Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Doomed Youth?

There is a certain meta-narrative of war these days that sees it as unremittingly brutalising, hellish and cruel. Mostly it stems from the Cold War, I think - all of those mean, nasty conflicts in places like Vietnam, Angola, El Salvador and Afghanistan were like hammer blows against the very profession of soldiery. It was Remembrance Sunday this week (I believe in other countries it's known as Armistice Day?) and a large part of the televisual programming revolved around the "War is Hell" motif - The Not Dead, a Channel 4 documentary last night, was a case in point. But you see it across Western culture generally: there is a large section of the population who will oppose any military action on the basis that war is always terrible and can never be justified. During NATO's Kosovo campaign, even, or the 2001 bombing of Afghanistan, huge swathes of the British public opposed the actions of the government - even though more black-and-white cases for war could hardly be made. The image we're presented with is that war basically involves lots of young men being completely dehumanised and irrevocably psychically wounded, and the whole thing is just too awful for words.

The reality must be more complex. We now know, for example, that Wilfred Owen - the quintessential 'anti-war' poet - wrote to his mother on returning to the front, and the thick of the fighting, in 1918, that he had "never been happier". (Siegfried Sassoon, another famous 'anti-war' poet, earned many medals for bravery and the nickname 'Mad Jack' for the eagerness with which he went over the top to fight Germans.) Many veterans find readjustment to their home life difficult not because they are traumatised, but because being a civilian is so boring compared to what they were previously doing.

My grandfather was a case in point. He joined the army at 16 (lying about his age) in 1939, found himself in a tank in Normandy in 1940, and was shot through both legs by a German machine-gun when bailing out of that tank after it had been crippled by an anti-tank gun. He was evacuated at Dunkirk, nursed back to health, rose to the rank of Corporal, and was on the beach at D-Day - from where he fought his way to the borders of Germany with the rest of the allied armies. He loved being a soldier and he loved the war - he loved it so much, in fact, that he re-enlisted as soon as it was over and fought in the Korean war, too.

I don't think for a second that he particularly enjoyed killing people. He was a friendly, peaceful and cool-tempered sort, who lived a basically decent life. But the vision of him proudly wearing his medals on Remembrance Sunday, visiting Normandy on regiment reunions, and painting his plastic airfix military models, just doesn't sit with the vision of war that we're asked to see by the zeitgeist of our times.

Perhaps it has something to do with the difference between a volunteer and a conscript. And of course, fighting the Wehrmacht or the Chinese Army as my grandfather did is not the same as massacring civilians in the killing fields of Angola or Mozambique - or being machine-gunned at the Somme. But I think it should be more often acknowledged that warfare is a considerably more complex beast than simply being "hell". That just doesn't properly explain the psychology of the thing, and why human beings - particularly male human beings - so readily become involved in it.

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