A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 1 June 2014

The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori

Yet, still a space remains on Shoreham's memorial where Pte Highgate's name could go.
Maj Michael Green, president of the local branch of the Royal British Legion, said the issue has been repeatedly discussed.

"They feel that as a deserter he shouldn't be included. He wasn't killed [in the fighting], he was killed as a deserter," he said.
"I don't see why he should be included on the war memorial with those that actually served and died in the course of duty.
"We will continue to discuss it but I feel it sets a poor precedent. But, that is my view and not necessarily the final view."
(from Watson, G, "World War One: Thomas Highgate first to be shot for cowardice" at the BBC website)

I feel that, in any discussion of how to remember the war dead, there are several different ways of dying which need to be kept separate.  These are: dying for one's country, dying for what is Right, and dying in war. Obviously it is possible for these to overlap in the death of an individual; the main point is that, if dying in manner A justifies a memorial of type N, then unless a person's death fulfils criterion A then they should presumptively not be remembered in manner N.

Why do we have actual war memorials? Each of the ways I have dying suggests a different reason or set of reasons for remembering the dead. I shall elucidate the basic moral reasoning which might justify remembering people who have died in each way, and then I shall see how well each fits as a descriptive model of how we actually remember.

Dying for what is Right

If someone has died for what is Right, then I think we would tend to agree that it is appropriate to remember them well, to mourn their loss, and to celebrate what they achieved. The problem with this as a descriptive, rather than merely normative, model of war memorials is that examples of people who genuinely died for what was Right are vanishingly few. Certainly, the people who we devote the most attention to remembering - the soldiers of the World Wars - do not fit this description. World War One was a clash of opposing imperialist forces and while some sides - particularly Germany - were more in the wrong than others, the fact is that no government had any legitimate moral reason to send people to die in the First World War. World War Two is slightly more complicated, in that in the form of the Nazis there was one obviously evil side. But the fact that the Nazis were horrific does not justify their enemies - Stalin in particular was just as bad as Hitler, and while the western Allies were nowhere near as bad as either of these one can point to numerous cases where they violated the tenets of just war ethics (see G.E.M Anscombe, Just War: The Case of the Second World War).

Perhaps one might say that, though the Allies were themselves unjust in their conduct during World War Two, this is ameliorated by the nature of the evil that they opposed. But this relies far too heavily on what we now know as opposed to what was known at the time. In 1939 Hitler was known to be expansionist, untrustworthy and aggressive, but if one is opposed to militarism and imperialism then it is hard to see how one would combat these by joining an army belonging to an Empire which controlled fully one-quarter of the earth's land mass. In hindsight we know that the Nazis' atrocities were far worse than this, we know of the death camps and the holocaust - but the Allies of 1939 did not know this. They discovered  these atrocities by liberating the concentration camps, and were not only horrified but amazed at the evil they were encountering. This can hardly be judged to have impacted their decision to join in the war and so risk their lives.

Dying in war

Second, we might remember people simply because they died in war. The most obvious defence of this is that while dying in war is not inherently worse than dying in any other circumstance, war is a particular atrocity in large part because of the many deaths it causes, and by remembering those who died in war we make future wars less likely.

One objection to this as a descriptive model would be that we do not tend to remember foreign dead - remembrance services will contain Union Jack but not French flags or Soviet flags; the absence of Swastikas is quite understandable but either the flag of the Second Reich or that of modern Germany would surely be an acceptable alternative? The response to this is probably that, by focusing upon domestic dead, we make the loss more personal. Rightly or wrongly (no, let's be honest - wrongly) we consider the deaths of millions of foreigners to be less important than the deaths of our fellow countrymen, and since ultimately it is the reduction of war we care about this is a lack of virtue we are best to tolerate and adapt to.

A far bigger problem for this theory is that remembrance services are so unashamedly military in their focus. We have - in places of honour, no less - the flags of the very nations which condemned their sons to death. We play a military horn call. We have plaques inscribed with the names of each and every individual soldier who died, whereas the many civilians killed will be lucky to get a collective mention in passing.

World War One was relatively unobtrusive in terms of its combatant deaths - civilian deaths ratio: around 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians. World War Two was far closer to the historical norm, with around 2 civilian fatalities for each combatant who died - about 49 million and 24 million respectively. Admittedly there was a strong skew towards military deaths in the UK, so perhaps we might expect more of a focus on dead soldiers here, but civilians were still a solid 15% or so of UK fatalities in WWII and I have yet to see a single plaque dedicated to a named victim of the blitz, as opposed to the plaques to be found in every church and village square naming and giving the dates and regiment of every man of the parish killed in each world war. Moreover, whereas we will of course talk of "the horrors of war" when describing the conditions for soldiers, "the spirit of the blitz" has almost entirely positive connotations of everyone pulling together to help each other and collectively work towards victory. Quite simply, while this may provide the strongest normative reason for remembering the dead of war, the actual form of remembrance which it would imply is so radically different from the way remembrance is practised that it cannot be the actual reason for remembering the dead.

Dying for one's country

Let's not pretend that this in any way provides a normative justification for remembrance. Regardless of what the modern state is like, the nation-states which fought the first world war were illegitimate monstrosities, as were most if not all of the states which fought the second world war. Moreover, it is hard to see why there should be any virtue attached to dying for one's country: if the fact of someone's having died in the service of the British state is sufficient reason for them to be remembered by all Britons, then does someone's having died in the service of Nazism give an equally strong reason for them to be remembered by all Germans? Perhaps we may argue that the German state has undergone fundamental changes since then, which remove or weaken the link between modern Germans and the Nazi state. But then I struggle to see why any woman has reason to remember the dead of WWI, given that at this point in history there was not a single nation which included them as political participants with voting rights. Moreover, the French and Russians have even less reason for remembrance than the Germans, having each undergone multiple fundamental changes in their political systems since the beginning of WWI.

With that said, it is not hard to see why states might wish to promote this kind of remembrance - as a way of promoting loyalty from citizens, and (by presenting the history of the state in opposing the horrors that were its enemies) to reduce citizens' abilities to distinguish between the interests of the state and what is Right. This would explain the militarised nature of remembrance services, including the focus upon those who died serving the state - soldiers - and the overlooking of those who either opposed it - foreigners - or died in a way which did not serve the state - civilians.

Conclusion, and Should Thomas Highgate be remembered?

Clearly morality demands large changes in the way we remember the dead of war. We should remember the dead of all nations, not just our own (and by that I mean to say that British soldiers are of no higher importance in being remembered than Nazi soldiers) and should focus far more upon the many innocent civilians who have suffered from war than the soldiers who were in most if not all cases responsible for the destruction. The current form of remembrance may be better than no remembrance at all if it serves to reduce the likelihood of future wars, but this is clearly not the actual reason why remembrance occurs.

Did Thomas Highgate die in a way which provides moral justification for his remembrance? No, he did not. The question, then, is whether remembering him reinforces the current, over-militarised and immoral form of remembrance that we have, or shifts it towards a more cosmopolitan form of remembrance which accounts for civilians and for foreigners. In this case, it is in fact better to remember him if he was guilty of desertion, since as a civilian who was murdered by his own government we can in remembering him gain a (very slightly) more rounded view of the horrors of war. If he was not, in fact, guilty of the crime for which he was executed, then he is merely another military casualty whose death we may regret, but should be far less concerned to remember than pretty much anyone else who currently lacks recognition for their death in war.

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