Saturday, June 07, 2014

My Mark-Off-Peep-Show Shame

With the D-Day memorial marked again this year, a few thoughts on that war and how we memorialise it: 

- It's right and just that we as a nation continue to honour the men who fought in these battles, and with the maximum fanfare.  You don't need to be Robert Harris or Philip Dick to imagine what a world in which Nazism was allowed to triumph or even simply to survive would look like, and it's thanks to all those Allied troops that were willing to get shot to bits that we haven't had to experience it ourselves.  Very good work lads, and thank you all for risking your hides on our behalf.  We hope to see those of you that didn't get killed next year for more of the same.

- "The Greatest Generation" is certainly one way of putting it.  "The Shit-Out-Of-Luck Generation" is another.

- And here's the inevitable But - But I will admit that I find our choice of emphasis a bit weird.   For all the weepy nostalgia, it's crucially important to remember that World War II was principally a vast human catastrophe, a hideous thing full of hate and needless destruction and carnage and casual cruelty on a global scale that killed unfortunately-placed civilians in even greater numbers than actual soldiers. 

The bravery of the men who brought this slaughter to an end, praiseworthy as it certainly is, is a pretty small part of such a bloody disaster, and it's a bit odd that it's come to stand for the whole thing.  

I could elaborate on the awful plight of people caught between Berlin and Moscow, or in the path of the Imperial Army, but won't.  However, I think it's vital to us as a species to prioritise the fact that even our noblest war ever, the most justifiable and defensible piece of industrial mass-murder in human history, involved the good guys killing fuck out of bajillions of innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I'm right up for valorising the Unknown Soldier and I'm as keen as anyone on emphasising the Noble Causeness of it all but taken in the round, the war on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was essentially necessary, rather than specifically moral.  To me, all the wavy-flag trumpet solos look suspiciously like a way of bigging up a lot of regretable but unavoidable horrifying murder in terms of a righteous crusade, and little more.

What I'm saying here is that, even when circumstances force us to ingenious forms of mass slaughter, all those dead civvies are still a horror and an atrocity, and this shit has to be apologised and atoned for.  Building massive military machines and sending them rampaging across entire continents is a hideous thing to do, even if we have no choice at all to do otherwise.  As far as I can see, it's right and correct to laud a just cause and a courageous struggle, but the only moral decision at the end of such an enterprise is to do a hell of a lot of begging for forgiveness for all the godawful things you had to do to win.

Few, if any, of our memorials seem to spend much time or energy on that issue and in my opinion, that huge blind spot has had disastrous consequences in the long run.

- Because it's worth noting that it's precisely this kind of misty-eyed, reflexively-saluting nostalgia about the heroism of the Greatest Ever Generation Of All Time Ever that's been at the root of every damnfool, murderous military adventure ever since. Without a constant drumbeat of jingo horseshit about the awesomeness of defeating the real Hitler, it's difficult to imagine the ensuing battles against e.g. all those Vietnamese Hitlers or the Iraqi one, with their attendant vast bodycounts.

- So it's this kind of flag-waving rah-rah that's left us with, for example, the utterly bizarre sight of people blaming some schlub who got himself captured by the Taliban for the deaths of soldiers sent to look for him rather than seeing it as more the fault of all the dumbasses that sent a hundred thousand troops to sit in the arse end of nowhere, Afghanistan, to do little more than hold their dicks for ten years... And nor is it much seen as also the fault of the people who allowed such a daft situation to arise, by which I mean, us.

- One of the more bizarre things you'll see every time a major war anniversary rolls around is a series of public figures lining up to complain that the current generation of fighting-age men wouldn't be willing to charge a machine gun for freedom.  "Kids these days", they inevitably announce in full-on This Is The Voice Of The Mysterons mode, "Don't have the courage or the spirit of self-sacrifice to do what their forefathers did".

To which I reply, Good.  I'm glad that this generation is averse to getting their brains blown out for Britain, not least because if they weren't, the UK would've been involved in even more insane wars since the end of World War II than the ludicrously large number of them that we actually have been.

And it's interesting to note how many people repeat this noble self-sacrifice stuff about our own fallen heroes, seemingly without spotting that the entire fucking problem presented by World War II was that German and Japanese kids were only too happy to get cut in half by a mortar shell for the glory of the Fatherland.

It seems to me that a world in which fewer people are willing to get bayonetted to death for God and country is likely to be a nicer place to live in than one with more.

But then, for a man who owns a ridiculous, Mark-Off-Peep-Show number of books and films about wars, I have always been a bit of a pinko pacifistic type.  


Z said...

I've been very surprised at how many young men of my acquaintance (and one or two young women) have joined the armed forces since being killed in active service has been a real and imminent possibility. I was talking to one a few months ago who decided to join the ranks, although he'd have been eligible to train as an officer, because he didn't think he'd be truly qualified otherwise: he's now at Sandhurst. I have no idea, I am immensely glad that none of my children were interested.

My father had poor eyesight and, in the war, was in the Medical Corps because they didn't dare let him hold a weapon. He was proud never to have 'fired a shot in anger,' as he put it. But he was grateful to the atom bomb, because he was in Burma and about to go East and knew he would not survive, and he rather wanted to. More mixed messages, perhaps. I appreciate reading your views, thank you.

Z said...

None of my children *was* interested - how come I never see a howler until too late?!

flyingrodent said...

I've been very surprised at how many young men of my acquaintance (and one or two young women) have joined the armed forces since being killed in active service has been a real and imminent possibility.

I've met a lot of squaddies over the years, and I'd bet none of them gave any serious thought to the possibility of getting killed. Worrying about that is an older man's thing, whereas youngsters always think they're basically immortal.

he was grateful to the atom bomb, because he was in Burma and about to go East and knew he would not survive, and he rather wanted to.

I've had this one chucked at me quite angrily in the past, and I fully understand it. I might very well think the same, if it was me.

On the other hand, I'd also probably rather that ten thousand strangers got rubbed out in a beach landing than have an A-bomb go off over my family home.

So you know, it depends on your perspective. This always seemed like a bit of an anomaly in our just war theory anyway.

Igor Belanov said...

You forgot the bloody hangers-on. I can understand ex-servicemen wanting to meet up with old colleagues, but cream tea with the bloody Duke and Duchess of Cambridge? I do think sometimes that a lot of these celebrations/commemorations are cooked up for politicians/royalty/VIPs rather than the veterans.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately all wars are caused by political failures, so it is particularly disgusting when politicians try to score points by "commemorating" them.

This war (like most others) was a war that could easily have been avoided were it not for sheer greed and one-upmanship.

The acknowledgement of this fact does not lessen the valour of those who fought - they were not allowed to know the truth of the conflicts either before, during, or after - but it does require us to re-think the way we tell the story. Yes there were many, many people willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, but only because they had been lied to about the causes of these wars.

flyingrodent said...

This war (like most others) was a war that could easily have been avoided were it not for sheer greed and one-upmanship.

Without wanting to get into a big spat about the causes of WWII, this is only right if you take the beginning of the industrial/imperial era as your starting point.

I'd say that e.g. Nazism was always a likely outcome from a nutty Darwinian competition to see who could grab, hold and exploit the biggest part of the globe, but once a regime like that was in place and stomping all over Europe, it's very hard to see how there could've been any better outcome than a really big, murderous, horrifying war to destroy it.

nathan said...

I've been impressed by the amount of veterans that go off message in interview saying it wasnt worth it war is horrible etc or one guy in a newsnight interview that concentrated on the death of of his sister from T.B before the war and seemed to be wanting to say that it was only worth it while they were building a welfare state afterward.

Igor Belanov said...

An e-mail from the National Trust reminds me that it is 700 years since the Battle of Bannockburn. I presume that Alec Salmond will be inviting all the veterans for a celebration?

Lucille said...

Hi FR. sorry it's been so long since I've been here. Had some health issues it took the Docs a few years to get things sorted..but I'm back now and so happy you are still in very good form!!

Regarding the Memorials and such from the 20th century wars..Since the WWII Veterans started speaking out several years ago..So many of them were disgusted about (maybe not why the WAR was fought)but finding out their Military Commanders didn't give a rat's arse about the military and civilian deaths and suffering just as long as their brilliant (read stupid) plans were put in place..even if they failed Operation Market Garden.

Viet Nam Vets feel the same about their war. Run by suits in Washington..Prolonged for no reason , drafting young people to their deaths..for what?? ..Having united Viet Nam as a fair Trade partner now??? And those who refused to be sent to their deaths were called traitors. BS!!!!

Cheers to you FR and all the old bloggers..

Darius Jedburgh said...

Where's the 'anomaly' in just war theory? Traditional JWT says that killing the innocent (which in this context means not harming, or not a direct threat, and so most of the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki qualify) as a means to your purposes (eg extorting unconditional surrender out of Japan) is always wrong. So: 1945 A-bombs = mass murder.