War in the Air
Painted by Christopher Nevinson in 1918
Nevinson became an official war artist in July 1917, working primarily for the British. The markings on the plane in this painting are characteristic of the Nieuport 17 flown by Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop. The painting reputedly depicts Bishop in action. Nevinson’s painting also shows three enemy aircraft above the clouds, through which you can see the Somme countryside.
Beaverbrook Collection of War Art CWM 19710261-0517
As war is one of the more perpetual manifestations of the human condition, seemingly bred in the bone, and has been both celebrated and lamented as far back as records of human thought have been recorded I have given thought to it as well over time and, in puzzling over its persistent endurance over eons, have had to confront the possibility that it will be with us for as long as there is time to come and blood to shed. This is not a reassuring conclusion and, as optimism is another of those dogged manifestations of our humanity, have had to search for other possible insights into our propensity to turn to war in order to provide a solution to the difficulties encountered in our human interactions with our neighbours.
As a Canadian, I have often contemplated the difference between our own national character, as a collective character can sometimes be as markedly different from another as that between one individual and another, and that of our continental neighbours in the United States of America. We share many historical similarities, as well as cultural, yet the likenesses between our two countries have diverged, reading like two different books, from the very beginning and that divergence, like two different compass headings emanating from some common point on the map have, over time, brought us to two different destinations (forgetting, for the moment, our recent lurch to the political right under the stewardship of our current C/conservative government).
In an attempt to visualize this national difference in my own mind I had considered it in an evolutionary perspective as though our collective national mindsets were determined by a social or political DNA that, in expressing itself, perpetuates a mentality and extends it, under evolutionary social, economic and political pressures, such that it might become almost inevitable that a country would continue along a chosen path regardless of its wisdom or morality. Thus one population might think it perfectly natural that its government might invade another country, killing millions of its inhabitants in the process, may in fact not give it a second thought, in order to further its national interests as has done the United States repeatedly, while citizens of another might not be so easily convinced as to the wisdom of such an adventure.
In countries founded and fed by immigration, as in the case of our two, the original immigrant, imbued with the political DNA of a mother country, may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable with a warring and predatory DNA such as seems to predominate in the USA but immigrants have traditionally been poor and have arrived in the hope of better opportunities – if not for themselves, then for their children. And indeed it is these children who will inherit this local political DNA (Sesame Street is a powerful educational device) and who will soon join their long-time fellow nationals in viewing the world, and their place in it, with native eyes, with accompanying native blindness, and will see no harm in waging war on poorer countries (such as those that their parents fled) in order to increase the wealth and glory of their now native land. Hindsight is generational and we can see only one generation, and that dimly, into the past.
There have been attempts recently to characterize our contemporary world (and America in particular) as being in a “New Gilded Age” with its attendant inequality of wealth, race and opportunity; such a reality should be frightening to us in the 21st century as it harkens back to the time of Marcel Proust and to the atrocities of class that he satirized at the time. Yet we would be foolish indeed, at least those of us who are capable of thought, to ignore the reality around us today, either in war or peace, and to fail to recognize that today’s robber barons have resurrected the past, much to their benefit, to enrich themselves at the expense of society at large. War has always provided a direct road to riches for the rich and powerful and will continue to do so. The national DNA is programmed to accept the propaganda relentlessly espoused by corporations and the super-rich to dazzle the mob and to entice them to offer up their blood as a sacrifice to their homeland. Such a prognosis is hardly reassuring and doesn’t go far in answering my original inquiry above – that will have to wait – but it seems to me that people that live in a society that has the temerity to call itself democratic should be reluctant to turn the clock back one hundred years and, this time, to enslave themselves.
Proust, in the final volume (Time Regained) of his novel Remembrance of Things Past, also drew a comparison between national character and that of individuals and dwelt upon the blindness and hypocrisy of people during time of war (declared or otherwise and, in his case, against the Germans) and I’ve excerpted here a passage where he attempts to reconcile the macro and micro perspectives, to bring them together where they belong.
Boilerplate Spoiler Alert: These excerpts, from near the end of Proust’s seven volume novel are bound to give away the plot and the fate of characters from the story; to avoid that you can download the (free) eBook for your eReader here or purchase the luddite format here. Better still, support your local book store, new or used, and set aside some time (Time?) to read Proust’s remarkable novel.
Excerpts come from source material available in HTML format here.