The final scene in the last episode of the quite excellent TV comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth, which is set in the first world war, never fails to move me. You can watch it here.
As Captain Blackadder and his men, against their every instinct to live, charge “over the top” towards German machine guns and their certain deaths, the motion slows and the scene slowly fades to a sea of poppy’s gently swaying in the breeze that sweeps across a sun-drenched field somewhere in the English countryside. Millions of red flowers, each one seemingly representing a soul lost in that monstrous human tragedy that was the first world war.
In that final episode we learn how Blackadder, a professional soldier all his life, thought ‘war’ was a breeze when his enemies were only ever two-foot tall natives armed with spears or sharpened fruit. He never dreamed of such horrors as faced him now. We hear lieutenant George, a Cambridge educated dim-wit, reflecting on how he and his fresh-faced pals eagerly signed up to serve King and Country, and how he is the only one of the bunch still alive. Private Baldrick reveals how people lined the streets the day he left home to fight the war and how that made him feel like a hero.
Unlike the hopelessly indoctrinated George, Blackadder is under no delusions. He realises that they are all being marched to their death by a ruling elite of sociopathic madmen who see him and the rest of the troops as cannon fodder. He understands the reality of the situation perfectly well. Throughout the series, Blackadder’s only goal is to find a way out of the madness without getting shot for desertion, but all his attempts fail. In the final episode, as he stands poised at his trench ladder waiting for the signal to charge to his death, he muses on the futility of his last-ditch attempt to escape, which was to pretend he had gone insane, and asks rhetorically “…who would have noticed another madman around here.”
Although George lacks any kind of common sense or critical thinking skills, he is educated enough to be able to rationalise the war narrative created by the ruling elite and mainstream intellectuals of Edwardian Britain and to repeat it in ways that sound plausible to the privates – and to himself. Baldrick is barely literate, which means he lacks the mental tools to identify the falsehoods enveloping him, and yet his child-like mind sometimes leads him to ask simple but profound questions like “why can’t we just stop all the killing?” To which lieutenant George, wading desperately through the war propaganda in his mind, cannot find an answer.
In the Goes Forth series, Blackadder is our lens of truth, and represents reason and sanity. George represents the narrative, the lie, the delusions and the madness. Madness of such degree that he cheerfully rejects a last-minute offer from general Melchett to “sit out” the big push and “watch the results come in” amidst the leathery comfort of British army head quarters thirty five miles away. Baldrick represents the enslaved and ignorant masses, dragged to their deaths in their millions like sardines in a fishing net.
What this comedy series captures so brilliantly is the nature of the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, and what gives the powerful their power and therefore what keeps the powerless without it. The belief in the concept of ‘king and country’ is what creates the moral legitimacy for men (generals) to shoot other men (soldiers) for not doing as they say. The men giving the orders have been tasked with doing so by the King, and the King’s position cannot be questioned for he has been chosen by God; and no man may question God’s actions because he is the Supreme Being and knows and sees all. It’s a straight-jacket of illogic, from which the common man of the Edwardian era had little hope of escaping – not just because he was forced to wear it, but also because he had no moral objection to it as a result of indoctrination.
Fast-forward 97 years and the world looks like it has progressed a great deal, but has it? Superficially things look different, but fundamentally they are the same. Violent authority still exists, as does a very similar dynamic between the powerful and the powerless. The Kings and Queens, chosen by God, have become politicians, chosen by the God of democracy. Their ‘grand plans’ (the welfare state, minimum wage et al), which the masses believe to merely represent the ‘will of the people’, are implemented by an army of (highly-paid and privileged) bureaucrats in the form of laws and regulations; and the police are the ‘firing squads’ imprisoning those who disobey. The same straight-jacket, then, but with different patterns on it. There’s no more mass slaughters, of course, just mass theft in the form of taxation. The common man is no longer morally obliged to sacrifice his life for King and Country, just a great deal of his property and liberty to the modern God of democracy. The common man’s standard of living has improved a great deal, of course, but there still exists a violent authority with the supposed moral right to imprison him or kill him. He’s still not free, but he has got a much more spacious cage.
Until taxation and the State is abolished as a result of the common man’s moral objection, then the possibility of war and more mass slaughters will remain. War is a ludicrously expensive endeavour, which destroys wealth. The only thing it ‘creates’ is human suffering, and that’s of no value to humanity. Only governments with the institutionalised ‘right’ to steal from the living and the unborn have the means to engage in large scale wars that last years. Thus the realisation of a world without war is inseparable from the realisation of a world where individuals are free from violent authority. War will only end when Man is free of men.
The horror, brutality and sadness of World War I, or indeed any war, is so great that we instinctively avoid contemplating it, which is why culture like Blackadder Goes Forth is important. Comedy serves as a cushion to our senses and allows us to contemplate things otherwise too ghastly, but which we really ought to in order to remind ourselves of the ever-present threat to human life and social progress that is the violent authority of the State.