Saturday, June 28, 2014

Chekov's Gatling Gun

It's a grand irony that in the UK, Armed Forces Day coincides with the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The murder of a whiskery Austrian princeling is commonly held to have been the proximate cause of World War I, and the New York Times today asks what would've happened if Ferdinand had lived.  To which the answer is surely - they would've found another excuse to have a massive war, probably within months, because the odds on a bunch of extremely belligerent militarist empire-builders playing nice with their massive armed forces were somewhere around zero.

Homer* had this one nailed in circa 800 BC - "The blade itself incites to violence", ya dig?  That is, the mere existence of the weapon is usually enough to ensure that some use will be found for it... And there sure were a shitload of weapons lying around Europe in the age of empire, and plenty of men with heads full of creative excuses for using them on each other.

That's how it's gone, right through history until the present day, from the shores of Troy to the streets of Kabul.  In all these fun marches and shiny buttons and fancy epaullettes, I hear Madeleine Albright asking - what's the point in paying for this massive military, if you can't use it? 

Well, what indeed, Maddy?

So it's probably apt to hold Armed Forces Day on the twenty-eighth of June, of all days.  With one weepy turn of the page, we flip from the fateful shots in Sarajevo to the unanimous valorisation of soldiery, perfectly encapsulating the reason why we seem to barely understand our own species' most terrible errors or why we're doomed to repeat them indefinitely.

Because really, affairs like this are bizarre historical outliers.  Crack open a military history book or two and read between the lines, and it should be obvious that events like Armed Forces Day are vanishingly rare over the millennia.  From Peru to Persepolis, people have seldom greeted the approach of several hundred soldiers with cheers or flags.  In fact, for the majority of humanity, the arrival of an army on their doorstep almost certainly heralded an imminent beating, looting and/or raping for them, their family and their friends, if they were lucky.

That's how it used to go and how it often still does, in some parts of the planet.  It's notable that roughly half the time throughout history that people have showed up to cheer and shower soldiers with praise and gifts, it was likely because they were marching the fuck away from their city, to go and stab some misery into the tribe in the next valley.

And you might say, well, surely not our army, but I say to you - yes, our army, and everyone else's too.  In these post-Hitler days, in most of the world's nations, it's become fashionable to join in a general pretence that armed forces exist for "defence", when even a cursory glance at the last few decades neatly demonstrates that for real, the purpose of those armed forces is almost always conquest. 

It's usually when I'm making this point that a throat is cleared, a finger wags and some roaster delivers a stentorian lesson in how Some things are worth fighting for.  And indeed, that's true - some things are worth fighting for.  And yet, I notice that this point is most commonly made to me by people who at heart believe that pretty much anything and everything is worth fighting for, and quite often by folk who seem to believe that fighting is worth it in itself, even if only for the fighting alone.

You might say Well Mr Rodent, this is a rather childish worldview that you have here.  And I like to think that it is - children have a simple, black-and-white moral outlook and are considerably less inclined towards inventing and refining convuluted excuses for cruel deeds.

Put it this way - a child knows immediately that it's wrong for Linda to hit Susan, and is capable of maintaining that belief even if they're also aware that Susan had called Linda a bad name first.

You can guarantee that this child won't tell you that e.g. Linda was morally compelled to hit Susan in order to reassure the rest of Primary Four that Linda is committed to their struggle against an outbreak of Susanic profanity, and to demonstrate in no uncertain terms to Billy and Morag her willingness to fight for her beliefs and interests.

For that kind of logic to prevail, we need the assistance of adults.

So anyway, on a less tut-tut note, I'll confess that I'm deliberately over-egging all this to make a point. I guess we can all agree on the armed forces as a necessary evil, and even I'd admit that the odd event full of deep-throating patrio-bollocks isn't exactly Red Square on Victory Day.  And I suppose that it's probably pretty difficult to find a single day of the year that doesn't clash with some huge army or other rampaging its way across some country, somewhere.

But for as long as I'm extolling the virtues of children's morality, I'd offer this take on Sarajevo's International Excuse To Have a Big War Day - that at brass tacks, it would've been really quite difficult for Europe to fall into a continent-crushing disaster after the murder of an Austrian aristocrat if the concerned nations weren't already heavily-armed and highly aggressive.

An obvious point, perhaps, but probably the most important one to bear in mind.

*No, not that Homer.


Bruschettaboy said...

In these post-Hitler days, in most of the world's nations, it's become fashionable to join in a general pretence that armed forces exist for "defence", when even a cursory glance at the last few decades neatly demonstrates that for real, the purpose of those armed forces is almost always conquest.

Very much this. I occasionally think about rewriting that dreadful Kipling poem to reflect the reality of what the army was used for in the Victorian period:

"So making mock of uniforms that fire on unarmed demonstrators ..."

Anonymous said...

It's as if weapons had use by dates, isn't it?

Maybe they do, I haven't checked.