Tag Archives: First World War

Never say never

Today is VJ Day (in Japan and the UK, the US marks the anniversary on 14 August due to time zones).

Unlike this iconic pair, not everyone got to celebrate. Contemplating the numbers who died in the war which ended 67 years ago is staggering, as historians have only been able to agree that the final count is somewhere between 62 and 78 million people.

Perhaps it is too much to hope for that the best way to honour the memory of all those lives lost would be a pledge by all sides to make damn sure it never happens again, instead of using it as an opportunity for sabre-rattling. Tempers have frayed following the decision of a Japanese Cabinet member to visit the controversial war shrine at Yasukuni – resting place of 14 convicted war criminals – which will today become a place of pilgrimage for peace marchers, veterans and right-wingers, some wearing Imperial Army uniforms.

Encounters at the shrine in the heat of August usually become fraught, with violence directed at foreigners, as reported by photographer Damon Coulter, or at left-wingers and peace marchers by some unsavoury characters encountered by the photographer, Adrian Storey, being the norm. It is a long way from last week’s more somber memorials for the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at which civic leaders spoke of their hopes for peace and a nuclear-free world.

While it is tempting for some to keep fighting that conflict it is difficult to see what doing so achieves. The stated aims of many of our grandfathers in fighting was less for a political ideology or a country than for their hope that we wouldn’t have to do the same. They had seen their fathers return from another ‘war to end all wars‘, be told ‘never again’ and watched as that promise of peace was betrayed. Their generation fought for us to be able to enjoy a better future.

The promise of peace is not guaranteed, however, not unless we remain vigilant. ‘Never’ looks like a short time when Europe has seen an increase in violence against immigrants, particularly in economically ravaged Greece. In Asia, relations between South Korea, Japan and China are strained over control of a number of small islands and the natural resources which lay within their territorial waters. In the Middle East, despite denials, things again look ominous.

The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance.

– George Orwell

Yet there is another way. Not everyone at Yasukuni shrine today will be there to promote a right-wing ideology. Some will attend to march for peace, others to release doves. Even some of the nationalists, such as this one who spoke to Adrian Storey, can behave in a way that encourages a ‘faint flicker of hope’. If those of us who believe in peace, who know that what we have in common is greater than our differences and that those differences can be better overcome by diplomacy than by fighting, continue to guard that flickering flame, one day we will be able to say we have finally fought the war to end all wars.

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If ye break faith with us

So Remembrance Sunday has passed, when the UK spends two minutes quietly remembering its war dead, before returning to the usual business of adding more names to memorials.  The event was originally conceived to honour the now long dead young men of that most futile ‘war to end all wars‘, but its motives seem to have been lost recently in a fog created by a bitter war of words over the poppy.

It is as if pinning one to your jacket and thereby supporting the work of the Royal British Legion has become akin to joining a kind of ‘all war is good’ chorus, instead of the charity appeal for a soldier’s welfare and campaigning movement which is what it really should be.  This is especially sad, as all this chatter about paper flowers drowns out the essential conversation we ought to be having about the lives our wars are damaging today.

These include, but are not limited to, the soldiers who are taking their own lives after returning from combat or others suffering the effects of mental illness alone.  The UK’s Mental Health Foundation reports that:

What is known is that only half of those experiencing mental health problems sought help from the NHS, and those that did were rarely referred to specialist mental health services.

Wearing the poppy should always be a matter of individual choice, after all, there are as many reasons to wear one or not to as there are people.  For some it might be a memory of those they have known personally, for others a matter of respect or gratitude.  For those who do not, it could be for based on their pacifism, or a reluctance to be seen to support the motives of recent wars.  On this, I agree with the Independent’s leader of last week:

The moment that someone feels obliged to wear the symbol for fear of looking out of place or disrespectful is the moment we forget what our servicemen and women actually fought for.

I would also love to see a moratorium on starting the next one (Iran) until all the damage caused from the last few (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) has been cleared up.  I would like to see an end to politicians wielding huge wreaths at the Cenotaph while slashing the support available to serving and former services personnel.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I hope I’m not the only one…

Here are two war poems, perhaps the most famous of all and a more recent addition, Adam Ford’s prize-winning entry to the ‘Dulce et Decorum… Next!’ competition.

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Victory Cigarettes for all!

Marine putting health in danger

Marine putting health in danger

US Forces in war zones are not going to be banned from smoking, as the Pentagon is worried that to do so might add to their stress.   Smoking rates are ‘thought to be as high as 50%’ among those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.  I’m amazed they are that low.

There is a telling quote from the photographer who took the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture above, here:

I flashed back to the chaos of combat in Falluja. In the tight spaces, we were scared mindless. Everybody dragged deeply on cigarettes.

Managing to quit the demon weed earlier in the year might allow me to feel a little smug about a ban, however I would imagine that if I were to find myself in either ‘theatre’ of war with a lack of vital equipment and a vague sense of not knowing what the heck I was doing there, my replacement vice of nail-biting might not be enough to keep me from going AWOL or blowing a hole in my own foot to get sent home.

What the IOM are missing is that the logic of protecting a soldier’s health from things that might kill them in later years is redundant if not part of a package of measures designed to protect them from the elements that are trying to kill them on a daily basis.  Most would probably rather play the odds on emphysema and lung cancer while remaining really quite fundamentally against IEDs, snipers and suicide bombers.

Plus, the killjoys are failing to grasp another essential truth: war is hell, but war without cigarettes is a dismal pit of despair.  War and cigarettes go together like strawberries and cream.  Even having your legs blown off is something that a good Woodbine can assist with:

Crippled for life at seventeen,
His great eyes seem to question why:
With both legs smashed it might have been
Better in that grim trench to die
Than drag maimed years out helplessly.

A child – so wasted and so white,
He told a lie to get his way,
To march, a man with men, and fight
While other boys are still at play.
A gallant lie your heart will say.

So broke with pain, he shrinks in dread
To see the ‘dresser’ drawing near;
And winds the clothes about his head
That none may see his heart-sick fear.
His shaking, strangled sobs you hear.

But when the dreaded moment’s there
He’ll face us all, a soldier yet,
Watch his bared wounds with unmoved air,
(Though tell-tale lashes still are wet),
And smoke his woodbine cigarette.

‘Pluck’ by Eva Dobell

Those First World War generals might have been murderous bastards who thought nothing of sending half a generation of men to their deaths before breakfast, but even they would have balked at stopping the tobacco rations.  It is likely that the non-smoking soldiers would also complain, as my Grandad’s tales of bargaining his ration in the Second one for everything from extra days leave to a new pair of boots can attest to.  Stop the smoking and the entire unofficial economy of the army collapses, and with it morale.

A final word, as ever, to Mr Orwell, who in Homage to Catalonia proclaimed tobacco to be one of the five essential needs of a soldier at the front.  (The other four being firewood, food, candles and the enemy).  I hope the IOM take note:

The use of tobacco in field hospitals is to be recommended … on account of its sedative qualities. No one can doubt that it has a soothing effect on men suffering from the pain of wounds, and produces a state of calm which is very beneficial under the circumstances … Perhaps none of the presents from aid societies as in time of war have been so much appreciated in hospitals as the presents of tobacco …

 

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