Ideas of Mass Destruction | Timothy Dennis

The 75th anniversary of VE Day was a significant moment in UK and European history. A chance to reflect even in the midst of a national crisis that a previous, disappearing generation endured an event that was by any standard far worse and more prolonged than any other. The celebrations were curtailed but not ignored, already buoyed by the humility of Captain (now Colonel) Tom’s fundraising efforts. The response to it demonstrated a global identification with the determined but gently expressed values he communicated.  It tapped into something that in recent weeks appears to have disappeared – a sense of pride in the UK’s past.

The Second World War was waged by a coalition of allied nations against a common foe with the shared goal of defeating it. The Allies were not easy partners in that endeavour; each party brought differing interests, resources and cultures to the cause. Bitter disagreements took place, but they remained coherent in their pursuit of defeating the Axis powers. Millions of ordinary men and women of all creeds and cultures took part in that sanguinary conflict. Our acts of remembrance acknowledge all of them without preference, which is perhaps what makes the vandalising of the Cenotaph and other memorials uniquely and profoundly painful to the national conscience. 

There are obvious occasions for debating the manner in which the UK and its allies brought about ultimate victory. Vast programs of strategic bombing and the use of nuclear weapons spring to mind almost immediately. There is no debate that good people for a noble cause committed objectively terrible acts. Those complex and morally unflattering aspects of the Allied war effort do not erase the undeniable good that was brought about by the defeat of Nazi Germany and its intentions for the world.

The desire to eradicate prejudice and bigotry in our societies is a similar common cause. No one could hope to deny such a wish, but to do so requires a similar coherence of purpose to that demonstrated by our forebears. The endless cycle of protest and counter-protest in the UK has demonstrated an acute inability to engage in the dialogue needed to reconcile differing groups of opinion. The rhetoric from opposing sides of the argument has become ever more extreme and neutral parties ordered to make the most totalitarian of decisions – with us, or against us.

It is difficult to imagine the consequences for the Allies during the Second World War had the Soviets unequivocally demanded that the rest of the Allies deploy every resource to the Eastern Front or be indistinguishable from Nazi Germany. What if the Allies had demanded of neutral Ireland, Portugal and Switzerland that they join and comply unquestioningly or else be considered advocates for Aryan supremacy and the holocaust? The parallels with certain present day activist groups are evident.

To debate the difficult and emotive questions of equality in UK society there is an abiding need for many to learn the importance of an open and wide-ranging dialogue. We must strive to suppress the instinct for absolutism of opinion, that natural but damaging urge to avoid the fear of uncertainty. The spiraling situation being played out in the media, online and on our streets testifies to the importance of this. As the issue of equality of all forms causes ever-greater divides, the penalties for violently entrenched opinion are on lurid display across the country.

There is certainly a paradox with comparing the Second World War with the deadlocked social debate consuming present day Britain. That struggle was fought against an external enemy that presented a common threat.  The battle for social justice has become so complex and polarising because it has seen the nation go to war with itself over its very identity. It is no small thing to be told that you must acknowledge an unverifiable truth that goes against your instincts, but also agree to wholly discredit the nation’s heritage in tandem. This approach is almost certain to provoke an equally uncompromising set of reactions.

Another significant pillar of UK history, the Battle of Waterloo, passed unremarked upon for most on the 18th June, significant in mainstream media only for the surrender of increasing sections of the British establishment to moral panic. Waterloo was fought, like the Second World War, as a coalition effort both of which had lasting ramifications for the present day. The campaign was waged primarily by commanders possessed of an intense scepticism of each other’s motivations and the soldiers they commanded were from a diverse range of nations with competing political agendas and various levels of enthusiasm for the cause. As with the Allied armies over a century later, they achieved success because they were able to overcome those differences. We are fortunate to live in a time of easy access to information containing a wealth of instances throughout world history that provide lessons in healthy disagreement, cooperation and mutual benefit.

205 years after Napoleon’s defeat no lesson from any historical event can be heard over the cacophony of abuse that characterises the new and terrible total war being waged against, not for, equality. The narratives being employed appear to be driving a vicious cycle of escalation between all parties and radicalising the opinions of those whose patience has run thin and acceded to the requirement to choose a side. Continuing the debate in such a bitterly divisive fashion has almost no chance of a positive outcome. To paraphrase the Duke of Wellington – the cost of a totalitarian victory for any side in the battle for ‘equality’ would far exceed that of a battle lost.

Photo by Ziggy Zsot on Flickr.

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