Friday, 9 March 2012

Syrian army: lust for glory

When I see the news from Syria, I’m reminded of the film Patton: lust for glory. In the closing days of the war, a young German captain is burning documents to prevent them falling into the hands of the Russians. Finding a photograph of Patton, he pauses a moment and whispers ‘a pure warrior... a magnificent anachronism’ before consigning it to the flames.

Nothing wrong with the film. For its genre, it’s one of the best. As that line shows, the genre is the nobility of war, the larger than life characters it throws up and their drive for honour and glory.

In completely different ways, films like All quiet on the Western Front or Oh, what a lovely war bring out its horror, the sheer terror, anguish and physical damage it inflicts on combatants.

In recent years, the Americans have made films underlining the agony of the occupation of Iraq. In the valley of Elah is a powerful denunciation of the terrible things US soldiers had to do to civilians. It is, however, the soldiers who come across as the victims as the film focuses on the harrowing pain of having to do such horrible things to other people. The other people are little more than extras.

And yet all down the ages just how much has the military been about honour and glory, or conversely about fortitude in dealing with terrible suffering? Maybe it’s time we looked a little more closely on just how often soldiers have been not so much heroes as perpetrators. Less a force defending civilians as a threat to them.

Homs: monument to the glory of Syrian arms. 
After all, as far as I can tell, the Roman legions spent at least as much time fighting each other as fighting external threats, and either way, the reward for victory tended to be a nice fat city or region to sack. Where the word ‘sack’ is a veil for rather a lot of things that we generally like to think of as reprehensible.

The British Army sacked Badajoz for two days. In Ireland it left calling cards for which we’re still paying. The French tortured their way round Algiers, the British massacred civilians at Amritsar, the Wehrmacht established a probably unrivalled record for atrocities wherever German arms went in the Second World War.

The British, learning nothing and remembering nothing, are facing a litany of accusations of war crimes from Iraq and Afghanistan, but that’s as nothing to what the US has done to sully its reputation in those countries. And they’ve got Vietnam behind them too.

So maybe we need a few less films like Patton or even All Quiet on the Western Front. What we need is something that brings out that other, less talked about track record of the armed forces internationally: the great book of military honour for which the Syrian army has been writing the latest chapter.

That makes for less seductive recruitment posters. ‘Join up and shell a neighbourhood in the next town; enjoy the view from local high points as you snipe at civilians; protect security as you man road blocks to prevent casualties getting to hospital.’

Doesn’t have quite the same ring as ‘magnificent anachronism’, does it?

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