This is a lazy post, in fact a year-old repost from before I started this blog, that I thought readers might find interesting. It’s explictly a moralistic sort of piece, not a political analysis (no war but the class war! etc).
To listen to most endorsements of remembrance day, and to most poppy-related appeals for money, one would be forgiven for thinking that the job of a soldier was to die. It is not: the job of a soldier is to kill people. Those people fall into approximately two categories: firstly, civilians, and secondly, other soldiers. The number of dictators, politicians, generals, etc. who are killed by soldiers is negligible.
It’s true that courage was not uncommon among the armed forces, and that many (though probably well under half) of the last century’s fallen soldiers were fighting for something better than what they were fighting against; it’s also true that most responsibility the blame for the horrors of war lies with high-level decision-makers – and the average soldier is usually in a situation of very limited freedom. But people are always free and people who kill are responsible for deaths, even if others bear equal or greater responsibility. Consequently it seems ridiculous to look on soldiers with an attitude only of praise, and not utter a word of blame or condemnation. That condemnation should be limited by the very limited perspective, the limited power, the limited opportunities, of average soldiers – but it cannot be simply dropped altogether.
Of course there is huge variation among individual soldiers, ranging from the truly discriminate soldier who shoots only those shooting them, and fights only for good causes, down to those who participate in irregular massacres – to deny this variation would remove the whole point of speaking of freedom. What is wrong is to ignore the whole issue, for this imputes to them a uniform purity.
To put it another way, there is a dilemma. One option is to give respect to all war veterans, all war casualties. That includes those who killed our brave soldiers, and those who drove back the other side, gained control of a town, and so enabled the shooting of political enemies, hostages, or racial “enemies”. Yet to give respect and thanks to all these people who sacrificed their lives, and to put a full stop there, would seem to mean ignoring, perhaps even “forgetting” that they participated in, enabled, fought for, crimes against humanity.
The other option would be to select only those who died fighting for “freedom”. The problems with this are, firstly, that all armies kill innocent people, certainly a huge number in both World Wars, and secondly, that it too ignores a legitimate facet of the issue – that the young German, Italian, Japanese, etc. men and women who fought were also brave, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for a higher goal, and also left behind families and friends, whose grief and loss is not annulled by the goals of their nations’ leaders.
Absolutising one aspect – respect and compassion for those who died and their loved ones – and attempting to ignore the dissonant aspect – condemnation of their crimes – forces us, here as always, to draw arbitrary lines between real grief and wrong grief, between wicked armies and saintly armies.
In comments to this piece, some interesting discussions emerged. I was told that
“British soldiers died defending their way of life…Italian and German soldiers, on the other hand, made no such sacrifice for us. That’s why we don’t remember them…Remembrance is a small expression of gratitude to the millions who died specifically defending the culture and way of life that we abuse nowadays.”
To which I had replied
“I’m suspicious of all this talk of defending a ‘way of life’. Were British soldiers fighting for particular types of food or music? Were they fighting for specific constitutional arrangements? Were they fighting for a society that still discriminated against women and criminalised homosexuality? Were they fighting to maintain the empire? Were they fighting for ‘king and country’? It all seems like projecting a nebulous ideal onto people who, primarily, were fighting because the law told them they had to and society told them they should – the same reason the german and italian soldiers fought.”
I was also told that “They were fighting for the survival of the british nation. Had they not fought Germany and instead let the Germans invade, then millions of British civilians would have been killed.”
To which (apart from the fact that I’ve never yet heard a remembrance service say “the generals and politicians responsible for the 1st World War and others should all be hanged, the whole thing was a farce and a waste – it’s specifically WWII that we’re commemorating here.”) I had replied:
“I agree that I explicitly said that yes, soldiers’ sacrifice to defeat Nazism should be remembered. My point was that their “sacrifice” of other people, which helped one nation to dominate another and was part of a national engine of propaganda and censorship should ALSO be remembered, rather than completely ignored.”