Don’t mention the war!

22 Apr

[Hat tip to George Simmers at the excellent Great War Fiction for the link]

It’s been announced that the BBC has commissioned a new five-part miniseries to run as part of the Armistice Week programming next year.  2014 will of course mark the beginning of a series of rolling centenaries for all of the war’s major events, and I’m sure the various media organs are salivating at the prospect of almost sixty weeks’ worth of contextually relevant period pieces, whether documentary, dramatic, or both.

The series in question, creatively called The Great War, will yet again focus entirely upon the Western Front, will yet again inordinately emphasize the now thoroughly problematized meta-narrative of Mud, Blood and Futility, and is being crafted by a former soap opera scribe with the express intention of condemning the war in toto and avoiding anything that might upset future German viewers.  In short, there is literally no reason for it to exist at all — nothing new under the sun.

And it’s a damned shame, it really is.  The last three decades have seen an enormous amount of work done by military historians to overturn the otherwise all-pervading cultural memory of the war as a stupid fiasco, and it’s depressing to think that none of the inevitable movies and programming and journalism are likely to give them the time of day.  Sorry, Gary Sheffield!  Sorry, Brian Bond.  Too bad, John Terraine and Richard Holmes — it’s probably for the best that neither of you lived to see this.  Still, Paul Fussell is dead too, but his perspective will no doubt run rampant.  So, no doubt, will John Laffin’s — though I wonder if they’ll have the guts to air Haig: The Unknown Soldier (1996) again.

The article linked above includes some content that is… troubling, to say the least.  Let’s take a look:

The row has echoes of The Monocled Mutineer series in the Eighties, when the BBC was accused of sensationalising a minor mutiny in the trenches.

Conveniently left out of this little contextual note is the fact that those accusations were entirely correct.  The Monocled Mutineer was an historical disgrace, whatever it may have been as entertainment; see Emma Hanna’s The Great War on the Small Screen or Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory for more on why.

If The Great War is going to be anything like Mutineer — and, let’s not kid ourselves, it will be — the kid glove treatment of it above fills me with dismay.  And this from the Daily Mail!  I carry no torch for it at all as a source of reputable journalism, but Lord Northcliffe must be spinning in his grave.  Yes, I just uttered that as a complaint; let that sink in.

The series creator Tony Jordan, a former EastEnders lead writer, said he realised the decision to give equal weight to both perspectives might cause controversy, but dismissed any critics as ‘cretins’.

He said: ‘If there’s a moron in Tunbridge Wells who thinks that what we’re commemorating is beating the s*** out of the Germans, then all I can say is these are the kinds of people who made the war happen in the first place.

‘Back then, no one knew what a world war meant. It was all going to be over by Christmas and so
all the kids dashed in – it was the equivalent of an iPod craze.’

Inspiring stuff.  George Simmers, in his post on this development, has some solid criticisms to offer when it comes to this way of thinking, but I have to note the well-poisoning that’s going on here in addition to that.

This series — and all the others like it — will face criticism from those in the military historical community for its pandering, for its facile surrender to a tired narrative, for its utter lack of originality (“hey guys, guys, seriously guys, what if — no wait, seriously — what if we talked about the war, guys, come on, what if we talked about it from the German perspective?  Come on, guys, I’m tripping out here, this is HUGE”).  It will face criticism from that community, and from those of us who support it, for blandly pushing along the prejudices of 1960s historiography rather than considering that things might actually have developed somewhat in the last fifty years.  We don’t need yet another mini-series informed by the ideas of A.J.P. Taylor, Alan Clark, and Basil Liddell Hart.  We have so many as it is.

Dismissing potential critics as “cretins” who just don’t understand is pretty insulting, and I hope this screenwriter gets exactly what he deserves.

To be clear, and to conclude, the idea of having a series of this sort include an equivalently emphasized German counterpart for the British character is perfectly fine, and even desirable.  There’s a lot of good dramatic and historical grist to mill, there, and it is simply true that a generation of young Germans suffered as much during the war as did their enemy counterparts.  This cringing insistence upon making everything “non-offensive,” however, will do no service to the war’s history — or to the millions of men and women who fought and died in it.  It is not “triumphalism” to acknowledge that the war concluded with the German army routed in the field, the German navy in mutiny, the German emperor in flight, and the German nation in a state of armed revolution.  It is simply telling the truth.  If the art produced in commemoration of the centenary of this war is too terrified of causing offense to tell the truth, what’s the point?

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3 Responses to “Don’t mention the war!”

  1. Stefan A. April 22, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    A good read as always. Is there any chance of perhaps having a post in the future which highlights the current historiography of the Great War? It seems like the older one, all too present in media and general popular history works, seems more clear in my mind rather than the current. Is one of the current main points actually acknowledging the military history involved instead of brushing it over?

    • Nick Milne April 22, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

      Yes, a post like that would be very much in order. I hope to provide a short summary of the “revisionist” school’s positions and the major works that have set them forth.

      And also yes: one of the major elements of this new historiography of the war is treating it *as a war*, and not just as a cultural epoch or a gap in history or a psychological event or a genre. Some literary scholars have been at last admitting that the apparent chaos, senselessness and futility of the war are necessary byproducts of so many of our popular first-hand accounts of it having been written by men who were very small cogs in an unimaginably vast machine — that is, the narrowness of their vision precludes a comprehensive view of the proceedings. The “revisionist” historians have been saying “yes, thank you, exactly — so why keep privileging those views if they’re so limited?”

      Peter Englund, in the preface to his extraordinarily popular ‘The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War’ (2011), notes that “the chances are that the editorial office on the other side of the planet often has a better idea of what is going on than [the infantryman does] — just as a historian, paradoxically enough, often has a better understanding of an event than those who were actually involved in it” (xi). The “revisionists” are cautiously attempting to assert this distant authority against those who have otherwise insisted that only direct personal experience can be authentically enlightening.

      But anyway — more to come.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Apologies | Wellington House - April 27, 2013

    […] had intended to keep this going all week as usual — especially after my recent post on the BBC’s upcoming series, The Great War, got so much attention on Twtter — but the […]

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