Monday, August 18, 2014

What are we fighting for? A cynical comment on war

The daily ceremony at the Menin Gate for the British and Commonwealth soldiers killed near
Ypres during World War I and whose graves are unknown attracts always many spectators

These days it is hundred years ago that the First World War broke out. Especially the countries involved in this war, like France, Belgium, Britain and Germany, will commemorate it and all the events that followed till the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that ended this war. Recently I was in France for my photo exhibition there and for my summer holiday and everywhere I saw preparations for the coming commemorations and the first have already been held. For instance, on August 2 the church bells were rung, remembering that this was also done when the French army was mobilized 100 years ago. Especially two things were striking when I was there: the big number of articles on World War I in the local newspapers and that all war monuments in the region where I was (Lorraine) had been cleaned and restored. France is well prepared for the four (or actually five) years lasting commemoration.
Commemorating is only one aspect of an afterwar period. Another one is war tourism: visiting places where battles have taken place. Especially sites known from the Second World War and even more so from the First World War attract an increasing number of tourists. But also battlefields of other wars are popular: Waterloo, Gettysburg, and so on. I must say that I am also guilty of war tourism, for not only have I visited nearly the whole Western Front of World War One during the years, but recently I have also been to the battle field of Lake Trasimene in Italy (Hannibal versus the Roman) and to Alesia (Caesar versus the Gauls) again in France.
War tourism is probably of all ages and it “belongs” to war. The First World War had hardly ended or relatives of the British soldiers came to Ypres in Belgium in order to see where their sons had died. I cannot prove it, but I think that it was the same for other battle fields, at least for some. Moreover, on such places there is always something to find for collectors and robbers: souvenirs and valuables. What is different today, however, is the commercialization of war tourism. Already in the 19th century Thomas Cook organised comparable trips but today such trips are organised not only for people with a specific interest in war and history but they have become part of the tourism industry. I have nothing against it but some battle fields are gradually becoming a kind of amusement park, which is quite a nasty idea, since the “amusement” is there because thousands of people have died on the site.
It is also nasty for another reason. Many wars and battles belong not only factually to the past but also emotionally. Unlike still the Vietnam War, the Second World War and also often yet the First World War, wars further away in history have become neutral facts. Who is yet emotionally aroused by the battle between Caesar and Vercingetorix in 52 BC or let’s say the Battle of Nicaea in 193 AD between two Roman armies, led by two would-be Roman emperors? Often people hardly know anymore what the battle was about or from the perspective of today we find the reason for the battle stupid or unreal. Let’s take a present example. During the ages France and Germany have fought many wars, but today even the idea that these countries would send out armies against each other sounds absurd. History has changed once real possibilities. Motives that once could lead to war between these countries have disappeared, anyhow, and conflicts between these countries are solved peacefully. In view of this, one can wonder what the soldiers on the battle fields of the past have been fighting for and why they had to die. Did it ever had sense in view of the present world situation that the Franco-German wars were fought? I know that it’s a very ahistoric idea, but why can France and Germany now stand hand in hand together while in 1914 (and in 1939) they extended their hands against each other? It’s a very cynical remark, indeed, and I do not want to deny the heroism and patriotism of the soldiers (these concepts being taken in a positive way in the sense of being prepared to do what is valuable; not in the sense of a plain machismo or nationalism), but in the light of present-day views one would tend to say that these wars were waged for the pleasure of the modern tourist. I think that if one could learn a lesson from all those battles fought in the course of history it is the adage that originated on the battle fields of Vietnam, so to speak: Make love, not war. But looking around at what is happening in the world today, I am afraid that mankind will never learn and that the battle fields of Gaza, Iraq, the Ukraine etc. will be the tourist resorts of the future.

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