Realizing About War.

10 Feb

I was born a mere 4 years after the end of the Second World War. It’s aftermath still hung heavily over the nation. Food shortages persisted and everyone lived on rations. It was the age of Austerity, of “make do and mend.”  Many people near us lived in hastily erected pre-fabs because so many homes had been bombed and destroyed. I imagine it was like that all over the country.

Obviously, as a baby, I had no idea that I had fortuitously arrived in the world just after all that death , destruction and misery. Only later did I realize what a traumatic experience my country and much of the world must have undergone. At first, as a child growing up in the 1950’s, the war years seemed to have been a fascinating and exciting time to live through. Seen through my naive child’s eyes, it almost felt as if I had missed out on something memorable and special. I was fascinated when my dad showed me the maps into which he had stuck little, colourful flags, marking the progress of the various armies between 1939 and 1945. Tiny Union Jacks, Swastikas, Tricoleurs and Hammer and Sickles advanced and retreated across the map of Europe and North Africa, while out in the Pacific, the red round sun of Japan was pitted against more Union Jacks and the Stars and Stripes. Dad explained the main campaigns and it all seemed very dramatic and thrilling.

Later, when I started to read comics in the early 1960’s I chose “Victor For Boys”. The front page picture strip always told a war story about how some brave Brit earned the Victoria Cross. I lapped up the tales of heroic “Tommies” socking it to “Fritz” or the “Hun”, as the Germans were dubbed. They were entertaining, escapist tales and to some extent they enhanced my sketchy knowledge of World War 2. What I didn’t realize at the time though, was that the Victor was also giving me a crash course in chauvism. Every issue fed a bit more patriotic poison into my susceptible mind. Patriotism is fine so long as it does not breed hatred of the so-called enemy. I was being presented with a simplistic, black and white world where the British were always good and our opponants were always bad, deserving of being shot, grenaded or bombed. The messy complications and ambiguities of real life were largely ignored. It wasn’t just the “Victor”. The 50’and 60’s were full of triumphant films about how we won the war, all portraying the British as heroes and the Germans or Japanese as the villains. Then there was the constant airing of “stirring” military music on the radio. I’ve lost count of how many times “Uncle Mac” of “Children’s Favourites” played the “633 Squadron” or the “Dambusters March”, both celebrating our mass bombing of Germany( yes I know that they started it!). Was this a suitable subject for children though? I was so drawn in that I asked for a book called “I Flew With Braddock” as my Sunday School attendance prize. It was all about a tail-gunner on a Lancaster bomber, doing night raids over Germany. My parents kindly arranged for me to receive this instead of The Bible which they had originally intended. But with hindsight, was this a suitable book to get from a church that was supposed to be promoting Jesus’s doctrine of love and peace? At the time, the war and the bombing raids seemed exciting and romantic to me. I did not think of the widespread death and destruction that they caused on both sides. For London read Hamburg; for Coventry read Dresden.

My close family had mostly escaped military service in World War 2. Dad worked on the railways, an essential service, ferrying coal from the mines to the power stations. He had actually wanted to join the Navy but had failed the medical due to his dermatitis. I remember it as a purply-red rash on his hands and lower arms and I think he said it was infectious. ( it isn’t really.)  So he spent the war in blacked- out steam trains, hoping that German bomber crews, on their way to attack Sheffield, did not spot the glow of the locomotive’s fire when he briefly opened the hatch to shovel in more coal. Both my grandfathers worked in the steel- works of north-east Derbyshire, another essential industry. Men were exempted from conscription to the armed forces if they did a job that was vital to the war effort. I remember the comedian Eric Morecombe, explaining that’s how he ended up going down the pit. Thus my closer relatives were spared the dangers of front line action although I’m sure they worked extremely hard in unpleasant conditions on behalf of their country. So no tragic stories of family wartime losses blighted my innocent childhood. In fact my mum made it sound good fun when she told me about nights spent in the concrete air-raid shelter at the bottom of Grandad’s garden. She said they decorated it and took personal items in there to help pass the time. Only later did I imagine what it must have really been like, sitting there in the cold and dark, listening to the alien drone of the bombers overhead and wondering whether this was the night when your house would be blown to bits. It must have been far from jolly.

My maternal Grandad, Thomas, used to teach me piano when I was about 7 and he told me stories that increased my fascination with the war. He would suddenly stop me from ploughing through some boring scales to tell me about a dog-fight between a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt in the skies above Chesterfield where we lived. It sounded thrilling to a child’s ears because at that tender age I didn’t think about the terror the young pilots on both sides must have felt, knowing that at any moment they could be blasted from the sky to almost certain death.

I have said that my close relatives did not experience the hazards of front line service. However when I got a bit older, my parents told me about Uncle William. He was actually my Great Uncle, the brother of Grandad Thomas. He had served in the army in the far east ( probably Burma, Thailand or Malaya). William had been captured by the Japanese  and had been held as a prisoner of war in one of their notorious camps. He survived the ordeal but came back looking like a skeleton. I was told that he had been forced to eat boiled grass. He had severe digestion problems for the rest of his life and was never the same man again! What pain he must have suffered and what cruelty and horror he must have witnessed. Then he was expected to come home and live a “normal” life! Films such as “Bridge Over The River Kwai” with its chirpy, whistled theme tune and its portrayal of brave, stiff upper-lipped British soldiers being mistreated by cold, sadistic Japanese guards, gave me important information about the sort of thing that Uncle William went through. However the film, good as it is, presents the story through a prism of patriotism, obscuring the fact that the war was a tragedy for all concerned — our poor soldiers, their poor soldiers and the long suffering local people whose land had been invaded by both the Japanese and the British. I now think that once a war film gets you to take sides, reducing the scenario to one of goodies versus baddies, it fails to identify and condemn the real evil, which is war itself. Hindsight has taught me this, but as a child , war stood for exciting stories in Boys Own comics, dramatic films where our side were always the heroes, stirring military music and patriotic pride in Britain’s great war-time exploits. Not only was I not exposed to the full horror of war itself but my view of what had taken place was severely handicapped by blatant bias.

I’m very sensitive to issues of bias because I was a History teacher for 35 years. Despite all my efforts and those of my colleagues, bias is still very much alive and kicking. It is a serious obstacle in the way of getting to the truth. For all sorts of reasons, people distort the truth to suit their own ends. War is particularly fertile territory for this sort of thing. For instance, it took me a long time to challenge the notion that the retreat from the beaches of Dunkerque in 1940, was somehow a great victory for the British because it illustrated our never-say-die attitude and “Bulldog spirit”. It actually was a catastrophic and humiliating defeat, but you wouldn’t think so from the number of times our politicians or media refer to the” Dunkerque spirit.” The past is always re-interpreted to put one’s own country in the best possible light, such that as a kid, I was always very proud of Britain’s “achievements” at Dunkerque.

The Korean War passed me by as did the early years of the Vietnam conflict when the French were involved. I was starting school and learning to ride my tricycle at the time. The Suez crisis and our (illegal) invasion of Nasser’s Egypt in 1956 barely registered on my personal Richter scale. I was only 7! I was probably writing my project about how chocolate is made, along with playing on the beach at Blackpool. The news of trouble in British ruled Kenya similarly passed me by. I vaguely remember that everyone seemed to be upset by the atrocities of the “Mau Mau terrorists” and felt better when our troops taught them a lesson. The question never entered my head as to why Britain was ruling a far away country in East Africa. All I knew was that it led to me getting lots of nice colourful stamps for my album. Like most other people I knew at the time, I was very proud of the British Empire and all that pink on the world map. I never thought about the wars and abuses that resulted from the establishment and maintenance of an Empire upon which the sun never set. My childhood ignorance allowed nationalistic pride to flourish.

Even in the 1960’s I was only vaguely aware of our soldiers fighting and dying in distant Malaya ( Malaysia). Few commentators stressed that we were over there to steal Malaya’s rubber and other rich, natural resources. ( That’s why the Japanese were attracted to south-east Asia in the 2nd World War and why Uncle William and thousands of others suffered or perished in the jungle in order to try to protect our booty.) Our leaders and the most of the media led us to believe that we were there to fight the “evil” communists who had replaced the nazis as our sworn enemies. As a young teenager I had a hazy awareness of all this from the news but was mostly interested in buying Beatles records and trying to get a girlfriend.

It was only when I entered the 6th form at school that the penny finally dropped . War, I finally realized, was not glamorous, exciting or fun. War was not always a clear-cut case of good versus evil. War was not something one could comfortably ignore because it was in a far away place or a thing of the past. I at last realized that war was, in my opinion, an ongoing abomination that blighted the world. It was, I came to believe: an unmitigated tragedy. I had been alerted to this and persuaded of this by a variety of factors that all coalesced in the 60’s. First of all I started to take notice of the lyrics of some well known pop and folk songs. Bob Dylan wasn’t singing about his love life but voicing his concerns about important issues. He was one of the first and one of the most influential protest singers, taking his cue from folk artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. In “Masters of War”, Dylan protested about the politicians and arms manufacturers who were(are) responsible for the constant warfare we have witnessed in modern times. Lyrics such as : ” You fasten all the triggers for the others to fire, Then you sit back and watch when the death count gets higher” made me sit up and think. It certainly was a big change from “Love me Do”, “Baby Love” or ” Sugar, Sugar” Then there was Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” which implicated the church and religious leaders for their cynical justifications of wars and genocides throughout history. It was controversial and thought provoking stuff , especially as it was challenging the establishment view that up to now I had uncritically accepted. Then came Buffy St Marie’s famous and powerful “Universal Soldier”, popularised in Britain by Donovan, which aired the simple but persuasive notion  that if all soldiers refused to fight, then there would be no wars. (Some had tried that in the First World War and had been shot for the crime of desertion!)  The horrendous dangers and consequences of nuclear war were highlighted in Dylan’s ” A Hard Rain’s a Gonna’s Fall”, a song that many interpreted as being about the poisonous nuclear fall-out or radioactive dust that comes after the blast.( although Dylan always denied this, preferring a more ambigious interpretation of the “hard rain.”)  Perhaps this interpretation emerged because the song  came out at around the same time as the frightening Cuban Missile Crisis, when Kennedy and Khruschov squared up to each other like posturing, rutting stags and many feared we were heading for World War Three. I first  heard it sung by the rich, vibrato voice of Joan Baez and it was another chilling wake-up call. Barry Maguire’s: “Eve of Destruction” covered the same subject in a more direct way and was a surprise hit amongst all the boy-meets-girl ditties.

So after listening to all that lot I had no choice but to give up my naive childhood notions and enter the real world. I had no excuse really because when I was about 14 or 15 I acquired several foreign pen-friends including a teenage girl from Hiroshima, Japan. She was called Junko Fujii. It didn’t take me long to work out why she wanted to write about the importance of World Peace in most of her letters. She sent me photos of Hiroshima’s  peace monument, which consisted of the devastated shell of a church, the only building left standing after the Americans dropped their notorious and utterly devastating  Atom Bomb. It was now all rapidly coming together in my mind. War took all shapes and forms but none of them were glamorous or exciting as I had previously thought. It was all wrong. Writers and poets were saying the same thing as were the pictures on our TV screen. It was the time that the Vietnam war exploded into our living rooms .

The 60’s saw the massive escalation of the Vietnam war which also spread into neighbouring Laos and Cambodia. The Americans had taken over from the former colonisers: the French, in trying to stop the spread of Communism from China down through south-east Asia. As I mentioned earlier, the “Commies” had replaced the Nazis as the main baddies that the so-called “Free World” felt obliged to fight. At first I accepted this as reasonable. Afterall, the Communist regimes of Soviet Russia, China and Eastern Europe had commited many atrocities and denied their own people basic human rights. Surely this was just another case of good versus bad? So what changed this view, such that there were mass protests against the war across the world.? The main reason, I think was television.

Vietnam was the first major war to get beamed into people’s houses via the evening news. There we were, eating our tea, when we were suddenly treated to scenes of: dead bodies, wounded soldiers in great distress, villages being bombed, jungles being defoliated, prisoners being executed , monks setting fire to themselves in protest and, perhaps most memorable of all, young, naked children running down a road screaming in agony after being napalmed. This nightly horror show brought to us by American TV cameras, made thousands of people sit up, take notice and say “enough is enough.”  I was one of them. Vietnam was not another far-away war that could be comfortably forgotten about. Irrespective of the political and military justications for the conflict, it was wrong, in my opinion, and had to be stopped. Surely there had to be another, less horrific, more civilised way of solving disputes? Wasn’t this what the United Nations was supposed to be for? ( Only later did I realize that the UN, like The League of Nations before it, was the prisoner of the so called Great Powers who were heavily implicated in most of the conflicts that took place in the world.)

The reasons for war are complex and could be the subject of a very long book, never mind a blog that is already too long! Suffice to say that from 1967 onwards I have tried to be a peace campaigner, sometimes quietly, sometimes noisily. It’s been complicated and has aroused a surprising amount of opposition. I have been called lots of not very flattering names!  Afterall, I belong to a country which always seems to be at war for some reason or another. The latest reason is that we are part of the “War on Terror”, the terrorists having conveniently replaced the communists, who had previously replaced the Nazis, as our sworn enemies. There’s always some excuse for war. In the early years of the 20th century it was the “Yellow Peril” Then of course it was the Kaiser’s Germany etc, etc. But that’s the subject of another potential blog. ( You have been warned!!!)

Waking up from my childhood innocence led, in many ways to a troubled and worrying adulthood. However, I’m glad I did. Ignorance is bliss they say, but once my ignorance was dispelled, I felt it my duty to campaign against something that I  felt and still feel to be a terrible wrong.

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