Friday, 6 June 2014

The anniversary of D-Day: might a little shame be appropriate?

Today, the seventieth anniversary of the D-day landings in Normandy, got me thinking about how we remember and respect our soldiers. 

In the US, the message is generally a variant on the theme “they gave their lives that we might be free”.

Do we exercise our freedom to pay for them?

Though other motivations also played their role, the Second World War genuinely removed a major threat to freedom. My grandfather refused to fight in the First World War and spent two years in gaol for his pains, but joined the Air Raid Precaution service (he was too old for combat) in the Second: as a Jew, he felt the fight against Nazism had to be won, where the Great War clash of imperialisms seemed no concern of his.

And since World War 2? The Vietnam War? The invasion of Iraq? I’m not sure how they served freedom. It was by defeating the United States that the Vietnamese gained some freedom. And it’s not clear how replacing a vicious but stable Iraqi dictatorship by a war-torn regime prey to vicious terrorists, and under the domination of Iran, serves any cause of freedom.

To suggest solders “died for freedom” in those wars seems a travesty. But it isn’t just the word “freedom” that bothers me in that phrase. It’s also the word “died”, because huge numbers of soldiers don’t die, though, sadly, many of them come later to wish they had. War memorials show the names of the dead; they don’t name the crippled either in body or, far worse, in soul.

Fit, young, brave and strong: in short, heroes
Americans like to produce uplifting, inspiring images of soldiers, with messages of gratitude and admiration for them. The soldiers appear as heroes: fit, young, brave and strong. We don’t see the far less heroic picture many present a few years later: unkempt, sleeping rough, their minds addled by drink or drugs, estranged from friends or families. Many of them are in prison: in Britain and the US, a disproportionate number of convicted criminals are veterans.

And, above all, these fallen heroes receive little or no support from the society that salutes them so warmly while they’re still well.

Perhaps our war memorials ought to contain inscriptions along the following lines:

“Private such-and-such, who died not in the fighting but nonetheless of its consequences, four decades later, uncared for, unloved and alone, abandoned by the society that claims to thank him for his sacrifice but feels no shame over its failure to rescue him.”

All this went through my mind as I listened to a radio interview with Tim Radford, now 85, but believed to have been the youngest person to have taken part in the D-Day landings. He was a fifteen-year old galley boy on a tug on 6 June 1944.

“There was a most tremendous bombardment taking place...” he told the BBC, “it was like Dante’s Inferno...”

“The water was full of dead men. A very sad memory of D-Day is all the poor devils who never made it to the beach, who were in the water with life jackets on, floating, and we hadn’t time to pull them out...”

For Radford, these weren’t scenes of glorious endeavour. In fact, he told us:

“I’m very much opposed to war as a means of settling differences, but there’s no question in my mind but that war had to be fought, we had to defeat Naziism otherwise we’d all be enslaved for generations.”

The war was justified, he felt, but nothing to exult over. And what about since then?

“... most of the wars there’ve been since, I can’t think of any exceptions, have seemed to me to be unnecessary and avoidable.”

So in his view, as in mine, they had little to do with any essential freedom that could not have been defended some other way.

Asked whether what he saw on 6 June 1944 had any glory to it, Radford was unambiguous:

“I don’t think it was glorious. You should respect the courage and self-sacrifice of people who give their lives for others. Of course. But there’s no glory in it.”

No. There isn’t. In Britain, we have what we call a ‘Covenant’ with our servicemen: we ask them to be ready to put their lives on the line for us, and in return we commit, firstly, not to call on them to do it except for a cause worthy of the sacrifice and, secondly, to look after them when they return (or of their families if they don’t).

In reality, we demand that sacrifice for reasons that are often at best dubious. And then we redouble the injury by failing to look after the ones who come back or the bereaved families.

That’s why all the rhetoric about our gratitude to those who died for our freedom disturbs me. It seems to me to draw a veil of sentimentalism over something much uglier that we ought to face up to. It’s a denial of behaviour on our parts, not theirs, for which we ought ultimately to be profoundly ashamed.

Perhaps a thought worth taking a few moments over on the anniversary of D-Day.

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