|ISSUE 55 SUMMER 2007
|conscience in cold storage|
- conscience in cold storage
Britain’s participation in military attacks (on states that posed no threat to any national interest) brought military issues to wider public attention and debate. Although opinion polls are an unsatisfactory guide to what people think, they do give us a clue or two. In the opening phases of the latest Gulf war, support for the war fluctuated – up when there were perceived successes, down after perceived failures or problems. We are a fickle lot. Objection to war in most cases is conditional. Even the ‘big’ anti-war march before the attack on Iraq was launched was not unconditionally against war or even that war; many were merely against the latter as long as it lacked UN sanction. It’s tempting to think that the idea that war is an effective means of dealing with problems is hard-wired into our brains, but it’s not; in truth we get it with our mother’s milk and at our father’s knee. If, like a national football team, the military are winning, we love them and support their war; if not, enthusiasm wavers.
There is, of course, a hard core of believers. Much of the establishment, naturally; the military and their families, of course; many veterans; and the managements and workers in a whole host of businesses and institutions that benefit from war. War is highly profitable – and not just for the likes of BAE or the pension funds that rely on those profits. War sells newspapers, magazines, and innumerable books. It helps to fund museums of dubious value and maintain institutions that promote belief in the nobility and heroic nature of the soldier who sacrifices himself in a noble cause, for which act we are expected to be profoundly grateful. This, indeed, is one of the reasons why some people buy red poppies.
Enthusiasm for Britain’s two current wars has been flagging – they are not making Britons feel proud. So desperate have things become that Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, took time out of his holidays to visit the troops in Afghanistan and talk to them about the medals they might get (apparently a matter of some concern among the troops). In an interview he said that the Army was ‘up for it’ as long as soldiers were looked after and felt valued, supported and thanked for their efforts. It’s tempting to feel sorry for the man and not just because he had to break into his holiday. Writing to the Sun newspaper he said: ‘Although the fight is tough, their morale is sky high.’ But elsewhere he observed that it is bad for the troops’ morale that their relatives have to pay the postage for morale-boosting parcels. Royal Mail, he said, should pay for them instead.
Strapped for cash and in dispute over pay, Royal Mail promptly replied to Dannatt’s suggestion in the negative. With costs of £6 million per year you can see why. But wind forward one day – and ‘Royal Mail is proud to announce today that it will be making special arrangements for a free parcel service to British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.’ Royal Mail’s Chairman, Allan Leighton, said: ‘Royal Mail wants to see our frontline troops get as much support as possible.’ The Sun and the Daily Mail take the credit for this volte-face. Quite why Royal Mail should be subsidising this or any other war is a question that has not been asked; - it’s also one that is hard to answer.
A significant part of the answer surely lies in the coercive grip that military values have on our minds, and in the consequent deep-seated acceptance of war as a problem-solving institution which seems to spurn self-critical thinking about its purpose. Part of the answer must also lie in the inability, or unwillingness, to think about a military person’s central tasks, which in one way or another involve the mutilation of human flesh. As we move closer to Remembrance Day we will hear more about the ‘dangerous’ nature of the job – not for the person in the gun sight but for the owner of the trigger finger.
Pacifists and other critics of war are made to feel that a critical view of those supposedly risking their life on our behalf is cold-hearted and repugnant. But is that how it is? Listen to what soldiers say when not in propaganda mode. Many relish the fighting, they are indeed ‘up for it’; fighting for them is more exciting than any computer game, more engaging than anything in civilian life. Which is possibly why many become mercenaries – or security operatives as some prefer to be called – as soon as they get out of the forces. Those who take risks take them willingly, for diverse reasons, not all altruistic. There are also, of course, the many who fight when told to (‘it’s the job’); and the majority, who tap keyboards, cook, drive trucks and shift heavy loads.
Sometimes we hear about an instance of ‘heroic’ action in Iraq quickly followed by the distribution of medals, usually when someone risks all kinds of hazards for members of their team. The courage to help one’s mates is rightly applauded but the context must not be ignored. What creates the opportunity for this courage is an illegal and pointless war. In a very real sense, therefore, when ‘honouring the brave acts’ one is also approving military action and inadvertently condoning the war. Perhaps the truly brave thing would be to say No and refuse to take part in the pointless destruction of lives. But this would take a much more difficult and calculated courage.
In a recent broadcast about the work of chaplains in Iraq, many worried about how to help soldiers clearly aware that their cause is unpopular. ‘It is a difficult thing to say and do,’ explained one chaplain, ‘but by taking the Queen’s shilling we are putting elements of our conscience in cold storage, and in order to help the guys we might not be economical with the truth but we might want to give them encouragement and help rather that pull them down.’
Unlike that chaplain, most of us have not taken the Queen’s shilling, and we should be more clear-sighted. Every death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, wrote John Donne. Military deaths no more, or less, than any other. We should rage and struggle against the system that sends young men (and nowadays some women as well) to destroy other people’s lives, rather than honour the destroyers.
More importantly perhaps, we should be working to dismantle the institutions which perpetuate inhuman values, and which seek profit from the misery of other people. Perhaps, too, we should not give comfort to warmongers whoever they are and in whatever benevolent guise they may appear.