Monday, November 26, 2007

WAR, RESPECT AND REMEMBRANCE






The words on the postcard are: "Je vois, bien souvent, ma maman pleurer. Je sèche ses pleurs avec un baiser - I often see my mother crying and I dry her tears with a kiss."
The certificate in the second photo hangs in my sitting room: it is the honourable discharge certificate issued to my paternal grandfather, one of many signed by King George V and handed out to the maimed of World War 1. Blinded at the Battle of Jutland, my grandfather never saw his son, my father. A career naval officer, he had travelled far and wide; I remember , as a child, our house being filled with silks and artefacts he had brought from China, until they just wore away or got broken over time. I like to think that he visited Sicily and felt the sun on his face before the darkness engulfed him. Before moving here, I considered giving the certificate to the Maritime Museum in Swansea – they had expressed some interest in having it – but I just couldn’t let it go.

I thought about telling this story on November 11th but did not, [a] because there is no commemoration here on that day and [b] because although I of course respect and feel deeply for my fallen or wounded countrymen in any war, I have issues with the current war and so felt it best to remain silent. I am not, I would like to point out, a pacifist; I should be but I am not. I will now break that silence in view of what happened at the weekend:

Many of my fellow-Blogpowerers were incensed at this and I understand their anger. Daily Referendum, James, Cllr Tony Sharp and Lord Nazh all posted on it immediately [I apologise if I have left anyone out] and I agree with much of what they have to say. James said, “I would dearly love to see some sort of post, some sort of comment from the womenfolk to assure me we haven’t gone stark, raving mad.” I commented on his site; now here is the post, though I’m not sure you are going to like it, James.

According to the report, a woman, or two women, behaved abusively towards badly injured servicemen using an area of her/their local swimming pool as part of their rehabilitation. That is, of course, appalling and I am not in any way excusing the women. Indeed, I hope that, had I been there, I would have had the courage to challenge them. But I would not have asked them “What have you ever done for your country?” Instead, I would have tried to find out what exactly their reasons were and would have tried to remonstrate with them. I am not for a moment suggesting that I would have done this totally calmly as I would have been angry, too. I would probably have got myself beaten up or worse, in today’s Britain. Much has been written about the fact that it was women who behaved in this way: yet I can imagine, because I have witnessed similar behaviour, that it could have come from young men, too. The most likely reason for their behaviour is, I believe, sheer ignorance. I would be willing to bet that they would have made similar remarks to any group of disabled people, and I would have been just as incensed: I hope my fellow-Blogpowerers would have been, too.

I have read that in the USA, the women would have been immediately taken to task in no uncertain terms and there are three possible reasons why this apparently did not happen in Britain: [1] maybe there just weren’t many people about [2] those who were about feared for their jobs or violent consequences [both of which suggest sad truths about our society] and [3] we just do not have the unquestioning patriotism of Americans. We do not put our hands on our hearts the minute the chords of our National Anthem strike up and I, for one, will stand for Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau but will not rise for God Save the Queen [ or at least, there are very few occasions when I would]. I think this questioning society is, on the whole, a good development and one of the quotes I liked to leave my A level students with was this, from Winifred Holtby’s South Riding:
“Question everything – even what I’m saying now. Especially, perhaps, what I say. Question everyone in authority, and see that you get sensible answers to your questions.”
I never read them the next part, because it would not have been appropriate, but I think it is worth quoting here:
“Vow as much love to your country as you like; serve to the death if that is necessary… But, I implore you, do not forget to question.”
Without questioning, there would have been no resistance at all to tyrants through the ages.

Let us not confuse questioning, however, with lack of deference, which is probably a good thing, and lack of respect, which is not. Yet I cannot agree with James that our troops deserve, at all times, unquestioning respect: for if that is so, I would be required to respect those who had done this. General Montgomery, I read, regarded rape as a mere by-product of war; how can I respect that or “teach” others to do so?

James also asks, in the comments, whether women could just say “Thank you to our brave men who fought to protect us" without bringing feminism into it: I’ll leave aside the feminist issue but would point out that women have always been both the victims and complicit in war: wives and mothers of sons waited in dread for the telegrams in both World Wars, just as they dread the appearance at the door of the officer in a suit today, whilst in WW1 some women were as fooled by the propaganda as their menfolk, and, in giving out white feathers to non-combatants and generally egging the men on, were as responsible as their government for encouraging the whole bloody mess. In both wars, there were unsung heroines and today women are also front line soldiers. So it is no longer possible to conjure up an image of the “little woman at home who couldn’t defend herself”.

When the shelling on the western front stopped on Xmas Eve, 1914, and both sides saw sense and played football instead of slaughtering each other, I suspect that the reaction of many women was, “If they can lay down arms for an hour or two, why can’t they stop the entire war?” and I don’t think this thought was far from the minds of many combatants either. Or, as John Lennon and others were later to put it, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” If only!

I do not believe, you see, that going to war always makes your country – or, god forbid, someone else’s – a “safer place”. Wars have been and are being fought over language, territory, the colour of people’s skin, slavery, oil, an abstract noun and, most often, the ambitions of unscrupulous politicians who never get near the firing line. Remember the reactions of the politicians in Fahrenheit 9/11 when Michael Moore suggests they sign their own sons and daughters into the military? “No way!” their faces said.

Only very rarely is war really fought for “freedom” and when it is, it seems to me, those in power and their supporters do not seem very keen upon upholding the freedom to dissent, or to abhor war: I have been criticised in Britain, in November, our season of remembrance, for wearing a white peace poppy along with the red remembrance one. Yet I often think of the blind sailor who never saw his son and my way of respecting and remembering him and those like him is to campaign for peace.

20 comments:

jmb said...

Well done Welshcakes.

No one could disagree that the woman and anyone else at the pool who showed disrespect to those wounded soldiers were in the wrong. As they would have been if the soldiers had been non-military handicapped or injured people from a civilian rehab centre.

But everything is not black and white and yes we should respect the military for defending us but that does not put them above criticism or more for their wrong behaviour as you have pointed out.

It is more than fifty years since I read A Woman in Berlin, but I still remember the terrible things the Russian soldiers did to the civilian population, especially the rape of the women, in the last days of the war in Berlin in 1945.

As you say women view war quite differently from men, although they too will defend themselves and their country in the same way that men do.

I have nothing to say that you have not already said.

Yet I often think of the blind sailor who never saw his son and my way of respecting and remembering him and those like him is to campaign for peace.

Amen to that.

PinkAcorn said...

As a mother of a USAF pilot I would have wanted to punch that womans lights out but I know that brings no resolve to this situation. I am quite disgusted and can only imagine she is clueless about freedoms our military, British or USA's, brings.

I'm leaving the same response on your fellow bloggers posts.
Marlene

Dragonstar said...

Thank you for this post. I had not heard of the event you mention, but I am totally disgusted by it.

I don't believe in war, it mostly causes more trouble than it cures. But neither do I believe in victimising those who have suffered in war, whether as participants or bystanders.

As jmb says, nothing is ever black and white, and we can't know exactly what drove the woman to behave as she did. But at the most basic level, bad manners can never be defended.

Aileni said...

As another Ex-Pat, I have issues with British militarism and their misplaced sense of importance in the world. However, in the case of these disabled men I feel a point has been missed - it does not matter where they got their injuries, they were damaged individuals recuperating. Had a wall fallen on them or been in a RTA - and had these injuries been sustained by their own actions - is not relevant.
I have absolutely no patience with Bushes wars or the nations who follow him.
Individual soldiers are too often drawn to the service by need for employment - thus failure of their governments' social policies must be the ultimate cause of their injuries.
Americans talk of the classless society but actually they are strongly hierachical, which seem to lead to mindless 'flag-love' and if ever a country was teetering upon totalitarianism, it is the US.
Sorry, I am ranting.
Hwyl nawr,
Aileni.

Abbey said...

Welshcakes, I like and was moved by your words... they sound just, empathetic and caring..

Wear both your poppies with pride, I am from a soldiers bloodline, and i strongly (as he did) believe in peace..

Im proud to know you and respect your views....A

PinkAcorn said...

I wanted to add this link for yesterdays paper in Sandpoint, Idaho
http://www.bonnercountydailybee.com/
For my little town in Idaho this is how we treat our service men returning home- Marlene

Ellee Seymour said...

I missed this at the weekend Welshcakes. I am saddened by the lack of respect and regard we show our ex-servicemen and women.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks, jmb. I've not read "A Woman in Berlin" but I think Anthony Beevor has a new book out about this incident. I agree with all that you say. Hi, pink. That's a perfectly understandable reaction. You know, I've been wondering what my Dad would have done had he witnessed the incident. He wouldn't have hit a woman but I think he'd have lashed out at a man - then regretted it, for as you say, it wouldn't have resolved anything. Thank you, Dragon Star. I agree with you, too. Hi, Aileni. Thank you for visiting. I agree that it doesn't matter, in this context, how the men got their injuries - the behaviour of the women was just unacceptable and quite disgusting. I do think education is the only answer. Thank you for that, Abbey - I needed it. Thanks, pink. That's a very interesting link. Hi, Ellee, I, too, am saddened by it but, as I've said above, the woman's behaviour was unacceptable whoever the disabled group were.

lady macleod said...

Well done indeed.

"I have read that in the USA, the women would have been immediately taken to task..." I'm not so sure that is true as the number of homeless veterans continues to increase in America and the quality of care in Veteran's hospitals continues to decline.

A timely post friend, well done.

Lizzie said...

Men take us to war. Men retaliate in war. Men join up because 'Dulce et Decorum Est'.

Thank you WCL.

Lizzie x

Lord James-River said...

A most complete account, Welshcakes. I agree with Ellee here but take many of the other points.

leslie said...

I had not heard about this way over here in western Canada, but after reading about it via your link, am, like everyone else here, absolutely appalled. That woman would have been escorted out of the rec center had it happened here. No one would DARE openly vocalize that kind of disrespect, abuse, and hatred without being charged by the police. No one likes or wants war, but if it happens we must stand by our men and women who serve and protect, no matter what.

Shades said...

Great post, Welshcakes, a well thought out, well rounded argument.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks for that insight, Lady M. I didn't know about that. Hello, Lizzie: "Dulce et decorum est - the old lie" as Wilfred Owen said. Thank you, James. I appreciate that. Hi, Leslie. Interesting to know what would have happened there. It was, of course, appalling behaviour. Much appreciated, Shades.

marymaryquitecontrary said...

Welchcakes this came straight from your heart. It is so well written; I have returned several times to comment and could not find the words to describe my disgust at the vile way these soldiers were treated. I probably would have ended up the beaten one as I would have found it difficult to maintain silence.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks, MM. I could not have remained silent either. But I do think that the women would have made these remarks at any disabled group. Whether they would or wouldn't have, it was a horrible, shameful incident which does not make me proud of my country.

Sharon said...

I thought about this post last evening. It just seemed to me that any thing said now days seems to be picked up and expanded on. Someone in charge should have addressed that ill mannered (and crass) female. Just take care of it on the spot. We get into a dither and then don't seem to give a care afterwards.
I don't think my opinion here will be a popular one.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Sharon. Good point. Someone should have dealt with it there and then but the trouble in Britain is everyone is afraid of losing their jobs if they challenge anyone about anything. Sad state of affairs.

Lord Nazh© said...

Lady M: your points only make sense if you think that Society as a whole decides who is homeless and who is not (also the homeless report was full of errors :); also, with the exception of the news, Vet care is actually better on the whole.

Welsh: "Remember the reactions of the politicians in Fahrenheit 9/11 when Michael Moore suggests they sign their own sons and daughters into the military? “No way!” their faces said."

Do you understand exactly what volunteer army means? No one, not a Republican, Democrat, Independent, etc. can sign 'their child' up for ANY war or military service. No matter how much Michael Moore or those of his ilk want to claim otherwise, the decision to join the military is not one that a parent makes for a child; adults are free to join (with exceptions, my shoulder/back preclude me from being able to be accepted) but they are not free to sign up their children.

For you to agree with Moore's logic is basically saying that each person in the world that believes in any war should immediately sign their children on to fight, even though that is no better than slavery.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

LN: I'll let Lady M defend her own comment, if she wishes to. I take your other point.

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