Archive for August, 2010

Keith Park, art and fascism

14 August 2010

A google search for ‘Keith Park statue’ brings up, of course the website for the campaign to have a statue of this Hero of the Battle of Britain erected in London.  Before that, though, the top result is this piece of gibbering, irritating  rubbish from a Guardian art writer.

In a nutshell, Jonathan Jones hates the statue and all that it represents.  In being a figurative statue it highlights the stupid divide between ‘proper’ and ‘modern’ art, apparently.  In representing Sir Keith Park, it is actually ‘a fascist icon […], brooding over the heart of London’ – and therefore a symbol of all that ‘the Few’ fought against.

I don’t know enough about art to fault Jones on the quality of the statue.  His attack on the fact that it is figurative seems a little bizarre when he is criticising the divide in British art. He says that ‘Modern art was called into being by modern life, and as we hurtle into the future there is no sign of its pertinence diminishing.’ Be that as it may, the Fourth Plinth is there for contemporary art, not specifically modern art (which I take to mean it is for chronologically modern, not aesthetically ‘modernist’ or what have you). I don’t think that the Park statue is the best thing that has been on there – the HMS Victory in a bottle is very good. However, the art there is supposed to make a point, and not always an artistic point (much as that might surprise an art critic) – the point in this case being that if Dowding, Harris, Slim, et al, deserve statues, so does Keith Park.  You don’t have to be as angered by modern ignorance of 1940 as Clive James is to see that it is a valid argument, even if you disagree over whether a new statue is needed, or is aesthetically pleasing.

More worrying for me is his attitude towards the history. I don’t think many people want to see the plinth permanently taken up by a military figure. We do, though, have a history of building statues to people who played a pivotal role in the nation’s history – especially to save us from tyranny. It is also a very recent history – Slim’s statue was erected in 1990, Harris’s (amid public protest) in 1992 and Alanbrooke‘s in 1994.  Since then we have had some collective monuments – including the Battle of Britain Monument on the Victoria Embankment and the dreadful Women of World War Two one on Whitehall.  Are these fascist icons?

What Jones seems to miss, or simply not understand, is that fascism revolves around the worship of the collective – a homogeneous whole that does not accept dissent or outsiders in its midst. It is an idea that requires a dynamic leader, but which is based in ideas of a (non-pluralist) collective.  Monuments celebrating individual play a role in this, but really they should be attempting to inspire action, which the Park statue does not.  The Edith Cavell one perhaps comes closest, with the message ‘Patriotism is not enough.’  No, really, a collective monument that celebrates action is what we need if we want a fascist icon. Not the Cenotaph then, that is to the ‘glorious dead’ and doesn’t inspire action, only memory and mourning – the Women of WW2 one remembers action but does not depict it.  Actually, the Battle of Britain memorial is much more appropriate:

It depicts movement and shows the idealised fit young male, all very Junger-esque.  Indeed, the whole idea of ‘the Few’ and its retrospective idealisation is much more in line with ‘fascism’ than a statue of one of its leaders looking rather meditative is.

In fact, the word that Jones is looking for is ‘nationalist’, not fascist.  The two are not synonyms, much as some might have you think – including the BNP with their ‘nationalist’ name and fascist ideology. But then, of course, it doesn’t make such good copy – and ‘the Few’ were weren’t fighting against nationalism, they were fighting for the survival of their own nation, or rather nations. Fascism is one of those words that journalists like to use for ideas (especially anything so right-wing as celebrating a war hero, apparently) to which they object.  In this case, and I suspect many others, it is simply sloppy and inaccurate.

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Learning to bear losses

12 August 2010

Earlier this summer, the Prime Minister commented that the nation should expect a spike in casualty numbers as the summer ‘fighting season’ begins, just as Sir Jock Stirrup said last summer in the build-up to operation Panther’s Claw. These are perfectly sensible comments, the number of casualties does increase in the summer in Afghanistan – and, of course, when coalition troops carry out offensive operations.

One such statement at the start of this year struck me as very reminiscent of warnings about casualties in the First World War.  Bob Ainsworth, warning of casualties in Operation Moshtarak, said that

“Of course casualties are something we have to come to expect when we’re involved in these operations and people have had that brought home to them. This is not a safe environment and it doesn’t matter how much kit and equipment we provide for them, we cannot entirely make these operations risk-free…We shouldn’t deny or pretend to people that we can provide security and that casualties are not a very real risk on these kind of operations and people have to be prepared for that.”

Compare that with this memo, issued to the press in 1916:

Together with patience, the nation must be taught to bear losses. No amount of skill on the part of the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the part of officers and men, no superiority, however great, of arms and ammunition, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives. […] The aim for which the war is being waged is the destruction of German militarism. Three years of war and the loss of one-tenth of the manhood of the nation is not too great a price to pay in such a cause.

The writer was the new commander-in-chief of the army in France and Flanders, Douglas Haig.  These days, Haig is seen as the quintessential callous butcher of the Western Front.  This comment can be read as a heartless disregard for the lives of his men, suggesting that 2 million war deaths would not be too high a price.  Actually, though, it is a recognition – like Ainsworth’s – of the need to link the costs of war to its aims and scale. The war’s are of vastly different scales (Britain’s losses of Afghanistan being similar to those of a small town in 1914-18), but reaction to war deaths is still vitally important.

Work by American academics looking at public opinion have concluded that support for wars is affected by ‘elite cues‘ (whether those politicians/parties with whom one agrees with on other issues support the war), identifiable objectives (or reasons for fighting) and perceived likelihood of success. In their view, casualties are less important – they add to disillusionment if these other factors are lacking.

In the Great War, great losses were largely accepted because the aims were seen as just and important – the defence of the nation and men’s homes and families from an apparently barbarous enemy. The idea that people did not know the level of casualties (repeated, for example, by Walter Lippman) is, frankly, rubbish – at least in terms of the UK.  Lists of the dead were published in national and local press, as were total national casualty figures from 1916. While people believed in eventual (or imminent) accepted the reasons for the war – basically national defence – people continued to support the war.

In Afghanistan, by contrast, it is far from clear to most people why our troops are there. A recent yougov poll for Chatham House showed division between staying the course, coming out in a year or two and withdrawing immediately.  In Iraq, of course, support was partial from the start.

Wars cost lives. It’s an inescapable truth.  The public can cope with it if they think that the war is just and winnable.  If those key beliefs are lost, public support for the war falls away and casualties bring opposition to the war.