The First World War was responsible for the deaths of 20 million people. It was a war fought for imperial advantage among the great European powers and empires of the day. The vast majority of those who perished in the war, soldiers and civilians, were members of a European working class that had nothing whatsoever at stake in the war or its aims, but who nonetheless paid the ultimate price for the small privileged elite that did and in whose interests it was fought. As with most wars in history, the First World War was a rich man's war but a poor man's fight, and the patriotic fervour and nationalist hysteria whipped up by the mainstream press, political class and the establishment at the time succeeded in propelling millions of those same poor men to their slaughter.
There were few dissenting voices amid this sea of war worship. To dare stand up and speak out against the war was to guarantee demonization, calumniation, and anathematization. Worse, it also guaranteed your arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment.
The great American union leader, Eugene Debs, was one of those who did speak out against the war, doing so knowing what the consequences would be. On June 16,1918 he addressed a large crowd in Canton, Ohio, and in a speech in which he railed not only against the war but also the economic and imperialist impetus being it, said:
"They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people."
For these sentiments, Debs was arrested, tried, found guilty of sedition, and sentenced to ten years in prison. There were others like him, courageous men and women in every one of the nations involved, who spoke out against the war and were likewise arrested, tried, and imprisoned.
In 2012 in this country a young man by the name of Daniel Cooper finds himself on the receiving end of the same kind of demonization as Eugene Debs and those other courageous dissenting voices against the First World War did. Daniel is the current Vice President of University of London Union for students. He was invited as acting President to lay a wreath at the university's Remembrance Day service. He declined, setting out his reasons in a letter that in the cogency of its analysis and depth of its humanity and understanding, stands in the proud tradition of Debs and all who have refused to succumb to the bugle blasting, flag waving patriotism that has lain at the root of a century of slaughter, one that shows no sign of letting up and which continues to be render a sick joke the very words 'western civilization'.
In the aftermath of his decision to decline to participate in London University's remembrance service, a dedicated Facebook page demanding Daniel's resignation has been set up, while an article by Richard Pass in the Huffington Post alleges that Cooper had "brought shame on himself and the 120,000 students he is supposed to represent by refusing to place a wreath on their behalf at a remembrance service in London last Sunday."
He also writes that, "The whole point of Remembrance Day as we know it today is to cast politics aside and pay tribute to the courage, bravery and selflessness of those in uniform both past and present. It is for this reason we see politicians from the left and right of the political spectrum coming together to respect the fallen, as the vast majority of the British public expect."
The idea that Remembrance Day is an annual event shorn of politics is either deeply naive or wholly mendacious. There is nothing more political than an annual event which on a very overt level extols the virtues of militarism, Britain's imperial past and present, and that given this country's addiction to war doesn't just commemorate the deaths of those who've already died, but rubber stamps the future deaths of more young men by ascribing to the sordid and wretched business a nobility that should be an insult to any right thinking person.
The real enemy of the millions of predominately working class men slaughtered in the 1914-1918 war, and of those who've been killed in the nation's recent and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were and are those who sent them. Eugene Debs understood that, which is why they sent him to prison in 1919. Daniel Cooper understands it too, which is why a campaign has been organised to force him to resign in 2012.
As Daniel says at the end of his letter, "I mourn and remember the dead. But my mourning is mixed with bitter anger against the rulers and the system that create such bloodshed."
Rather than a source of shame or disgrace, the stand that Daniel Cooper has taken not only against war but the hypocrisy of those who attempt to obfuscate its causes is a noble and brave one.
It is why I am proud to state that I stand with him.
What about you?