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