27 Feb

How War Horse Skips Over the Greatest Moral Drama of WWI

The film had a disappointing night at the Oscars. It also leaves out the anti-war history of World War I.

—By Adam Hochschild

Mon Feb. 27, 2012 3:00 AM PST

 Submitted by: Michael

War Horse

This story first appeared at the TomDispatch website.

Audio of  Adam Hochschild above

Well in advance of the 2014 centennial of the beginning of “the war  to end all wars,” the First World War is suddenly everywhere in our  lives. Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse opened on 2,376 movie screens and has collected six Oscar nominations, while the hugely successful play it’s based on is still packing in the crowds in New York City and a second production is being readied to tour the country.

In addition, the must-watch TV soap opera of the last two months, Downton Abbey,  has just concluded its season on an unexpected kiss.  In seven  episodes, its upstairs-downstairs world of forbidden love and dynastic  troubles took American viewers from mid-war, 1916, beyond the Armistice,  with the venerable Abbey itself turned into a convalescent hospital for  wounded troops. Other dramas about the 1914-18 war are on the way,  among them an HBO-BBC miniseries based on Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End quartet of novels and a TV adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong from an NBC-backed production company.

In truth, there’s nothing new in this.  Filmmakers and novelists have  long been fascinated by the way the optimistic, sunlit, pre-1914 Europe  of emperors in plumed helmets and hussars on parade so quickly turned  into a mass slaughterhouse on an unprecedented scale. And there are good  reasons to look at the First World War carefully and closely.

After all, it was responsible for the deaths of some 9 million  soldiers and an even larger number of civilians.  It helped ignite the  Armenian genocide and the Russian Revolution, left large swaths of  Europe in smoldering ruins, and remade the world for the worse in almost  every conceivable way—above all, by laying the groundwork for a second  and even more deadly, even more global war.

There are good reasons as well for us to be particularly haunted by  what happened in those war years to the country that figures in all four  of these film and TV productions: Britain. In 1914, that nation was at  the apex of glory, the unquestioned global superpower, ruling over the  largest empire the world had ever seen. Four and a half years later its  national debt had increased tenfold, more than 720,000 British soldiers  were dead, and hundreds of thousands more seriously wounded, many of  them missing arms, legs, eyes, genitals.

The toll fell particularly heavily on the educated classes that  supplied the young lieutenants and captains who led their troops out of  the trenches and into murderous machine-gun fire. To give but a single  stunning example, of the men who graduated from Oxford in 1913, 31 percent were  killed.

“Swept Away in a Red Blast of Hate”

Yet curiously, for all the spectacle of boy and horse, thundering  cavalry charges, muddy trenches, and wartime love and loss, the makers  of War Horse, Downton Abbey, and—I have no doubt—the  similar productions we’ll soon be watching largely skip over the  greatest moral drama of those years of conflict, one that continues to  echo in our own time of costly and needless wars. They do so by leaving  out part of the cast of characters of that moment.  The First World War  was not just a battle between rival armies, but also a powerful, if  one-sided, battle between those who assumed the war was a noble crusade  and those who thought it absolute madness.

The war’s opponents went to jail in many countries.  There were more  than 500 conscientious objectors imprisoned in the United States in  those years, for example, plus others jailed for speaking out against  joining the conflict. Eugene V. Debs  had known prison from his time as a railway union leader, but he spent  far longer behind bars—more than two years—for urging American men to  resist the draft. Convicted of sedition, he was still in his cell at the  federal penitentiary in Atlanta in November 1920 when, long after the  war ended, he received nearly a million votes as the Socialist candidate  for President.

One  American protest against the war turned to tragedy when, in 1917,  Oklahoma police arrested nearly 500 draft resisters—white, black, and  Native American—taking part in what they called the Green Corn Rebellion against “a rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” Three were killed and many injured.

War resisters were also thrown in jail in Germany and Russia. But the  country with the largest and best organized anti-war movement—and here’s  where the creators of those film and TV costume dramas so beloved by Anglophile American audiences miss a crucial opportunity—was Britain.

The main reason opposition to the war proved relatively strong there  was simple enough: In 1914, the island nation had not been attacked.  German invaders marched into France and Belgium, but Germany hoped  Britain would stay out of the war. And so did some Britons. When their  country joined the fighting on the grounds that Germany had violated  Belgian neutrality, a vocal minority continued to insist that jumping  into a quarrel among other countries was a disastrous mistake.

Keir Hardie  was a prominent early war opponent.  A trade union leader and Member of  Parliament, he had, by the age of 21, already spent half his life as a  coal miner and he never went to school.  Nonetheless, he became one of  the great orators of the age, mesmerizing crowds with his eloquence, his  piercing, heavy-browed eyes, and a striking red beard. Crushed with  despair that millions of Europe’s working men were slaughtering one  another rather than making common cause in fighting for their rights,  his beard white, he died in 1915, still in his 50s.

Among those who bravely challenged the war fever, whose rallies were  often violently broken up by the police or patriotic mobs, was  well-known radical feminist Charlotte Despard.  Her younger brother, amazingly, was Field Marshal Sir John French,  commander-in-chief of the Western Front for the first year and a half of  the war. A similarly riven family was the famous Pankhurst clan of  suffragettes: Sylvia Pankhurst  became an outspoken opponent of the conflict, while her sister  Christabel was from the beginning a fervent drum beater for the war  effort.  They not only stopped speaking to each other, but published  rival newspapers that regularly attacked the other’s work.

Britain’s leading investigative journalist, Edmund Dene Morel, and its most famous philosopher, Bertrand Russell,  were both passionate war critics. “This war is trivial, for all its  vastness,” Russell wrote. “No great principle is at stake, no great  human purpose is involved on either side.” He was appalled to see his  fellow citizens “swept away in a red blast of hate.”

He wrote with remarkable candor about how difficult it was to go  against the current of the national war fever “when the whole nation is  in a state of violent collective excitement. As much effort was required  to avoid sharing this excitement as would have been needed to stand out  against the extreme of hunger or sexual passion, and there was the same  feeling of going against instinct.”

Both Russell and Morel spent six months in prison for their beliefs.  Morel served his term at hard labor, carrying 100-pound slabs of jute to  the prison workshop while subsisting on a bare-bones diet during a  frigid winter when prison furnaces were last in line for the nation’s  scarce supply of coal.

Women like Violet Tillard  went to jail as well.  She worked for an anti-war newspaper banned in  1918 and was imprisoned for refusing to reveal the location of its  clandestine printing press. And among the unsung heroines of that  anti-war moment was Emily Hobhouse,  who secretly traveled through neutral Switzerland to Berlin, met the  German foreign minister, talked over possible peace terms, and then  returned to England to try to do the same with the British government.  Its officials dismissed her as a lone-wolf eccentric, but in a conflict  that killed some 20 million people, she was the sole human being who  journeyed from one side to the other and back again in search of peace.

Why We Know More About War Than Peace

By the war’s end, more than 20,000 British men had defied the draft  and, as a matter of principle, many also refused the alternative service  prescribed for conscientious objectors, like ambulance driving at the  front or working in a war industry. More than 6,000 of them were put  behind bars—up to that moment the largest number of people ever  imprisoned for political reasons in a Western democracy.

There was nothing easy about any of this.  Draft refusers were mocked  and jeered (mobs threw rotten eggs at them when given the chance),  jailed under harsh conditions, and lost the right to vote for five  years. But with war’s end, in a devastated country mourning its losses  and wondering what could possibly justify that four-year slaughter, many  people came to feel differently about the resisters. More than a half-dozen were eventually elected to the House of Commons, and the journalist  Morel became the Labour Party’s chief parliamentary spokesperson on  foreign affairs. Thirty years after the Armistice, a trade unionist  named Arthur Creech Jones, who had spent two and a half years in prison  as a war resister, was appointed to the British cabinet.

The bravery of such men and women in speaking their minds on one of  the great questions of the age cost them dearly: in public scorn, prison  terms, divided families, lost friends and jobs. And yet they are  largely forgotten today at a moment when resistance to pointless wars  should be celebrated.  Instead we almost always tend to celebrate those  who fight wars—win or lose—rather than those who oppose them.

It’s not just the films and TV shows we watch, but the monuments and  museums we build. No wonder, as General Omar Bradley once said, that we  “know more about war than we know about peace.” We tend to think of wars  as occasions for heroism, and in a narrow, simple sense they can be.  But a larger heroism, sorely lacking in Washington this last decade,  lies in daring to think through whether a war is worth fighting at all.  In looking for lessons in wars past, there’s a much deeper story to be  told than that of a boy and his horse.

Adam Hochschild is the author of King Leopold’s Ghost and Bury the Chains, among other works. His latest bestselling book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918  (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), focuses on the anti-war critics of World  War I.  Now available in paperback, it is a finalist for both the  National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times  Book Prize. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio  interview in which  Hochschild discusses the largely untold stories of  those in England who  opposed involvement in World War I and the message  they offer for our  own time, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

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