The weekend of 11 November 2018 saw a remarkable set of commemorative events, particularly in France and the UK, to mark the centenary of the ceasefire that ended World War I. This event is less well-remembered in Germany, where it is overshadowed by the catastrophe of Nazism and World War II. It also seems to have made a smaller impact in the United States, where it has been absorbed into the more diffuse Veterans Day. Although both France and the UK remember those who served and died in later wars, World War I provides the basis of the whole iconography of their ceremonies.
The memorialization was in itself a contested development. The nation’s first response was to party in celebration of the safe return of most of those who had served in the military. It is often forgotten that over 80 percent of those who went to war survived. For many, it had been a welcome disruption from the dreary lives of poor working class communities in the nations and regions of the UK. The idea of an act of national mourning came later as a response to the sentiments of parents, wives and fiancées who had lost men in the war. The celebratory mood was also undercut by the difficulties of transition to a peacetime economy. The country was not the changed nation that many ordinary soldiers had hoped for. Nevertheless, contemporaries did not see the war as wasteful and futile in the same way as have academic historians and creators of popular culture since the 1960s.
While few families were untouched by the war, there seems to have been little sense of the horrors of industrial warfare. Both my grandfathers served in the war, one in France and one in Egypt. They died before I was born but there are no family legends about either’s experiences. Their military careers would have to be reconstructed from official records. In contrast, my father was concerned to leave a family record of his contribution to WWII, although he only talked about the more difficult parts at the end of his life – clearing out a prison camp for political prisoners, clashes over the culpability of local government officials for their compliance with Nazi instructions, and the way his service was dogged by his pre-war record as a ‘premature anti-fascist’. He had also had the rare experience for a soldier of knowingly killing an individual enemy, when two patrols strayed into each other’s path in a Normandy field. My uncle was one of those who did not get off the beach at Dunkirk. He spent the war as a prisoner, which seems to have been a traumatic experience, especially as food became short towards the end of the war. Neither man fully recovered, although both led successful family and working lives. My uncle had periodic bouts of depression and my father had regular nightmares as memories of his experiences resurfaced.
No-one in the family who had seen active service bought the myth of heroism and the cult of the veteran, imported into the UK in recent years. The deification of military service was a weak gesture by a generation of politicians who had no experience of it. Going to war was a job to be done not an act of self-indulgence. It was unpleasant but necessary. As such it triggers a set of questions that sociology is not well-equipped to deal with. My occasional attempts to raise them with colleagues have been met with incomprehension if not outright dismissal.
What are these issues? They are about we understand our sense of national identity, about our concept of duty and service, and, ultimately, about the nature of masculinity. As an occupational community, UK sociology has been dominated since the 1950s by people who are only lightly rooted in a sense of nation, often refugees from countries more hostile to independent thought or in revolt against the myths of Empire. Many have been pacifists, or come from backgrounds sympathetic to pacifism. Most of my women colleagues have no comprehension of the question that many men inevitably face: if I were ever called to fight in a war, would I acquit myself as well as the men who went before me? To dismiss this as ‘toxic masculinity’ is just glib. It is a very deep and fundamental question about self and identity. Could I pass this test with honour? Could I set aside the comforts and constraints of civilian life to place my life in the line of fire?
In some ways, my generation have been lucky not to have to answer those questions. We have had an unparalleled period of peace in Europe and wars have been fought in far-off places by professional armies. At the same time, we may have a lingering sense of unresolved doubt. Would we have risen to the occasion if required?
To the extent that UK sociology notices such questions at all, it is often to lump them together with the sort of imperial nostalgia of Brexit voters. Empire 2.0 is not coming back. Leaving the EU will not make the UK a white man’s country again. In the modern world no-one really controls their own borders and their own economy. If we want a serious understanding of cultural and political conservatism, though, a more nuanced view is essential. Just how much change can a society accommodate in how short a period without pushing its uncertain members into the arms of those offering binary certainties?