THE “GREAT WAR” WASN’T SO GREAT

by Geoff Olson

Publishers and broadcasters have a hankering for anniversaries.  From Darwin’s 200th birthday to the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance in America,  the celebratory stuff makes for cheap content filler. But the continuing media commemorations of World War 1 seem like a rebranding of humanity’s first shot at mass suicide.

A Google News search for articles containing “World War 1” and “commemorate” yields 20,500 results. According to my dictionary, the verb “commemorate” means to “celebrate, pay tribute to, pay homage to, honour, salute, toast; remember, recognize, acknowledge, observe, mark.”

“Commemorate” conjures up late-night informercials and magazine advertisements pitching commemorative plates, coins, or stamps; small things intended to honour iconic events or people, and solidify historical memory into household keepsakes.

From 1914 to 1918, a trench-based, panEuropean meatgrinder turned millions of young men into fertilizer,  while enriching bankers, speculators, and industrialists on both sides of the Atlantic. In marking the centenary of  the 1914-1918 conflict, big media outlets are not honouring its end. They are honouring its beginning.

And there are some other interesting word choices involved.

“The Great War” was the favoured term for the first world war up until the outbreak of the second one. That’s when we began, optimistically enough, to number global conflagrations.  The term is of Canadian vintage, with the first reference in an October 1914 edition of Maclean’s magazine. “This is the Great War. It names itself,” a small note on page 53 proclaimed.

Katherine Martin, head of Oxford’s U.S. dictionaries program, told Maclean’s the unsigned reference is “the earliest found that is clearly intended to be a name for the war, rather than a description of it. The author had posterity in mind.”

Were he still around, the anonymous author would surely be pleased with my search index spelunking.  A Google News search of “the Great War” gave 58,300 entries. In contrast, a Google News search of articles containing “World War I” gave a mere 35,300 results.

A search through the Canadian Newstand database of 300 Canadian newspapers indicates “the Great War” has appeared in print three times more than “World War 1” since April of this year.  This former term was once common to English language broadsheets and broadcasts of the Downton Abbey era – and it’s back, big time.

Perhaps the term’s resurrection represents a “random walk” in our lingo, a stylistic meme hopping across newsrooms that’s of no greater significance than “Snoop Dogg” rebranding himself as “Snoop Lion”. Or perhaps it represents a shift in the collective consciousness, with multiple generations of Canadians blissfully ignorant of the first-hand horror of war (Remember the Harper government’s centenary campaign glorifying the War of 1812 in print and broadcast advertisements?)

Consider the connotations of the adjective “great”  – from exceptional and extraordinary, to large and extensive, to  first-rate and matchless, to magnificent and awe-inspiring. Then consider the massive, decade-long policy push from Washington to foment regime change in multiple nations around the world, aided and abetted by spin from embedded media outlets.  The retrograde shift from “World War I” to “Great War” seems a natural fit with the times.

Canadian military historian Gwynne Dyer rejects the euphemisms so persistently embroidered around mass killing. “We have to believe that Flanders Field and so on was a worthwhile sacrifice, because if it wasn’t, what did we to those young men?” he noted in a recent CBC radio interview.  “All of that poetic vocabulary – “warriors fall in combat” – no, I’m sorry, young men die.”

(Not incidentally, World War II is also known as “The Good War.”)

War is hell, whether it’s conducted by  bayonet  or ballistic missile, and massive public relations campaigns are always required to sell foreign entanglements to the citizenry. In large part because of the  Bush/Cheney wars that Obama inherited (and in some places enhanced), the number of global refugees  and displaced persons – 50 million – is at the highest since WW II.  It’s unlikely anyone on the receiving end of  this “freedom-spreading” would refer to any of it as “great.”

This uncomfortable fact, along with the recent resurrection of the cold war, makes the continuing commemorative pieces on the “Great War” feel like a nauseating ride on the Cognitive Dissonance Tilt-o-Whirl.  If you’re having a hard time keeping your lunch down, welcome to the club.

The Vancouver Courier, August 29

5 thoughts on “THE “GREAT WAR” WASN’T SO GREAT

  1. Its great to see someone posting stuff like this, Geoff. We need a counterbalance. And we need someone to step up, because we are all too scared to say something different. We are sheep for a reason – fear of censure. And putting in a super-public forum like a newspaper – Wow. One really sticks one’s neck out. I admire the bravery of any columnist. You guys must take huge amounts of flack.

    And, specifically, I admire your bravery, Geoff. You must have a lot of confidence.
    I’m finding that the more I analyze my positions, and those of others, the more confident I am in the soundness of what I say.
    I guess that’s why nobody says much – it takes too much time to figure out the details of the various issues in the world, so that one is speaking with some degree of accuracy instead of just flinging mud.

  2. I guess what you are saying, is that this is all riding on gigantic seas and clouds of denial, this turning of death via blowing away internal organs in a sea of mud and shit into frilly trumpets of glory.

    We’re in denial about virtually everything, ourselves and the world included. We think and act as if nothing exists. I’m realizing that we really ARE robots, in complete fact and actuality.
    We can only handle a very little amount of stimuli before we go into shutdown mode.

    All we can really handle is the narrow little maze of our place of shelter, our place of labour, and our food locations, with occasional forays to support our genetic replacements and bask in the sun for a few minutes.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful remarks, Chris. Species-wise, I don’t find the situation completely hopeless, but “challenging” is hardly the right word to describe it either. For all the advances we make in so many areas, there appear to be retrograde forces actively working to squash them. As you say, much of it probably comes down to ingrained habits of thought, as we sleepwalk toward the cliff.

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