The futility of comparison…

16 03 2008

I’m usually sceptical of comparing things. I’ve had it drilled into me from a young age that if you want to compare things, then make sure that you are comparing like with like. You cannot therefore compare the hare and the tortoise for example, as they are different creatures.

Yet, as I was meandering my way through my work with little or no clear direction, a thought struck me. The “Pals Battalions” in the First World War, were, I think, comparable to Japanese kamikazee pilots of the Second World War.

Let me explain. I won’t bore people with a description of the pilots, I think people are knowledgable enough to understand what they did.

To the soldiers in the war then let me turn. These men, who had it drilled into them that signing up to the war was something noble and good, and in doing so could be seen as protecting the British Empire from the threat of the villainous Germans; willingly signed themselves up to fight in, what ostensibly is the worst conflict from a British perspective ever. Not that they were to know that of course. Yet as the war dragged on into its second or third year, there was a growing realisation of the nature of the conflict: rats, water, blood, death, lice and all. Despite this people still arrived at the front, to replace those who had been killed, injured, or moved. Obviously there was conscription, and many of these men had little choice in being made to go to the front.

These men were made to attack. That was their goal. Unlike the Germans, the Allies had to regain the occupied ground. For the Germans the war quickly became a case of what we have we hold.

The soldiers therefore were made to go ‘over the top’. That was pretty much the only reason they were there. They were there to effectively go to their deaths. Now some will argue, and I think I agree, that in war, people have to die. That is a given. The morality of whether there should be wars in the first place is another issue entirely, for another day.

What seperates the British soldiers from any other soldiers though is that their one objective was to attack. Every man in the trenches would have recognised this, I’m sure. You have no greater sense of your own morality until you face your death, or so I hear. Therefore the men in the trenches must have known they would die. Thus far, I think, nothing should be a surprise.

If though, that was what they were ‘built’ for, then really, were they any different to the kamikazee pilots? Both groups knew they would die, yet both groups kept attacking. Now there is the argument that both sets of fighters had little choice but to continue operating in the same way, for fear of being court-martialled and shot. Or whatever the Japanese equivalent is. For me, this instead serves to show how both armies were good at spinning their story to make it seem like everything was worth the cause. Including your life.

“The British Empire is worth your one life isn’t it? Democracy, liberty, principles, order. Are these things not worth laying your life down for?” That is effectively what the British government were saying.

Lots and lots of men agreed, signed up, and died for the cause. Willingly. Knowing that they would die, they still signed up. Like the pilots.

Now, if you take this logically further, this is the same as implying that anybody who signs up for the army is the same as a kamikazee pilot. But to run with that trail of thought is missing my point I feel. I am not comparing modern soldiers with the Japanese. Very clearly not. I am comparing two groups of people who willingly signed up to die, which, I feel, is different to todays army where improvements in ranging and targeting mean that fighting now can be done more easily without seeing the enemy.

Yes there was hugely different circumstances, but human nature, I feel, is a constant thing. The two groups would both have a much clearer knowledge that they were going to die than anyone in modern armies.

Moving forward then, I feel that the British soldier had the much harder job than the Japanese pilot. The pilot, if things went well, could bomb down on his target, pass out under the pressure, and be dead before he knew it. The British soldier, having climbed out of the watched trench, would move (either by running or walking) across no-mans-land with lots of German guns spraying bullets in his general direction. If, by some miracle, he made it to the other side, he then had to negotiate his way through lots of barbed wire (still being shot at remember) and into the German trench. If he made it this far, he would find lots of Germans ready to shoot him and kill him. Basically, the attackers stood little or no chance in Trench Warfare. They would, almost inevitably, die.

I shall leave this before I get too lost in giving a history lesson.  Having made this comparison though between the Japanese and the soldiers, there is one thing that they have in common, they died. This should be the one thing that gets remembered, and leads me to my title. I can compare them as much as I want, as can everyone else. What should be remembered though is that they died. For this.

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20 03 2008
12th Military History Carnival « Thoughts on Military History

[…] in British Second World War Studies. At The Cowfield we have got a post looking at the futility of comparing one historical event with another and some of the problems that it can cause to our historical understanding. At the Osprey blog we […]

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