In a letter in today's Guardian, the editor of a campaigning political magazine called The Lancet, Richard Horton, lends that journal's imprimatur to lecturing veterans on the proper way for them to mark Remembrance Sunday:
[T]he purpose of poppies needs to be recast if it is to have any lasting meaning. Wearing a poppy should be about remembering civilian lives lost in all wars, not merely military lives sacrificed in British wars. Wearing a poppy should be about a commitment to peace and justice in the future, not only about war and victory in the past. And wearing a poppy should be about our broad global solidarity as a human community, not our narrow expression of national identity.
Horton is a fixture at rallies of the Stop the War Coalition. Normally I would spend only a few seconds debating whether his designation of the act of remembrance as "a narrow expression of national identity" was more ignorant than impertinent or the other way round. But oddly it can be read as a less eloquent echo of an observation by a very important thinker indeed, the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, writing in The Guardian yesterday about a Commonwealth Commission report called "Civil Paths to Peace". Sen states: "Indeed, even the gigantic violence of the first world war, which made so many Europeans act as willing participants in an unnecessary war, drew on singularly prioritising the identity of nationality, ignoring all else."
Sen's judgement is only partly right, and what it leaves out is crucial. It's true that nationalism was foremost in the campaigns of the protagonists in WWI, but it is not true that this factor excluded all else. If you maintain that it does, then you overlook the reason war broke out in the first place. This was that Wilhelmine Germany, unlike the system that Bismarck bequeathed, was not only a militarist state but also an expansionist one. It sought not only the Bismarckian status of a Great Power but also the status of a World Power, Weltmacht. Archival research by the great Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer in the 1960s concluded that German war aims had been established at a War Council in December 1912. Wilhelmine Germany was not an autocracy of the order of Nazi Germany and did not pursue genocidal campaigns in Europe (though it did in Africa). But in its aggressive xenophobia and contempt for democracy it had clear characteristics in common with Nazi Germany, and the failure of Weimar to extirpate those characteristics from Germany's political culture led to their recrudescence in a more virulent form.
Great Britain, on the other hand, was an imperfect constitutional society in which the domination of the aristocracy was at last being attenuated, and where the popular expressions of nationalism served mainly to obscure what the military campaign was about. The war effort was - strange to relate, in a more cynical generation - about the principles enunciated by our political leaders at the time: the defence of small nations against unprovoked aggression by an unstable autocracy. The war, from our standpoint, was not unnecessary at all. It was a just and necessary venture that had tremendous human costs; for Britain, the trauma and bloodshed were far greater than in WWII. When tomorrow I stop for two minutes to recall these dead, I shall not be narrowly expressing my Britishness, but expressing my gratitude to them and their five surviving comrades for having taken up arms.
Horton at least perceives that Remembrance Sunday, as it stands, commemorates what George V's proclamation in 1919 called the "glorious dead". Compare and contrast with the White Poppies campaign of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union, which every year generates some unwarranted publicity. Also in The Guardian today is a letter from one Lucy Craig:
I wholeheartedly support [Channel 4 newsreader] Jon Snow's decision not to wear a red poppy. My only wish is that he would sport a white one. For whereas the red poppy and Remembrance Day signify support for the British service personnel who have given their lives over many decades in many different wars, white poppies remember and honour all those whose lives have been lost - civilians and soldiers; old and young; British, German, Japanese, Russian - and of course, Iraqi and Afghan.
Again, give her credit for one thing. She understands that Remembrance Sunday isn't merely about commemorating the victims of war. It's about expressing gratitude to British servicemen. The partisans of the White Poppies campaign can't do that, because they believe the servicemen who have fought against our autocratic and totalitarian enemies have all been wrong. For the political origins of that campaign, I modestly refer you to what I have previously said about them at this time of year.
UPDATE: The First World War is suprisingly little discussed in popular culture and the media, other than as a metaphor invoking the supposed incompetence (not a strictly fair picture) of British generals. There is a small gem of a book giving a factual and objective account of the war's origins, course and conduct, rather than the historiographical debates, by Sir Michael Howard, The First World War, 2002. I read quite recently Sir Michael's memoirs, Captain Professor, 2006, which among other things include a brief and dignified comment about one aspect of his life I was unaware of, his being a homosexual of a generation that faced much prejudice and legal persecution. The book has a touching dedication to his partner of many years.