As the centenary of the First World War approaches this year, a blimpish brigade of British politicians and writers is mobilising for a full-scale assault on the view - thankfully well-established in Britain - that World War I was a meaningless bloodbath. In the mainstream media in recent weeks, for example, it has been difficult to avoid the Education Secretary Michael Gove's attempts to present the 'Great War' as an heroic struggle for democracy - a 'just war', no less. A cunning if not learned man (as Leszek Kołakowski once argued, the right needs only tactics, not ideas), Gove has struck a liberal pluralist pose for BBC Radio 4 listeners, arguing that no single view of the war should be allowed to prevail, and a more populist, jingoistic stance for the right-wing tabloids, in which readers are advised to ignore leftists who denigrate patriotism (in truth, however, Gove should have no great concern on this account, since Gove's opposite number in the Labour party, Tristram Hunt, has an equally patriotic perspective on the war).
Gove takes particular issue with the many British film and television representations of World War I that emphasize the corruption of the British ruling class and the sufferings of the soldiers (Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer, Blackadder Goes Forth - and we could add Days of Hope). Now, despite teaching a course about British television drama, I must confess that until I sat down with the DVD box set this week, I had never watched Alan Bleasdale's The Monocled Mutineer - which tells the story of the 1917 mutiny of British soldiers in Étaples - from beginning to end. Featuring an electrifying performance from Paul McGann in the title role, the BBC drama broadly presents a working class view of the war: as the soldiers experience the inhumanity of war, some of them come to realise that their real enemies are not the working class Germans facing them in the trenches - who are barely mentioned in the course of the four-part serial - but their own generals and military police.
But while we are at it, we should also challenge nationalistic and patriotic understandings of the Second World War. This is, of course, much harder to do, since the myth that World War II was a 'Good War' fought for 'democracy' is deeply entrenched institutionally, politically and culturally. One struggles to name many popular films, novels or television dramas that question the purpose of the war. Popular culture has thoroughly heroised the allied 'war effort', registering only the atrocities of the axis powers, as though the terror bombings of Hamburg and Dresden, the manufacture of the Bengal famine, and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki never happened. To take only the most recent example, Jonathan Teplitzy's Second World War-themed The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth, depicts the Japanese guards and Kempeitai who harass and torture their British prisoners as witless and bestial, while the Australians who finally rescue the British from captivity are 'civilised' (the adjective is emphasised by an Australian officer in an address to his new Japanese captives).
In reality, however, the allied treatment of the Japanese in World War II was rather different: as James Heartfield notes in his Unpatriotic History of the Second World War, for example, US forces made no accommodation for Japanese prisoners; rather, they often simply slaughtered them, a practice consistent with the propaganda message that the Japanese were subhuman. Heartfield points to the description of the Pacific war given by the British serviceman and Atlantic Monthly correspondent Edgar L. Jones in 1946:
"We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers"
The racial thinking underpinning such barbarism, which allowed the Western public to accept the vaporization of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has been a staple of US military propaganda, as Nick Turse's recent book on the American war in Vietnam, Kill Anything That Moves, makes all too clear. By presenting a one-sided narrative of white victimhood and Japanese brutality, The Railway Man participates in this racist imaginary.