Looking back in envy
What will the political elite do without D-Day – and Ronald Reagan?
What will the political elite do without D-Day – and Ronald Reagan? The last official commemoration of D-Day took place on Sunday, with a solemn ceremony in France to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the amphibious invasion of Normandy by Allied forces. As if to confirm the end-of-an-era spirit, former US president Ronald Reagan died on Saturday, after a long period of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Now the Second World War is really over, and the Cold War has become history too; and officially, they will be sorely missed.
It is an indication of the neurotic times we live in that these two events were greeted with a panicky nostalgia for the certainties of times gone by. In a more positive-spirited era, the commemoration of D-Day, which has long been promoted as the event that marked the beginning of the end of the world’s bloodiest war, bringing victory for the forces of right and reason over those of fascism and brutality, would be seen as a cause for celebration. Certainly in the 1950s and 1960s, closer to the event itself, the sacrifices that made D-Day a success were hailed as the reason why today’s younger generations could enjoy freedom, progress, material comfort and the enlightened values of the Western world.
Yet today, when the values and achievements of the latter half of the twentieth century are held in so much doubt, the official imagination struggles to package D-Day in terms of positive confirmation for the way we live now. Instead, the commemorations have become more directly nostalgic – celebrating the past because of its distinctiveness to today, and wondering how society could have ever been so firm in its beliefs, so resolute in its bravery, simply so capable of pulling off a military endeavor as it was 60 years ago in Normandy.
Given both the real history of the Second World War and the embellishments and myth-making that have been in production for the half-century following it, it is not surprising that the spirit of D-Day should seem to stand in marked contrast with the uncertainties of the world that we inhabit now. The popular idea of a clear conflict between two powerful sides, between right and wrong, for which people were prepared to lay down their lives and whose willingness to do so was supported by communities and nations, seems impossible to imagine in today’s post-Iraq era, as the USA and Britain stagger wounded from an unpopular war against a small, powerless country, that nobody wanted to fight for and is still far from won.
From Vietnam to Western intervention in the Balkans, the contrast between the clarity of right and purpose built up by Second World War mythology, and the disaffection and contestation surrounding more recent conflicts, existed throughout the second half of the twentieth century. But the US and UK elites could exploit the symbolism of the Second World War to strengthen the pursuit of quite different military adventures. Right up to NATO’s Kosovo campaign in 1999, the bad guys could be branded Nazis to enable Western forces to appear as world-saving crusaders with Good firmly on their side.
As D-Day, VE Day, VJ Day and all that moved further back into history, and insecurity and uncertainty dogged the new Western elites, the more desperately they clung to the symbolism of fighting fascism, and the more shrill and inaccurate their comparisons became. And as their crisis deepened, even that tactic stopped working. So when President George W Bush last week tried to compare the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism to the Second World War and the fight against communism, he was widely criticised.
The cynical use of Second World War symbolism to bolster the flagging legitimacy of the political elite has lost out, in the end, to the more powerful and pervasive cynicism about today’s society and its leaders. The attempts, 10 years ago, by Britain’s beleaguered Tory government to organise spam-fritter-frying street parties and jamborees to celebrate D-Day’s fiftieth anniversary were met by scorn, offence and downright lack of interest, instead of the hoped-for wave of patriotism.
This year’s anniversary, meanwhile, seemed self-consciously to eschew any attempt to politicise the event, and instead became a mark of respect for a generation of people so much braver than we could ever hope to be today. Heavy emphasis on the horrors of war, which were barely even talked about in the past, all but overshadowed traditional tales of heroism and stoicism. The Queen (not Tony Blair) stood centre stage, an old lady among her fellow pensioners, a peaceful reminder of better times, while commentators marvelled at the idea of a time when people would have taken for granted the need to fight for their country, and made much of the contrast between Then and our more timid, self-obsessed Now.
While we could expect our uncertain present to over-egg the comparison with the past of 60 years ago, however, the reaction to Ronald Reagan’s death shows the scale of our neurosis. Not only is the fawning commentary that has greeted his demise written by people who are old enough to remember him (even if they can be forgiven a certain ignorance about D-Day) – the character sketches of the former president, certainly in the UK, read like a complete inversion of the way that liberal opinion depicted him when he was in power.
The Reagan of the 1980s was widely ridiculed as an incoherent baboon of the Dubya Bush school. He was seen as a trigger-happy militarist of the most dangerous kind, best buddies with the despised UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and poised to push the world into an Earth-ending catastrophic conflict with the Soviet Union, through deliberately inflaming tensions in a Second Cold War. Not that you’d know that now.
Upon his death, Reagan has been reinvented as a cuddly peacemaker, who brought about lasting friendship with Russia; an older, wiser man of conviction and principle, in contrast to the spin-obsessed upstarts that now govern the USA and UK; a symbol of more stable times, when the West had a clear self-identity and role in the world. The idea of a Western alliance properly united under the leadership of the USA, from the Second World War to the Second Cold War, stands in marked contrast to today’s scrappier, more chaotic reality.
At the time, of course, the 1980s was experienced as a time of some upheaval. The miners’ strike in the UK, the destruction of class politics, major economic recession and a popular terror of nuclear war – all of these were distinctive features of that period. How ironic it is that now, only 20 years on, history can become rewritten as a case study in moral certainty and politicians who believed in something. It reveals the desperation of today’s political elite, that in trying to cling on to something firm, they have to look to the past – and reinvent it at the same time.
‘When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were’, George W Bush famously said. ‘It was us vs them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.’ In another 20 years’ time, will anybody be looking back to the early millennium to plunder clear visions and values?
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