will hear in various forms a lot this week, as the Chilcot report into the Iraq war finally gives its verdict. We know that the supporters of Tony Blair in particular, and of wars in general, will try to justify a war which has lasted much longer than the First World War, and where the latest estimated figures for deaths in Iraq alone are now over 1 million.
Only today, 3 July 2016, the legacy of that intervention is clear with nearly 140 dead from a bomb in Baghdad.
It has become common for those who defend wars to take the ‘what if’ view of history. Historians argue that if Germany had won the First World War the fate of Europe would have been much worse. This seems a slightly odd conclusion when it is often considered that it was Germany’s defeat that helped lead to the rise of Hitler, but never mind.
Blair is employing his own ‘counter-factual’ to argue that even though there might be problems now, if Saddam had been left in power things would have been a whole lot worse. Seriously? One million dead, 4 million refugees earlier and in the war and a constant stream of them still today, trying to escape fighting? The rise of ISIS which was incubated in a prison in British controlled southern Iraq? The hideous increase in sectarianism which is endangering many lives as well as the whole society?
And of course the worsening of life in Britain with more instability and threats of terrorism, more Islamophobia, in large part consequent on the war, and greater attacks on civil liberties.
Alongside all these has been in recent years attempts to rehabilitate these wars as somehow important to the development of democracy, and therefore justified despite the human costs.
In reality the battle of the Somme took place in the middle of a war where political and social instability were beginning to grow. In April 1916 the Easter rising occurred in Ireland, marking the first blow for independence against the mighty British empire. By the end of 1916, the British government of Asquith had fallen to be taken over by Lloyd George. Domestically the war was becoming much more unpopular and there was growing opposition to conscription.
The impasse of the war on the western front was part of the reason for this instability. it also led to the imperial powers looking for different arenas in which to achieve their aims, as David Fromkin’s A Peace to End all Peace makes clear.
The Sykes Picot agreement was signed in early 1916, aimed at preserving and extending British and French interests in the Middle East, and it was to the collapsing Ottoman Empire that Britain now turned some of its attention, leading it to intervening militarily in Syria and what was then called Mesopotamia.
Today it is known as Iraq. Which brings us back to Chilcot.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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