War and Remembrance Over a Lifetime

Almost half a century ago, I was spending three years in England, studying the politics of the British scientific elite in the interwar and World War II years. The great events of those years still haunted the country as a whole, but the interest of historians had also newly spiked from 1970, as the government had just decided, rather than continuing the past procedure of opening official archives year by year, thirty years after the files had been created, to release almost all those of the Second World War at once. This also led to new availability of previously restricted private papers of important figures, and to a flood of new memoirs and scholarly monographs..

Coming from McGill, I found myself in a very different intellectual atmosphere. Montreal university campuses were overwhelmingly preoccupied locally with the rise of Quebec political nationalism, internationally with the long Vietnam War. These concerns, combined with the huge expansion of student numbers as successive waves of baby boomers arrived, had been having great impact on the McGill history department; Concordia’s moreso. The youthful mood was frequently ahistorical, or anti-historical, diverting attention even from the two World Wars. Campus turmoil was also common in Britain, and the lively London newspapers were also soon giving lavish coverage to the Watergate uproar in Washington. But for the British in general, the two big wars retained a profound social meaning little seen in Canada outside Remembrance Day. Throughout the time I was there, not just in interviewing elderly Nobel Prize winners or taking notes from documents, but in conversations in pubs, I was repeatedly reminded of the 1930s, not as the time of the Great Depression, but as the years dominated by the rise of Hitler. by the failure of the League of Nations, by Chamberlain’s failed Munich agreement, and by the conclusion of the decade with the Hitler/Stalin pact, and the start of another World War.

Winston Churchill’s heroic war leadership, above all in 1940, was also still vividly and affectionately recalled, but it was also painfully evident that the British had not at all kept the self-congratulatory view of the war still common among Americans. Even Churchill had far less of the mythic and adoring status he enjoyed in the U. S. It was not just that he had remained on the political scene in the dreary aftermath decade of 1945-55. but that further years of reflection on the war had brought increasing disillusionment. It was also a debunking time in academia, exemplified by a book by the American historian, Robert Rhodes James, Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900-1939, and several other uncharitable accounts, even questioning some of his major wartime decisions.

The scientists whose books and papers I was reading, and the dozen or so I interviewed at length, included some with sharp criticisms of Churchill, and aspects of how the war had been conducted, but most were more elegiac and philosophical than bitter, taking justifiable pride in their contributions to the great effort. But some Englishmen who had known the war at closer range saw things differently. When I was a kid in Canada decades earlier, with little sense of the awful horror and human waste of war, I had devoured books by British authors like Paul Brickhill about the heroic exploits of fighter pilots, warship commanders, and Commandos. These had included some about the cloak-and-dagger SOE [‘Special Operations Executive’] agents parachuted into occupied Europe to spy and carry out sabotage. In a London pub, I met several of these agents. One I will never forget was a quiet, reserved philologist, a scholar who traced back the origins of words for thousands of years. In the war, he had been in Yugoslavia, where he had killed many Germans, especially sentries: “I strangled them. Had to avoid noise, you see. Didn’t bother me then, but it does now. I don’t sleep well…I was quite cheerful when I got back here in 1945. But, of course, that was when we still thought we’d won the war.”

I thought of the first decade after the war, when I had been reading mostly jaunty memoirs like “Ill Met By Moonlight”, but this man and countless others like him were watching defeated Germany and Japan already on the way to becoming more industrially advanced, powerful, and prosperous than Britain, the rapid dismantling of the British Empire and its replacement by a less formal but more economically omnipotent American one. I had been sufficiently adult for years to realize how naively I had once read the tales of bravery and heroism, but even years later, as I was learning far more about the history of the war, I had not given much thought to the aftermath. That was when we still thought we’d won the war.

From the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, I saw more and more of that grim perspective appearing in both later scholarly re-examinations of the war and in popular plays, films and novels. Even those holding to a more positive note showed the change in emphasis. For example, while it had long been a commonplace that after 1945 the U.S. had replaced Britain as the great international power, British historians began to concede that this American dominance had started arriving from the earliest days of World War II itself. You can see this clearly in the many books on it appearing over the last three decades by the prolific, competent, but deflationary journalist-historian Max Hastings. His conclusions don’t go quite as far as Stalin’s blunt summary: “The British provided the time, the Americans the money, and we provided the blood.” Hastings and other historians, including some American ones like Victor Davis Hanson, have still found that the British – substantially aided by Indians, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and other Empire/Commonwealth forces – were major contributors to the Allied war effort, on land, sea, in the air, and with vital technological innovations, like Enigma decoding and centimetric radar. But it has by now become more and more evident to everyone that Britain, like France and much of the rest of Europe, was still nothing like recovered from the First World War, when drawn into another only twenty years later.

I suspect that Canadians, even some academic historians, are still only partially aware of how changes in perspective have not just affected Britain, but have broader implications for understanding and dealing with the present world. The Americans are still trying to make sense out of Vietnam. Most of them would probably be surprised to learn that their own historians have found that, in numerical terms, it was not mainly the young, but the middle-aged and older who were most consistently opposed to continuing the war; that two-thirds of all American troops were volunteers; that blacks were not disproportionately drafted or suffered disproportionately high casualties; that a 1980 poll found that 90% of the soldiers who fought in the war were glad that they had served. ‘Disillusionment’ is probably as much about how the TV networks covered the war as with political and military failures in execution. The higher American military, although generally not as bellicose as elements of the civilian population and some hawkish politicians and pundits, may still be convinced they can order things better in places like Afghanistan, if less troubled by Washington interference. Even if that may be true, it does not follow that they could deliver much cause for later rejoicing.

Remembrance or Memorial Days should hold fast to pride and love, and reject the pretentious narcissism of white poppy absolutism, but recognize their own wintry chill. The rituals may remain the same, but the historical understanding is like an unending conversation between the living and the dead.

(Neil Cameron is a Montreal historian and Discourse Online Contributor. The article above first appeared online in the Prince Arthur Herald)