Saturday, 7 June 2014

Three articles on D Day

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of D Day, often presented as the final crucial battle of world war two. Here are three perspectives on the significance of this day:

Alan Woods, writing for 'In Defence of Marxism' (21/07/2004)

Last month's celebrations around the 60th anniversary of D-day were designed to perpetuate a myth. The Normandy landings did not end the Second World War in Europe, which was fought and won on the eastern front.

To say this is not to belittle the courage of the British and American troops. The soldiers who had to endure the Normandy landings went through hell. According to figures issued by Supreme Headquarters, Allied casualties in the first 15 days of battle totalled 40,549. The British lost 1,842 killed, 8,599 wounded, and 3,131 missing. The Americans lost 3,082 killed, 13,121 wounded, and 7,959 missing. The Canadians lost 363 killed, 1,359 wounded and 1,093 missing. This was bad enough Yet it does not bear comparison with the appalling losses suffered on the eastern front. (See Martin Gilbert, Second World War, p. 536.)

All the peoples paid a terrible price for the War. Britain's casualties totalled 370,000, the USA, 300,000. But the Soviet Union lost a staggering 27 millions – about half of all the casualties of the Second World War. According to one estimate, even before the Normandy landings, 90 percent of all young men between the age of 18 and 21 in the Soviet Union had already been killed. These chilling figures accurately express the real situation. They show that the people of the Soviet Union suffered a disproportionate number of casualties, because the main front in Europe was the eastern front.”

Gwynne Dwyer, writing for the Winnepeg Free Press (06/06/2014)

It seems churlish to insist the Second World War was just another great-power conflict on the day when the last survivors of the generation who fought in it are gathering, probably for the last time, to honour those who died on the beaches of Normandy. But there is no other time when people will actually pause to listen to such an assertion, and it is important they understand it.

If the world wars were moral crusades against evil, then our only hope of avoiding more such tragedies in the future (probably fought with nuclear weapons) would be to extinguish evil in the world. Whereas if they were actually traditional great-power wars, lightly disguised, then we might hope to stop them just by changing the way the international system works.”

An anonymous editor, writing for the Guardian (05/06/2014)

The British understanding of D-day has probably shifted more than that of any other nation. At first we thought we British had won the war, with some late-arriving help. Then we conceded, bearing in mind the Pacific, that the Americans had won it. Only later was it grasped that Russia had borne the greatest strain.

Even now, an obsolete view of Britain's role underpins isolationist thinking in this country. What is not disputed is that the way the western allies fought increased the pressures for more democratic and egalitarian societies. The distance between officers and men shrank, engagement and understanding was as important as obedience, men and women worked with equal energy for victory and, as bombs tore at the cities, shared risks.

All this prefigured a different attitude to class and gender after the fighting stopped. The level of solidarity achieved during the conflict, even if somewhat romanticised, has become a standard by which to measure how far we have fallen since.”

Link to full article 

Whereas the first two articles take a critical historical perspective, the Guardian article swiftly and deftly brackets off any concern with actual history ('Only later was it grasped that Russia had borne the greatest strain'), and then proceeds to establish D Day as a repository of timeless values ('a standard by which to measure how far we have fallen since'). Reading the comments BTL on this article and others, the emphasis is often put on the generation itself: the Greatest generation (heroic 1940s people fighting fascism), and the Greatest victory (defeat of Hitler). This is put in stark contrast with our contemporary 'fallen' generation, who have no idea of the sacrifices, the solidarity, the values of the Great 1940s Heroes.

Although I endorse the critical historical engagement of the first two articles, and find the ideological undercurrents of the Guardian article deeply disturbing, I'm not sure that this sort of commemorative ideology is actually challenged by an honest, sober, critical historical perspective. Just like with our own ANZAC Day, history itself is very quickly disposed of: what we are morally compelled to "Remember" is not an historical event at all but a set of moral values. It is very easy for the writers of these quasi religious tracts to accept the charges - eg, 'Yes, OK, it was the Russians who really won the war' - even to the extent that war itself is held up to be a tragic and horrible waste. 

On the other hand, it appears very difficult for people who are suspicious of these hagiographical efforts to denounce them for what they are, without appearing monstrous or insensitive. Of course, Hitler was a very evil man, and fascism had to be defeated. Of course, the men who fought in battles such as D Day displayed bravery. 

What bugs me the most are two things: first, the idea that battles themselves are the most important and significant things we should remember. It's the context of those battles, and the sort of sober, critical historical understanding I mentioned above, which needs to be promoted. I don't completely object to the sentimental commemoration of dead soldiers, it's the fact that this is what dominates our collective "memory" which disturbs me.

Secondly, the idea that we must look to the past for moral role models, and that we can find them in dead soldiers. The subtext - sometimes very explicitly stated - is that we are unaware of the "price of freedom" which has been payed by soldiers such as those who fought in the Normandy landings in 1944. We are morally compelled to remember their sacrifice, which involves assuming a grateful, humble, reverent attitude towards our Heroic forebears. There's a reactionary conservatism here which is dressed up in the clothes of sentiment. We are the ungrateful, spoiled children of the 21st century. We must recognise our privilege, and bow our heads before our morally superior ancestors.

Edit (14/06/2014)
This post was written in a bit of a hurry, and it would have been better if I had included  this discussion between two socialists about the nature of D Day. 

I am relatively ignorant about the historical and military intricacies involved in this sort of discussion. This is partly why I focus on the ideological side of the issue. 

I didn't mean to imply that critical historical engagement - whether Marxist, like Gwynne Dwyer, or otherwise - was pointless or irrelevant. I think the exact opposite; it should be relevant and we should do as much as possible to promote a thinking attitude, rather than a reverential attitude, towards history.

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