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Expert comment: War, modernity and policy discourse

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Dr Joseph Maslen, Senior Lecturer in Education Studies, considers official mismanagement on the Western Front as a parallel for social and educational policy decisions in contemporary Britain.

A few weeks clear of this year’s centenary Remembrance season, it seems worth reflecting on the increased level of discussion about nationalism and patriotism that it promoted. The line between the importance of remembering the casualties of war, on one hand, and indulging in egotism and prejudice, is one that requires great sensitivity. The best commentary I read during November was the piece ‘Remembering the Fallen is a Part of the Celtic FC Story’, from The National. It seems that, north of the border, ongoing sectarian concerns and the standalone sense of Scottish identity provide a critical perspective on the merging between commemoration and glorification.

Yet, in some ways, that spectrum is beside the point. What is most pertinent is this. At the time, popular commitment to the First World War depended largely on the ruling class being able to exploit an immense ideology of social obedience that had built up in the preceding one hundred years. Now, too, the slippage discussed above also serves to recreate a sense of obligation to the status quo. In essence: The Establishment recycles its biggest crime to reinforce the power that helped it to do the crime in the first place. To be fair though, the First World War was not simply an Establishment betrayal. It can be charted, alongside the global Slave Trade and the Holocaust, as one of the three great mass catastrophes of modern history.

Bauman’s (1989) analysis of the Holocaust as an ice-cold, systematic application of modernity’s principles can equally be applied to World War 1. Eksteins (1990, 258) documents how, due to accountability measures, commanders were under perverse incentive to maximise the deaths among their own men. As he puts it: ‘Officers whose companies incurred light casualties were suspect, so they pressed their attacks with appropriate vigour’. As an example, Eksteins surveys the 1st Australian Division, ‘thrown in at Pozières on the Somme in mid July 1916 repeatedly to attack a high ridge’. Eksteins continues: ‘The Australians came out on 4 September, having suffered 23,000 casualties.’ And: ‘The Australian Official History could not hide its disdain and anger afterward: “To throw the several parts of an army corps, brigade after brigade … twenty times in succession against one of the strongest points in the enemy’s defence, may certainly be described as ‘methodical’ […].”’

The futile and destructive pattern of such a campaign has resonance with my research into the UK’s social mobility policy of the last few years. Just as with the Australian Division at Pozières, there has been a self-justificatory performative ‘code’ in this policy area that structures the ‘method’ of how we have fought the problem. This code is based on a problematic individualism that is not about helping all of the poorest children, but about encouraging the poor to become as ruthless and competitive as the middle and upper classes (Maslen 2018). In social mobility policy, as in education and social policy discourse generally, we are trying to ‘crack’ entrenched issues such as poverty, but still working within the neoliberal framework where the solution is yet more competition. As a result, we send brigade after brigade of initiatives and theories into the same unyielding obstacles, always to return defeated.

So the remembrance of the ‘Great’ War could be a springboard for new reflection. Not simply on the vital need for ‘duty’ and ‘sacrifice’, but on the need for questioning. First, we need to question the big ideas, ideologies and processes under which we act (see Tilly 1984). Second, and equally profound, we need to question the method of some of our social campaigns, and whether, in many policy areas, we need a new mode of action if we are to emerge victorious.


Bauman, Zygmunt (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity.

Eksteins, Modris (1990) Rites of spring: The Great War and the birth of the modern age. London: Black Swan.

Maslen, Joseph (2018) Cracking the Code: The Social Mobility Commission and education policy discourse. Journal of Education Policy. Advance online publication.


Tilly, Charles (1984) Big structures, large processes, huge comparisons. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Published on 30/01/2019