Editor’s note: The content below may be disturbing for some readers.
May fifth, 2021 marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, and when French President Emmanuel Macron made a landmark speech claiming, “Napoleon is a part of us,” it sparked a national debate over Napoleon’s legacy.
Napolean is lionized by some as a national hero and a military genius while others regard him as an imperialist, a warmonger, and an enslaver who reversed the abolition of slavery in the French Caribbean in 1794. But really, one can’t be a military genius without being a warmonger.
Yet throughout history conquerors like Bonaparte, Alexander the Great, Oda Nobunaga, Vlad the Impaler, and even the likes of confederate generals like General Stonewall Jackson have retained a measure of respect at least equal to the level of atrocities they committed. But when we venerate warlords and conquerors for their supposed accomplishments, we essentially glorify war itself.
But really, one can’t be a military genius without being a warmonger.
We see this glorification lingering in the present day with the media’s rather dishonest portrayal of war, which repeatedly ignores the slaughter of civilians, labeling them as mere casualties. Part of what contributes to the valorization of war, in general, is society’s failure to properly remember the historical conflicts as they were, and appropriately commemorate them without celebrating them.
Wars represent key moments in history and are often accompanied by varying, sometimes contrasting, narratives. Ideally, these narratives should contribute to peacebuilding. This should be done by recognizing the horrors suffered during these wars and using those memories as grounds to vow never to allow such suffering to be repeated. But perhaps as a way to justify the sacrifices made, many wars have often instead been celebrated.
English poet Rupert Brooke’s poetry written at the beginning of World War I articulates this. After he enlisted in Britain’s Royal Navy, he composed a series of patriotic sonnets like “The Soldier,” with lines like “If I should die, think only this of me/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England.”
Canadian poet and doctor Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Field,” which talked about how the red poppies growing in bombed fields “mark our place, and in the sky,/The larks, still bravely singing, fly.”
Such faulty glorification has even leaked into education. For instance, in Pakistan, school textbooks came under fire for attempting to instill military sentiments in students. The 1965 India-Pakistan war was touted to have instilled a spirit of unity and solidarity among the Pakistani peoples, but scholars typically agree that the content of textbooks shifted towards the glorification of war after the Pakistani military suffered defeat in East Pakistan in 1970. This further supports the idea that the way war is often celebrated is due to a desire to justify the sheer amount of death it brings and militarism often serves as propaganda.
We saw this in the west too with the role of the Allied forces who fought in World War II often sanitized to make it seem like this particular fight was a noble and just one. Everybody who fought against the Nazis has been portrayed as the unambiguous good guys, never mind the participation of the Allied forces in the mass murder of civilians via bombing and the Russian allies’ gang rape of millions of women.
But when we venerate warlords and conquerors for their supposed accomplishments, we essentially glorify war itself.
While the horrors of World War I are often credited with changing the general outlook on war as something terrible and brutal versus prior views of it as something honorable, World War II’s desperate propagandizing to recruit as many forces as possible inevitably lent itself towards glorifying the war effort. As such, something of a myth has been created around the idea of World War II being “the good war” in comparison to the admittedly ambiguous nature of the first World War.
Setting up the Allied forces as the clear-cut heroes of World War II has also contributed to a similar problem seen with Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and even Imperialist Britain. What is now understood as liberal interventionism is the idea that the west is of superior integrity and therefore justified in intervening in other nations’ affairs by way of invading. There’s an echo of self-aggrandizing entitlement to other countries’ resources or power that can be traced back to the arrogance of these warlords. They’re powerful, so they’re better, so they get to take what they want.
When we look at the history of any conquerors or military forces we should always remember what they did to earn their reputation. War is first and foremost about death. It does not matter what place in history these battles have earned these forces, conquest has only ever been achieved through violence and oppression. It needs to stop being viewed as an accomplishment, warlords need to stop being honored, and war needs to stop being celebrated.
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