||[Nov. 10th, 2013|10:30 am]
This post is long, but I'd like you to read all of it. Remembrance Day brings up solemn subjects which I feel strongly about, and I've wanted to write about them every year. If you'd like to share it, please do.
This a personal opinion piece, but if you're in the armed forces or likely to be offended by strongly anti-military attitudes then I'd advise moving on to the next post in your feed instead.
Ninety year-old veteran Harry Leslie Smith has said that this is the last year he will wear the red poppy. He's disillusioned and believes that its meaning has changed. He's not alone in this, but has the authority to be heard and his explanation covers some of the reasons why I will never wear one.
On this solemn day, I am fully aware that soldiers are catastrophically abandoned by the government. They get nowhere near enough mental healthcare for trauma, pay, financial support for injury, or anything else to balance the brutal reality of what we make them do. For that reason, I like the Royal Legion fund – its very existence shames the government and helps those who have been abandoned by the party who sent them to war.
But I’ll never wear a red poppy. They are thoroughly compromised, now owned by the establishment to give legitimacy to itself and to conflict, and the day’s grief cheaply used to justify the line that we can’t stop fighting now that sacrifices have been made. I’d rather wear White. That’s not even the part of this post likely to cause anger, though.
I had a fascinating conversation with a schoolteacher recently. She said that there was a class drama task where the students had to depict freeze-frames of being in World War 1, and that they were then asked to say what their character was thinking at that precise moment (in 1914-1918).
If you were expecting the usual “I must do this for patriotism” or “the enemy must be stopped to defend England”, you’re in for a surprise.
Pupil 1: “What the HELL am I doing here getting shot at because old men in London want a war?”
Pupil 2: “This is insane, the guy I’m shooting at is just like me, why are we here?”
Those signing the treaty to end the war were asked why they weren’t happier.
Pupil 3: “What is there to celebrate?”
Harry Patch, last surviving soldier of WW1, before his death in 2009:
“I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.”
I’m delighted that the kind of patriotism you’d expect to hear in the schoolchildren’s scenario is on its way out. World War II continues to be the one example in everyone’s minds of a justified war where we defended against an aggressor who could destroy us, and the first Gulf War was a conflict where several Allies aided Kuwait against a larger invader.
But that’s not what soldiers usually do, before or since. I’m not even talking about the epidemic of rape which is a part of every single military conflict there has ever been, or the rapes of female personnel by their own forces, or the fact that huge numbers of deaths in war are always civilians. No, I wanted to write on what I think about the act of joining the military at all in the modern day.
A law has been proposed a few times in recent years which would make it illegal to insult UK soldiers. The suggested bill would make insults due to a soldier’s profession equivalent to hatred based on sexuality / religion. A lot of personnel report receiving insulting behaviour and violence from the public when they return home, especially when in uniform. This surprises me, and I’m actually against it (despite the rest of what I’m about to write here). I’d like to know more about this general feeling of anger from people on the street, because I didn’t know it existed – and soldiers already have enough to deal with mentally when they return. Read my second paragraph again: I’m not unrealistic about the sacrifices which have been made by combatants, or how hard life is for them when they come back to the UK. The suicide rate alone shows that.
But I could never sign up to serve in the military without feeling shame for the rest of my life, and here’s why.
Defending innocents is one of the noblest actions you can take, especially to the level of putting yourself in extreme danger… but that’s when it’s defending a vulnerable individual against an attacker, or your country against an invading army. That’s not what you agree to when you join the Army.
The exact moral statement you make when you sign up is this: I agree to give over my decision-making to whichever government is in power. I agree to kill on someone else’s orders, on intelligence I will never know the truth of and will not question. I will trust politicians and my superiors to act in place of my judgement. If this government is liberal, then next one may be Conservative. They may need a war for ratings. They may agree to aid the US without consulting the British people. I give my honour and my responsibility to unseen people in authority and will kill according to orders, or risk court-martial if I ever use my one chance to refuse.
This is moral cowardice, plain and simple. Worse, it’s giving your hands as a tool to those in power. It makes it hard for me to be ‘proud of our boys’ or ‘support the troops’. (I do not consider the safeguard of 'illegal orders' to be enough.)
Everyone wants to intervene in genocides, build bridges for villages in the third world, and stop terrorism. The UK national army is not the organisation for any of those things. A conventional land army can do nothing about terrorists, and outside powers stepping in to someone else’s civil war should be a joint international force, not the UK national army. If you want to deliver aid, join a humanitarian organisation.
Besides, you know you won’t be delivering aid. It’ll be about oil, or attacking Iran because Saudi wants us to, or protecting UK ‘interests’ in other people’s countries. Maybe you’ll get lucky and be assigned something that is morally excellent and urgent… but that’s not the deal you make. You don’t know the future when you join. You don’t choose your missions, and the only decision is to follow orders or quit the army and take a chance on punishment for doing so. You have given up control.
And giving up control over something as fundamental as killing other people is the opposite of honour, or morality, or anything worthy of respect. Unquestioning obedience to authority is the worst thing a human being can do, especially when the future whims of that authority are unknown and their past decisions have been so shameful, corrupt and murderous. (Stay tuned for Steve’s opinion on traditional monotheist religions which highly prize obedience to an untouchable authority). Acting to defend yourself is not an excuse when you are a foreign army in someone else’s country.
Global Terrorism is an issue, and one which a conventional land army cannot solve. A Senior Officer in the Iraq war talking about “insurgents” said: “For every one I kill, I create three.” (That’s without getting into who insurgents are, which included a town promised elections by the US and then denied them because there was a chance the US wouldn’t get their oil, at which point the townspeople who lived there rose up against the US and somehow became “insurgents” to the area. But I digress.)
I’m not saying that violence is never the answer. I’m saying that the UK national army is never the answer to anything outside our borders, and the number of times that conflicts qualify as a “Just War” (if you want to use that criteria) are too infrequent to excuse any soldier signing up for service.
On this day especially, Shame on this and previous governments for historically using boys like game pieces, and for abandoning the survivors with nowhere near enough support for their mental trauma or physical injuries.
Shame on those who would invade another country for profit or hate, overrule any culture of tolerance with one of oppression and violence, and justify war as a noble or inevitable profession. Shame on the UK government for knowingly selling arms to regimes who use them on civilians and the innocent. Shame on anyone who doesn’t act for peace first, peace second and peace third.
And shame on anyone using the lines “we must continue or their sacrifice was in vain”.
We’re not standing strong against Hitler now, or fighting one last conflict so that there’s never another. We as a nation are not going to be invaded by Spain, or Sweden, or France in the next 50 years. We cannot “defend” ourselves against global terrorism by being a giant target for recruiters in the Middle East, second only to the image of the US sending a force there. If we see genocide and need to defend those who can’t defend themselves, the army of a small island in Europe is not the force to send in. You could argue for a special forces team to assassinate fanatics who can never be reasoned with. You can’t argue for permanent military bases when our very presence in the area prolongs the conflict.
There are shelves of books filled with the words of those who have seen war, and now call only for peace at all costs. Who decry military violence as the worst of humanity. When our leaders lay a wreath at the Cenotaph while wearing the red poppy, they are making a statement of thanks to those who went before, and an acknowledgement of the terrible responsibility they have over those in their care – but the fact that the politician can have so much blood dripping from their own hands shows this hollow ceremony for the lie it is. When Blair can lay a wreath to honour the “glorious dead”, the poppy symbol has been corrupted beyond repair.
Remembrance Day is "to commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts".
We should “commemorate” our contribution in Iraq and Afghanistan with a feeling of national shame, anger at the leaders who ignored the will of the public, and vigilance against the industry which stokes constant war in the Middle East for money or vengeance.
Actor Mark Rylance said last December that the White Poppy should replace the red, because deaths in war are so heavily civilian, not soldiers. And not the words “collateral damage”: it's the murder of innocents. Civilian ‘casualties’ (murder victims) are another factor along with rape which is an inescapable cost of any military action. That price is too high for any of us. Rylance "felt therefore that the remembrance only of the military dead and wounded and suffering was not very accurate." I know that most people won’t feel the way I do about the obscenity of picking up a gun on someone else’s orders, or firing it in anything but defence against a credible threat on your own land, but civilian deaths? A United Nations report said "Armed conflict kills and maims more children than soldiers". Landmines are part of that. Cluster bombs. All the munitions where the user can't even see which targets they will strike. This week, three relatives of the victims of drone attacks were meant to take their case to Parliament. They were denied visas by the Home Office. We are moving towards an age where civilian deaths will be even higher, and excused by quotes of how few drone missions have gone off-target (as if “one” wasn't too high a number.)
On this Remembrance Day, it is right that we should think of those who laid down their lives to protect us, to truly defend our country from a threat. I have unending respect for those who fought the Nazis, or endured at home, but those days are 60 years behind us. In the last century, the conflicts against armies which genuinely could have invaded us make a very short list. War is (and always was) a money-making disease we can’t be rid of. The amount the UK spends on, and taxpayer subsidises, the arms industry in a time of austerity is stunning. The amount of time that there has been peace in the world since 1900 is also stunning …ly small.
UK soldiers are not “defending” me while I sit here ungrateful. Nothing they do outside our borders makes me safer, unless you count the construction projects generating goodwill which could be carried out by other groups. We do not need a mobile force which the government can and will constantly use somewhere in the world in order to justify its budget. We do not need to glorify someone giving their hands to future politicians to use as a weapon, or cover that abdication of responsibility with military jargon of honour and courage. Do we need surgical strikes against fanatical leaders who cannot be reasoned with? Maybe, if they directly threaten UK citizens and wouldn't be better handled by a non-national force. That’s not “war”, and it needs a small Special Forces team, not an army. "But they're defending you with their lives!" Please don't. If you want to act in my name, put down your rifle, or your explosives, or your weapons system which can destroy a village, and never pick them up again. We're no longer supporting those fighting in trenches against a fascist world power, we're supporting drones guided by xbox controllers killing images on a screen from miles away because they disrupt economics. I'd rather remember and praise those who were imprisoned and called cowards for refusing to murder in wars they knew to be wrong over the years. They are honourable heroes to me.
“So you’d give up the UK having any oil, would you?” If the alternative is forcing it from others at the end of a gun, yes. Securing resources must be done another way, sustainably. The threat of force is not sustainable, or moral. If you can't trade for it, you can't afford it. Bullets in the bodies of those less powerful than you are not acceptable currency. Protecting a pipeline with armed security? Fine, if you have permission to be there and the company pays for a security team. That’s not the UK national army. Our government doesn’t deserve a globally mobile force to use to apply “pressure”, aid “regime change”, or “secure Britain’s interests”.
I'm not alone in rejecting the red poppy. Go back and read the first link to Harry Smith's reasons. It used to mean one thing, and now it doesn't. War used to be one thing for the UK, and now it isn't (and in many cases where it was colonial conquest, thank goodness.) I don't believe that my taking a dissenting view on this day is unusual or inappropriate. Next year, David Cameron is planning events to 'celebrate' the beginning of the First World War. I don't feel there's anything to celebrate until 2018. The Prime Minister should be careful not to let the newspaper see him yawning this year as he has done previously, tired from coming straight off a plane from selling arms to Saudi Arabia.
So few people today "Support the War" that we're told to support the Troops instead, as though what they're doing, and where, plays no part in that. Don't support one nation's troops over another: recognise all of humanity as being made of families, and give violent men nothing to shoot at by not being in their country. If there are innocents to protect, form a peacekeeping taskforce and volunteer for that - not a Military which can be sent for "pre-emptive" invasions due to national needs.
The only fighting we should do is to persuade our countries towards peace at all costs. War breeds more war, and more deaths, and more permanent cycles of revenge and grief. The latest case of a Royal Marine murdering a wounded man in Afghanistan illustrates it well: when you've had comrades killed, you're more likely to do the same to the enemy. You're radicalised, just like they are, by the mere presence of war, just like in every war.
Remembrance Day must not, ever, be used to dignify, justify or lend honour to military conflict. And yet it does, and the wearing of the poppy does, because we allow warmongers to wear it, describe the 'great struggles' as 'glorious' and reinforce patriotism at the expense of those made less than human who we call our enemies. Today should be a day of shame, grief and determination to change our course. It should be a time to also remember the soldiers and civilians who died on the other side to us.
What it absolutely must not be is a stiff ceremony of normalising the murdering we do because it falls within the 'honourable' traditions of the military. Saying that something is terrible and then using the difficulty of that to justify proceeding with it and calling your troops "honourable", "courageous" or "disciplined" means that you have still enabled the outcome no-one wanted. As we remember those who died, remember also that in World War One 40% of them - millions of people - were civilian deaths. In WWII it was 65% civilians. Of the conflicts since the 1990s, some reach 90%. Too much horrific death excused by uniforms, sombre expressions and red poppies.