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Tuesday, August 05, 2014 

There is a light and it never goes out.

As yesterday's post probably made clear, I'm not one for state approved close to enforced commemorations, or events in general.  Remembrance Sunday just about stays on the right side of voluntary, non-politicised reflection, despite the efforts of some to turn it into a support the troops, why aren't you wearing a poppy type fest of unpleasantness.  If you really were that moved, involved yesterday by the 100th anniversary of the start of four years of (then) unparalleled carnage and unnecessary suffering to turn out the lights and have a solitary candle burn between 10 and 11, good for you.

For most though I suspect it will have just passed them by entirely.  There are no veterans of WWI left, and an ever dwindling number of those who can remember the conflict at all.  It's also impossible to pretend WWI was a noble endeavour, at least compared to its successor, as arguable as the case is that one led inexorably to the other.  You can debate all the myths or claimed myths, but none of it alters how the one real, overwhelming reason to remember is the unconscionable by modern standards waste of life, the millions sacrificed so the elite could (mostly) continue to live as they had, at least for a few more years. The collapse of empires affected us after the war, but only at the time in the form of the Bolsheviks pulling Russia out of the conflict.  Yes, there were concessions given in the form of universal suffrage once it was over, and it took the rise of Nazism to make a major European war thinkable again, yet things for the most part stayed the same.

If you were expecting much, or indeed any of this to be reflected yesterday it was a forlorn hope. The leaders from the continent hinted at the role the EU has had in keeping the peace and we got the odd reference to what followed and that was pretty much your lot. Instead there was as much ceremony as you could take, a shallow sense of the loss so many went through and not much other than the hushed, reverential tones of the most maudlin reporters the BBC could get hold of in August. The Very Reverend Dr John Hall at the Westminster Abbey service went so far as to suggest, after mentioning the failed efforts to keep the peace, everyone spend a moment not in reflection but in repentance.  Many of us have things we could, should repent, but guilt over or responsibility for the first world war isn't among them.

While there were then German apologies for the violation of Belgian neutrality, there weren't any admissions the war as a whole was something to be regretted, just the loss of life.  Particularly abrasive was the involvement of the royals, with there being no recognition of the major role the European if not British monarchs had in the conflict and its continuation.  As the Graun remarks in its leader, there was also little thought given to how much this country, Europe and the world has changed since 1914, perhaps because all those at the forefront of the commemorations would much prefer the certainties and deference of that era compared to our unruly and acerbic times.  Queenie we're told was spending the day after a private memorial quietly contemplating it all, and she definitely had the right idea.

Without wanting to go the full Simon Jenkins, it's also a difficult sell for politicians who find it remarkably easy to send in the bombers, agitate for arms sales and compete over issuing the blandest statement on the massacre of innocents by allies to convince they take anything from WWI except the idea Britain always has been and always will be great.  David Cameron, bless him, mentioned the role the navy played last week in evacuating British citizens from Libya without pausing to consider whether the need to do so could have been linked to the regime change NATO all but instigated in the country.

Maybe it was this disjunct between Cameron's solemn intoning of learning lessons from history at the same time as doing nothing about Gaza that finally convinced Baroness Warsi to resign, or it could have been the symbolism of extinguishing a candle at the aforementioned Westminster Abbey service.  Either way, there is nothing that aggravates politicians as much as one of their colleagues suddenly having a fit of conscience: it suggests they don't have such pangs, when they do.  They just don't act on them, or persuade themselves the ends justify the means.  Read the contempt expressed for Clare Short in Alastair Campbell's diaries, which at times verges on the sexist, the same echoes you can clearly detect in the response from some Tories.  Warsi was probably surprised to survive the reshuffle, and in her resignation letter expressly mentions both Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve leaving the government, the loss of "their experience and expertise" as becoming "very apparent".  As direct criticism of your party leader goes, it doesn't get much more personal.

Nor does describing the stance taken by the coalition as "morally indefensible".  Images from Gaza of the destruction wreaked in the neighbourhoods that saw the fiercest fighting are reminiscent of the streets of Aleppo and Homs, so complete is the devastation, only this happened not over months but days.  No language is strong enough to condemn Assad and his forces, yet criticism of Israeli tactics, while beefed up in recent days, has remained muted by comparison.

Warsi's resignation will be shrugged off.  Not enough people care about Gaza; it won't decide many, if any votes next year.  If she has kept a diary of her time in office and publishes it before the election, then many will conclude her real motivation was personal gain.  Nor can we pretend this is the first government to cower when it comes to Israel; Tony Blair did everything possible during the Israel-Lebanon-Hezbollah war to delay a ceasefire, rather than try to put an end to the conflict.

Blair's legacy is even more fearful when it comes to Iraq.  Under reported has been the latest major propaganda release from ISIS I mentioned last week.  It contains what I can only describe as the most disturbing video footage I have ever seen, and I'm sorry to say I've watched a lot of jihadi releases and "real gore" clips.  Some begging for their lives, dozens of Shia men are taken into sandy wasteland where all ordered to lie on their fronts.  A masked fighter then walks along the line, carefully firing a single shot from an AK47 into each man's head.  In another section, a group of men are hurried to the bank of a river (as the footage is apparently from Tikrit, it has to be the Tigris), one of their captors slapping them on the back as they pass.  Once there, on a concrete section smeared with blood, each is taken to the edge and a single shot from a pistol fired into their heads, the victim then pushed or thrown into the water.  In its former incarnations ISIS carried out a number of executions of groups of men which were filmed, but never were so many killed as in this video.  Nor did we see them being led to their death, the majority going meekly, in the same way as so many thousands of Jews were taken to their deaths by the Einsatzgruppen, walking in line, told to lie side by side, waiting for it to be their turn to be shot in the back of the head.  A group that is unafraid to record its crimes against war, against humanity, potentially the beginnings of a genocide, is one that apparently believes its otherwise ridiculous claims of being the Islamic state, immovable.  A century on from the "war to end all wars", it's the far more recent ones we entered into that should be reflected on, troubling us most.

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