A Bony Tear Twist…

29 01 2010

So, as I write good ‘ol Tone is talking to some important people. You know the guy, was in charge of our country for a few years, took us to war, sorted out Northern Ireland forever, introduced minimum wage and told us that half the school leavers should go to university. That guy.

The trouble is, unemployment remains sky-high, the PM is struggling to solve the resurgent Northern Ireland problem, and the war which we were taken into is still raging.

So now he’s back, from wherever the hell he went to make an exoribant amount of money, and he’s talking. Not in straight sentences I’m sure, but talking nonetheless. Nick Robinson’s blog is the most revealing insight into Blair and his morning in front of the panel. The key thing, Robinson notes, is that regime change was always going to happen, regardless of the ’45 minute’ claim, regardless of whether WMD’s were ever found. War, it seems, was an inevitability.

The outcome of the inquiry is a long way away. But it does make for an interesting theoretical. Is it legal to go to war? Implicit in itself is the notion that war has to be a legal act. Can it really be such a thing? Obviously those up top think it can. I’m not convinced, and whilst I accept that perhaps certain motions have to be carried out before the declaration of war itself, I remain skeptical as to whether these can ever be completely listened to.

The simple fact is this. You will always have people in positions of power who will disagree with such a thing as war. It’s natural. If you listen to these people you never go to war. The consequences of this are that some dictator somewhere goes on killing his own citizens and developing the technology to blow you sky high.

Or you stop it. You do all the necessary talking, which, naturally result in ultimatum. You then have the courage of your convictions and follow through with your threats. This, I think, is what Blair did. It’s an odd situation I find myself in, supporting Blair. But I do think that whilst the grounds for the war fed to the public were slightly dubious, war was an inevitability.

War is never simple. There are pros and there are cons. This is the nature of the beast. But sometimes, just sometimes war is necessary. It’s what soldiers understand when they sign up. It’s what politicians understand when they encounter massive problems in foreign fields. It’s what the public of 1914 understood when they signed up in their thousands to join in the war effort. It’s what the public of today do not understand.

Yes, there does have to be an enquiry into it, because there was lying and false accusations. But no, it doesn’t mean that the war was any less justified. What has come afterward is natural too. The removal of a dictator means that there will be a power vacuum. It will be filled with the people who can intimidate the most. Thus peace-keepers were needed in the country. Indeed, they still are needed in the country. Whilst the democratic rebuilding exercise continues, the troops will be needed to help. Of course there is a problem if the democracy leans too heavily on the troops for support, but that’s a different problem.

The inquiry is an interesting thing. It will, most likely, find the war to be illegal, but won’t do much to remedy this. The overall result is that we went to war. Now we must deal with it. Not reflect on whether it was legal to do so. History will judge Blair and Bush, in the course of time. Lets deal with the cards we have on the table and not worry as to whether the cards should exist in the first place.

Lest We Forget…

11 11 2009

And this from the BBC…

Lies, Damn Lies and Numbers…

18 08 2009

Two interesting historical posts coming out of the Indepenent today. I’ll write something about the second later, but for now I wish to consider Robert Fisk’s comment on the number of British casualties in Afghanistan.

The full copy of Fisk’s thoughts is to be found here. It is emotively entitled “Why these deaths hit home as hard as the Somme”. Upon seeing such a headline I will admit to growing fearful about the content of the article. Where was Fisk going with such an ill-considered banner line? I actually disagree with the implication of such a headline, I think that these Afghanistan deaths hit home harder because of many things, not least the nature of the world media. That’s by the by though.

The real point that Fisk made, and it is something I agree wholeheartedly with him about, is this one. He writes it pretty succinctly so I’ll simply transcribe his words:

And let’s just remind ourselves of the casualty figures. We’ve lost just over 200 soldiers- admittedly most of them in the past 14 months- in a war that has lasted for eight years. In the Second World War, which lasted for almost six years, Britain lost 650 men on D-Day, 6 June 1944, alone. And let’s go back to the Great War. On the first day of the Somme- 1 July 1916- we lost almost¬† 19,500 dead. That’s almost a hundred times our Afghan dead in 24 hours.

A good point well put I feel. The deaths in Afghanistan are, of course, tragic, but they are small fry compared to many other battles, wars, military engagements made by the British. The word ‘tragic’ above was carefully picked as to echo Stalin’s famous thoughts on war dead, paraphrased “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic“. This I feel has a certain resonance when considering the parallels between the two conflicts. The reason there is such a media outpouring when another British soldier falls is because the event is a comparative rarity.

The British army have grown a lot better at engaging an enemy, and because of this the death rate has fallen. However, this falling death rate has meant that more time can be given to each dead person. We are told their names, their ages, their private life. We are told this because we can be told. The media can keep up, and play with the public emotions of hearing of one more dead person. They simply couldn’t during WW1. The soldiers were falling in such numbers that no-one really knew who was dead, and who wasn’t. Soldiers were lost during battles, and only inaccurate numbers could suffice as to the number of dead on any given day of the war.

The real point is that we should actually be thankful that only 201 troops have died during eight years of conflict in Afghanistan. There is, of course, the lingering question of whether Britain should be in the country in the first place, but that’s a whole different issue. The result is that the soldiers are. And they’ve only lost 201 of their own through the course of eight years of action. That’s actually a pretty remarkable statistic. That’s 201 deaths in 2850 days (roughly). That’s mightly impressive really. The army should be commended for this, not chastised. Of course these soldiers should be remembered too, but the army should not be attacked for losing men, it is after all, the nature of the beast.

Compulsory Remembrance…

4 11 2008

Tonight I have had a moan at my dad. This doesn’t happen very often, as generally my dad is great. But tonight, when he revealed he hadn’t yet bought a poppy, I got a little worked up.

It irks me that people can live in ignorant bliss, and not pay a pound once a year to buy a poppy to show support and remembrance to fallen soldiers of conflict. Why is it so hard? Is it through a lack of education? Is it just a case of being tight-fisted? Or (and this is the option I’m inclined to pick) is it just sheer laziness?

Too many people view the buying of a poppy as a chore, as something that ought to be done ‘because’. The only solution to my mind is to drum it into them from a young age. Make the wearing of poppys compulsory at school for two weeks before Remembrance Sunday. Simple. As the kids get older, educate them in the meaning and significance of the poppy, so that by the time they are adults, they will understand and be willing to get their own and donate to the British Legion.

There is no cost issue either, at my school we used to pay a pound a term (roughly) to be allowed to wear our own clothes for a day. It wasn’t much to pay for the privilage of wearing a pair of jeans and t-shirt instead of blazer and tie for a day. So why would paying a pound to wear a poppy for two weeks be any worse? The simple answer is, it wouldn’t.

I don’t think there can be any moral objection either, after all, what is there to object to? Remembrance? I’m reasonably sure most people would not object to paying a small tribute to our fallen soldiers. And lets be honest here, they don’t ask for much. They gave their lives in conflict fighting for Britain in war. All you have to do is spend a pound a year and shut up for two minutes. Hardly hard work now is it?

Ignorance, sloth and being tight are not good reasons not to remember. If we force the issue from a young age through our schools, then, as we move away from the generations who remember the world wars, we can hopefully keep the tribute running strong.

Innocence and experience…

6 08 2008

Whislt doing a favour for my neighbours tonight in watching their kids for a couple of hours, I was struck by two thoughts. Firstly, who was “Uncle Ben”? And what the hell made his sauces so popular?

This though was not the most pressing issue of the night. The second point I wish to tell you all about occurred as I was putting the eldest child to bed. At 8, this kid was no mug. Instead he was a polite, well-spoken, obviously intelligent lad, but the book he chose for me to read to him was an interesting one. My distinct lack of short-term memory means that I cannot remember the name of the book or the author, but I shall give you a brief overview of it. Essentially it was a poem, split, like childrens books are, over numerous pages, with just a few lines on each page. The theme was vaguely religious. The poem told of men, and their world (albeit in simplistic childhood terms).

It was though the illustrations that made the most impression on me. Starting with wide images of the globe, and then of countryside and towns, the book moved into looking at just one town. It appeared to be a nice, calm, peaceful town in the first pages, but, as the poem moved on, there were, slowly, subtley, images of war thrown in. An odd tank here. A helicopter there. By the end of the poem, the town had been decimated by war. The tanks and helicopters had moved on, and the inhabitants were beginning to pick up the pieces. It should be noted that the poem itself made no mention of war, or any kind of fighting, or destruction. The connotations of the words were seized upon by the illustrator and used to introduce young people to war.

This tale was simple enough for an 8 year old to understand the connotations, even if the significance eluded him. It was a very interesting example of how realities of the world, in this case war; are introduced to children. The poem ended with a sense of optimism, the suggestion of a thought that man can be good, and need not go to war. Which is perhaps idealistic, but hey, kids are idealistic aren’t they?

Added to this is the book that I am currently re-reading. Harper Lee’s famous “To Kill a Mockingbird” still strikes a chord with me. It shows (brilliantly, in my opinion) the rationale of children to the negative aspects of adulthood. In this case it was racism. Through the children’s eyes we see how such things as racism are in fact no more than irrational, irresponsible thoughts of adults trying to improve things for themselves (by which I mean, if they can pick on someone, they will not be at the perceived bottom of the social ladder).

Children are not stupid. They are highly perceptive people, with a view of the world guided solely by balance and logic. As they get older they become corrupted by cynicism, and the realities of a modern world filled by varying complexities. I think that if we adhered to the rationale of a child in some cases, the world might get somewhere.

War Laws?

14 05 2008

Whilst rather aimlessly meandering my way through another book relating to the war, I was struck by the notion of “the laws of war”. To me, this seems something of a oddity. Is it possible to suggest that you can only kill or injure your opponent via a certain method? In 1915 the German army used Chlorine gas for the first time in combat. The British were outraged as this form of attack was seen as most barbaric and indicative of the lowest form of human which the Germans were perceived to be. The outcrys harped on about the unspoken, unwritten, but very much existing, laws of war.

Now perhaps this scepticism for such a concept comes from the Second World War. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki irreparably changed the nature of war forever. Whilst the wartime revolution had begun in 1914, I think 1945 was the time when this nature changed into something more sinister. Wars were no longer about soldiers, engaging in a tactical battle of intelligence and brute force. Wars were now about civilians. In the poker table of war, normal people became the chips. Ultimately, in 1945, the USA called Japan’s bluff to devastating consequences. The following Cold War saw this game played out between the Americans and the Russians. No-one called the other, despite, or perhaps because of, the stakes.

This returns me then to the original point, how can a concept as brutally savage as war have laws? The simple answer is that it can’t. When your objective is as simple as to cause as much damage to your enemy as possible in order to do one of two things (wipe them out entirely or force a surrender) there is scant regard for the methods used. This, it seems, is another one of those ‘means/ends’ questions. If using a ‘dirty’ (which, in effect, means ungentlemanly) tactic helps ensure a victory, is it reasonable to push ahead with such a method. In war the answer is always ‘yes’. In war there are no morals to be offended. After all, how can one have morals about killing, right? It isn’t as black and white as that suggests though. What of the conscipts to the army, forced to join up because they were of suitable age? Do they abandon morals once they hit that front line? Again, the answer is in the affirmative. However, one must sympathise with them, there is no choice, the primative problem is one of ‘kill or be killed’. As the human is born to survive, there is only ever one choice for those in the line, especially those who engaged with the enemy in the First World War.

The fact that a war is occurring means that the laws governing on an international stage have failed. These rules, kept in force (to a greater or lesser extent) by the United Nations in today’s society; did not though exist in World War One. Whilst there were numerous treaties allying various countries (hence why the war started in the first place), there was no overall body. The League of Nations was set up in the aftermath of the Great War, and even it was unable to prevent the Second from erupting.

Wars have little regard for rules. The fact that they are occurring in the first place is indicative of the point that somewhere, the rules have been broken. Once the first law is broken, the rest simply follow like a row of neatly arranged dominos until you arrive at the precipice of war where there is but one option. A criminal, having already robbed, will have little compunction in robbing again. Once this CV of rule breaking has been built upon and expanded, it becomes irrelevant how many more laws get broken.

My point then is that there can be no such concept as “war laws” simply because the time and the place for such modes of discipline have long since passed by the time war erupts. War laws are a nice concept created by the side which feels they have been the victim of a new type of attack. In 1915 it was the British. They were so offended, they made large scale plans for the use of gas attacks later in the conflict. Apparently, it is alright to break the rules if the other side has broken them in the first place. Either that, or, as is more realistic, we accept that there are no more rules which can be broken when you are in the midst of war.

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.