When Michael Gove made his predictable comments on World War I earlier this month, it made me think back to my own AS-level English course on World War One literature.
Half way through the year, unsolicited, the class had erupted into a debate about how people today should remember and represent World War One. We’d been reading Laurence Binyon’s famous commemorative poem ‘For the Fallen’, from which we take the much-cherished remembrance slogan “we will remember them.” It struck one of my classmates (having read Wilfred Owen’s gory realism and Siegfried Sassoon’s biting satire) that the poem’s positive imagery was whitewashing history.
After all, Binyon presents WWI as the “cause of the free”, and celebrates the youth and steadfastness of the (English) soldiers that fell in the war, ignoring the reality of battle, the suffering of other nations’ soldiers and the political hypocrisies of British war leaders.
Of course, the problem is that we can’t ‘remember’ World War One. It is safe to say, one hundred years on, that none of us were there. When we ask how we should remember World War One, we are really asking how we should represent it to the next generation.
At this turning point, when WWI has just slipped out of living memory, it is important to develop a representation of the Great War that removes the distorting terminology of glory from ‘objective’ history.
The language of ‘liberty’, ‘bravery’ and ‘nobility’ used by Gove is part of the narrative of the pro-war commentators, and contrary to Gove’s implications, those words do not belong to the realm of historical fact, and we shouldn’t let them be presented as such. Gove is right to say that schools must encourage an “open debate on the war and its significance”, but to enable that debate, they must equip students with the tools to analyse and interrogate the official versions of historical events, allowing them to consider how the pro-war state and media might have functioned (and might still function) to silence or limit anti-war viewpoints.
The way we represent World War One in schools and the media is incredibly important, because it’s such a contentious war, and so brings out all its commentators’ biases. Gove’s agenda when writing on ‘heroism’ and ‘sacrifice’ is not just to embed those terms in our understanding of WWI, but to insert them into current discourses on today’s foreign wars.
As a member of a party whose leader recently said that Britain had “accomplished” its “mission” in Afghanxistan, Gove presumably writes in service of the idea that Britain has played a positive and worthwhile part in foreign wars between 2003 and the present day.
The government and media’s persistent depiction of soldiers as ‘heroes’ and wars as ‘just’ can be seen as an attempt to influence and placate the population, which is currently overwhelmingly opposed to Britain’s role in wars in the Middle East. (At least 750,000 people demonstrated against the Iraq war in 2003, and in 2012, a Yougov poll suggested that around 77% of British people wanted British forces to leave Afghanistan.)
When we talk about World War One, as with any contentious and emotive topic, it is integral that we understand our own subjectivity and the power of language to shape opinion. Facts tell no stories by themselves; they require interpretation.
If Gove’s syllabus focused on the “heroism and sacrifice of our great-grandparents”, as he suggests it would, then it would not encourage debate. It would narrow the potential set of interpretations of World War One down to just one: the one that serves Gove’s political and ideological ends.