Between La Marseillaise And The Star-Spangled Banner

Aron White Columnist
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About twenty years before Francis Scott Key put pen to paper at Fort McHenry, the French national anthem, La Marseillaise was written – and the stories behind them are remarkable similar. Both anthems were written by young revolutionaries, in the midst of a fierce war. The Star-Spangled Banner was written in 1814 as the Americans fought against their former British rulers, and Claude de Lisle wrote La Marseillaise in 1792, to rally the troops in their war against the Prussian and Austrian invaders, who threatened to quash the French revolution.

These anthems express how Europeans and Americans of the same age viewed their wars, and analyzing these ideas is instructive, in thinking about how Europe must respond to its new war against the Islamist threat it now faces.

The meaning of La Marseillaise is somewhat surprising for those who have never read the translation before – it is, unquestionably, one of the most violent national anthems in the world. Here are some choice lines from it:

“Arise children of the fatherland, the day of glory has arrived…..
Listen…to the howling of those fearsome soldiers, who are coming to cut the throats of your wives and children.
To arms citizens, form your battalions,
March! March!
Let impure blood water our furrows!”

This undoubtedly rousing call is simply shocking to the modern ear – frankly, were it not the national anthem of France, anyone singing something like this in 2015 would rightly be locked up for incitement. But this anthem represents nothing less than a typical 18th century European view of war – war is where one battles for the fatherland against the impure tyranny, and the quest for victory is a quest for glory. Themes of national pride and military glory can be found in many West European anthems composed in the 18th and 19th century, such as that of Italy (“Italy has awoken … Where is victory?”), England (God Save the King … Send him victorious, happy and glorious!”), and chillingly, Germany (“Germany, Germany above all, above everything in the world!”). Thus the classical European conception of war is of something that is noble, and brings glory.

This 18th and 19th century European conception of war was to be shattered by the events of the first half of the 20th century. Two world wars and at least 60 million European deaths later, the idea of the previous century seemed like a very bad joke. Was there any glory to be had in the victory at Passchendaele, where 620,000 Allied soldiers lost their lives for a gain of 12 kilometres? And despite allied victories in both World Wars, how much pride can you have in a victory where entire villages had no young men alive at the end to tell the tale? War was tragic, cruel, criminal – and the concept had to be eradicated from the European experience and moral language. Europe succeeded in this mission – there have been no great power wars on European soil since World War Two, and in terms of worldviews, by the end of the 20th century, the very word “militaristic” had become a pejorative for most Europeans.

But as, in the 21st century, Europeans are forced back into the arena of war as they fight against the forces of Islamism, they see before them a terrifying choice – do we want to return to the bombastic ideas of the past, knowing what they did lead to, or should we stick to the ideas of the present, knowing what they might lead to? How can Europeans re-enter the theatre of war, and become “militaristic” again to fight off the threat of ISIS, without returning to the bad ideas captured in La Marseillaise?

The answer is captured in the Star Spangled Banner, which represents a different view of what makes war glorious, and what makes victory so precious. What excited Francis Scott Key, at dawn of that morning two hundred years ago, was not the killing of the impure, but something entirely different.

“Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming…
Oh say does that Star Spangled banner yet wave,
o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!”

Glory is not found in the military victory, but in what that military victory preserves and protects. A British victory would have returned America to its pre-revolutionary state, but when Scott sees the flag still flying, he understands that America is still “the land of the free and home of the brave.” That prized American freedom – the vision that “all men are created equal” and that government is created to protect the inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” – had faced the prospect of being quashed by its old rulers, but had survived. And that is what makes the war glorious.

This American view, that war is something that protects glorious ideas, rather than being the source of glory itself, has been a constant throughout American history. The Declaration of Independence  places little emphasis on the fact that America achieved independence through war – the “dissolution of bonds” is not what is important, but the concepts of Freedom and Liberty upon which America will be based take center stage. The American Civil War is memorable not because of the Gettysburg victory, but because of the Gettysburg address, which explained that the war had a clear purpose, to preserve “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” However, nothing sums up this American view of war better than the spine-tingling memorial on the National Mall in Washington, dedicated to the four hundred thousand Americans who died in World War Two.

“Here, in the presence of Washington and Lincoln, one the eighteenth century founder and the other the nineteenth century preserver of our nation, we honor those twentieth century Americans who took up the struggle during the Second World War and make the sacrifices to perpetuate the gift our forefathers entrusted to us – A nation conceived in Liberty and Justice.”

War is noble because it protects “the gifts our forefathers entrusted to us,” and it is this view of war that Europe must discover now. The fight against ISIS and Islamism is noble, not because of the “impure blood” that will “flow through the furrows”, but because Europeans will be defending something beautiful – societies built on the principles of dignity, freedom, tolerance, rights, education and culture, from the onslaught of an enemy who believe in none of the above. There need not be a choice between war and morality. When one wages a war not to achieve what is glorious, but to protect what is glorious – that war is one that Europeans can be proud to fight.

Aron White, originally from England, has a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of London. He currently lives in Israel, and is studying at the Jewish Statesmanship Center in Jerusalem.