Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Simple and complex messages of war

2009 has been an extraordinary year for anniversaries. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) feed has alerted me to another one and enabled me at last to put a name to one of my favourite pieces of public art. In 1934, the year which saw the deaths of three great British composers, Holst, Delius and Elgar, Charles Sargeant Jagger also died, on 16th November. It is Jagger's memorial to railway employees who died in the Great War which is a perpetual presence on platform one of Paddington station, and which I usually had time to pause before when waiting for the South Wales train. The sculpture is at once monumental in scale and personal in effect, as it depicts a Tommy, in a rare break between actions no doubt, reading a letter from home. Jagger, who knew whereof he modelled, having served in Gallipoli, France and Belgium, being gassed and winning the MC, seems to have made a conscious decision to introduce contemporary and realistic types into his memorials, breaking with the tradition of allegorical and other classical figures.

One can read many things into the statue, but most conditioned by hindsight. To the pals, by trade, profession or locality, who volunteered for the front in their thousands, the call was simple: to fight for their country, even at the risk of death. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

By the time the second world war came round, people had become more knowledgeable, so that a more honest, if more complex, message had to be put out. The fight was for more than ones homeland and loved ones, but also for the small nations and minorities of Europe. The full horror of the extermination camps had yet to be realised, but the steady stream of Jewish refugees had made it obvious that there was persecution on a large scale. Although the British people could have stuck with a government which promised "peace for our time", it decided that it would back Churchill in standing up to the dictators.

This government seems to have miscalculated in its need to persuade the electorate to support the war in Afghanistan. It seems that the public no longer believes the government, judging by a poll in The Independent newspaper. It has used a simple message, based on fear: our boys need to fight in Helmond to prevent terrorism on the streets of Britain. Now this may be one of the beneficial outcomes some way down the line, but it seems to me that it is not the main reason for NATO forces to be in Afghanistan, and that the electorate deserves a more nuanced explanation, even if it cannot be expressed as a simple headline. It is essential that Afghanistan join the community of nations as a stable and self-sufficient entity. A lawless state bordering Pakistan is surely going to destabilise the government in Islamabad, which is already under much pressure. A more militant regime in Islamabad, armed with nuclear weapons, is bad news for India and thence for the world economy, in which India is now a player. It is also a good thing that women are, by the extension of education, being given the status which the Prophet accorded them, rather than the subjection of tribalism or the Taliban. Opium poppy is being replaced by wheat (I should like the UN to go a stage further, and, where wheat will not grow, licence poppy-farming for pharmaceutical purposes.) Finally, there is the blow to the prestige of the British Army, and therefore to its effectiveness in future campaigns, if we are seen to turn tail now. The men themselves want to finish the job and the Afghan people still prefer us to the Taliban.

I've rather run on, but I must finish with another set of complex thoughts on war, from the Great War to Iraq, by Robert Fisk. He cites the best-known writers on the subject, but surely his own prose stands comparison. Here he is on an Iraqi soldier, caught by Iran's terrible response in 1985 to Saddam's attempt at expansion by conquest:

I see another body in a gun pit, a young man in the foetal position curled up like a child, already blackening with death but with a wedding ring on his finger. I am mesmerised by the ring. On this hot, golden morning, it glitters and sparkles with freshness and life. He has black hair and is around 25 years old. Or should that be "was"? Do we stop the clock when death surprises us? Do we say, as Binyon wrote, that "they shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old"? Age may not weary them nor the years condemn, but their humanity is quickly taken from their remains by the swiftness of corruption and the jolly old sun. I look again at the ring. An arranged marriage or a love match? Where was he from, this soldier-corpse? ... And his wife? He could not be more than three days dead. Somewhere to the north of us, his wife is waking the children, making breakfast, glancing at her husband's photograph on the wall, unaware that she is already a widow and that her husband's wedding ring, so bright with love for her on this glorious morning, embraces a dead finger.

The unknown railwayman and the unknown Iraqi are linked. They were deceived or compelled into war. The men whose deaths in Afghanistan we mourn had been far better educated about the situation, and better than the British public has been. They deserved better support from the MoD. Their fellows and successors need that support still.

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