I should probably be inured to articles arguing that even though europe endured “two twentieth-century apocalypses that left it depopulated and permanently traumatized” it is wrong for europeans to have drawn any conclusions, or learnt any lessons, from the First and Second World Wars. And yet, I’m afraid, I continue to be irritated by such pieces, not least because they invariably demand that europeans prove their moral seriousness by going to war more frequently, regardless of the cost or even the cause involved. Equally, it’s startling quite how many people never met a war they couldn’t embrace and champion.
Michael Oren, historian and prospective Israeli ambassador to Washington, seems to be one such chap. His latest rant – dressed up in learned clothes of course – in the New Republic is pegged to the unveiling (some time ago) of a couple of memorials to those soldiers executed for desertion or cowardice during the First World War. Apparently:
Oren writes of the “de-glorifying” of the First World War as though that was a bad thing. But while war can inspire heroic and humbling feats, only moral simpletons can persist in thinking that there’s something ennobling about it.
What should we make of this practice of immortalizing deserters? Morally speaking, it is a complicated matter. World War I was in many respects a dubious enterprise, and those who desert from unjust wars might correctly be regarded with sympathy. The issue grows murkier, however, when an admiration for deserters from particular wars bleeds into an admiration for desertion as a general practice. There is reason to worry that this is precisely what is happening–to fear that the monuments in Belgium and Britain are symptoms of European attitudes toward not just World War I soldiers but toward all soldiers, even those who fight in just causes. And, if that is true, one might well ask: Can a society that valorizes its deserters long survive?