I turned on the radio this morning and was immediately reminded by radio 4 that it was the centenary of the start of WW1. Unwilling to hear the Establishment slant on the ‘commemorations’ (somewhere along the line it has sensibly been decreed that celebration is perhaps not the appropriate word) I switched to 5 Live, only to find something incredibly similar. Tuning to radio Solent I was just in time to catch “yes, I was a serving soldier but now have the honour of being Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant on the Island.” Predicting further interviews with the Great & Good of Hampshire (interspersed with visits to the Tank Museum) I moved on to TalkSport. Maybe I could catch up on the latest Premier League transfer gossip. Sadly not – even TalkSport had given in to the gravitas of the day. I then felt vaguely guilty.
Why? Guilt was soon replaced with irritation, frustration, annoyance. In the UK and in Belgium major commemorations were taking place on erstwhile battlefields, cemeteries, war memorials, and churches and cathedrals. At each of the most important events senior members of the Royal family, senior members of the armed forces, and senior clergy played significant roles, as did the Prime Minister and other politicians. It was the historical equivalents of these senior people who took or endorsed the decisions that dictated the course of the war. The majority of the servicemen killed in the war were junior (in age as well as rank) and had no option but to obey orders.
Commemorations are laden with rhetoric, rhetoric that invariably involves invoking the heroism of those who died ‘so that we could live as we do today’. I have no wish to do anything to denigrate the millions who were slaughtered in WW1, but the truth is that the ‘men’ – mostly teenagers – who died had no idea at all about what they were signing up for when they enlisted. Lord Kitchener and his recruiting officers were liberal in their interpretation of what constituted fitness to join the army, there was considerable pressure from peers, schools and employers, and after 1916 there was conscription. Many men were sent to their deaths, fortified by a tot of rum, due to the arrogance and incompetence of their seniors. Even worse, the young lads who panicked and ‘deserted’ or those who suffered from shell shock were executed by their own men.
The First World War was, laughably, the war to end all wars – but of course just 21 years after it ended, the world, especially Europe, was engulfed in war again. Despite the horrors of the Second World War, and the revelation of the true extent of the Holocaust, this was not the war to end all wars either. In my lifetime, involving British troops, there have been the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the Falklands War (in which my brother-in-law took part as a helicopter pilot), Gulf War 1, the ongoing Afghanistan campaign, and the infamous Iraq war. It seems clear that history has taught us nothing as far as war is concerned.
I think that what made me feel really uncomfortable about today’s commemorations is the current appalling situation in Gaza. This war, because it is a war, is between two completely unequal powers – the Israeli defence force on one side, and Hamas on the other. However, Hamas do not declare themselves with organised, uniformed battalions, so Israel is effectively waging war on the civilian population of Gaza – a population of 1.8 million people who are unable to leave by land, sea or air. I have no political axe to grind on the thorny Middle Eastern issue (in fact I have Jewish friends and relations by marriage) but I abhor the slaughter of civilians as collateral damage of war, and I deplore the excuses made by senior military and political figures. Many countries and the United Nations have condemned Israel’s missile strikes on UN shelters and schools in Gaza. Our own Prime Minister refuses to join them, contenting himself saying that he deplored the ‘appalling loss of life’.
There are two issues that appal me (apart from the very existence of war); the first is the way in which our own PM puts political expediency and diplomacy above human compassion and decency, and the second is the refusal of politicians to talk.
Political expediency (presumably) prevents the US and David Cameron from outright condemnation of Israel’s action in targeting UN shelters and schools, thus killing many children amongst the other civilians who died. The desire to avoid upsetting Israel prevents them from condemning Israel for reducing much of Gaza to rubble, so that when the fighting ends the Gazans will have no homes, no electricity, no water, no sanitation, and no hospitals to treat the diseases that will follow from the destruction. Blind belief that Hamas are hiding in every home, every school, every hospital is Israel’s justification for wreaking the carnage that they have, and the US and the UK are willing to go along with this, unmoved by compassion, and unmoved by the fact that numerous other countries have behaved more honorably.
Refusal to talk has always been a complete mystery to me. I remember Mrs Thatcher’s implacable refusal to ‘talk to terrorists’, refusing even to let their voices be heard on radio and TV. Hamas are branded terrorists and thus automatically forfeit the right to discussion. How can this possibly help? Talking to another person (as long as you listen as well, and do not merely talk at them) allows both parties to learn and understand. It allows compassion to develop. Maybe that is what the authorities are frightened of.
My views about war were shaped very early in my life, by reading the famous WW1 poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Nothing that I have seen in my adult life has persuaded me that war is rarely driven by lofty ideals, but more often is about Establishments being arrogant, unwilling to admit that they were wrong and acting through pride.
Wilfred Owen’s well known poem should be recited daily by all those in power:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
4th August 2014