As I mentioned before, this has been a week of contrasts.
To Sergeant Bowe’s story first, because his odyssey is not straightforward. You might think that being a prisoner of the monstrous Taliban is bad enough. But worse than that apparently is the suspicion that hovers now over the young officer. Joy over his release was followed days later by allegations that Bowe had deserted his post and compromised the safety of his army colleagues. If true the full weight of the military justice system might fall upon him on his return to the US.
|But what if Hitler had never happened?|
D-day seems at first sight to be pretty clear-cut. There was an enemy, Nazi Germany, there was an evil man, Hitler, and there was evidence of his evil acts, i.e., occupied territories and casualties, concentration camps and a pervasive, anti-Semitic and racist ideology which attempted to justify Hitler’s barbaric war. However, on reflecting on D-day I look at the reasons why 89-year-old Jock Hutton found himself being parachuted into Normandy seventy years ago rather than looking merely at his act of bravery. Had Hitler been not appeased by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Soviet Union’s very own butcher Joseph Stalin there would not have been any invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia and therefore no D-day to commemorate. Had Germany not been isolated after the First World War, Hitler would have probably gone down in history as a mediocre artist and not as the man who oversaw one of the most heinous crimes against humanity. Likewise, had George Bush not sent troops into Afghanistan and two years later into Iraq (with the help of one Tony Blair) it is very likely that Sergeant Bowe would not have been captured by the Taliban and therefore all these allegations of treason and desertion would not have come up.
When it comes to the theatre of war we like to think of its dramatis personae in terms of heroes and villains. The reality of it is, sadly, more nuanced and less obvious. This is not cheap pacifism on my part but pragmatism. I believe that D-day was necessary at the time. Same with the sacrifice made by Soviet troops during the battle of Leningrad and the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives there. Is then, unpatriotic to think that there could be ways to avoid such carnage again?
If you look at most wars, they were, still are, unnecessary. Centuries ago and up until the First World War, the main reason for them to be waged was the acquisition of (new) territories and the subjugation of their native populations for the purpose of cheap labour. Otherwise known as slavery. This happened in most continents. The First World War changed that, not because it wasn’t about conquest – it was! – but because it also became a laboratory for the nascent arms industry to test its latest toys. The trend has continued. Nowadays, wars are more often fought as a way to experiment with new weapons. It is difficult to see how the likes of Sergeant Bowe can be motivated by the same lofty ideals as Jock Hutton when the reasons for them to be in places like Afghanistan are not as clear-cut as they were for those who defended Europe against the real danger of Nazism seventy years ago.
Unchaperoned thoughts like mine invite all kind of responses, especially in a year of centenaries. I admit that I am biased against war. This attitude has its genesis in my place of birth and nationality and the threats that we, as a country, have faced on countless occasions, mainly from the mighty neighbour in the North. However my reflections today owe less to the fact that hostilities between nations do occasionally break out (justifiably or not) and more to the different ways we react towards the likes of Sergeant Bowe and D-day veteran Jock Hutton. I don't think there's a soldier out there right now who is looking forward to having a "a graveyard as a friend", as Elton John reminds us in the clip below. Let us hope that the next time a new script for the theatre of war is written, we think first and foremost of cause and effect, the cost - especially in human lives - of the mise en scène and bin the damned manuscript. Better still, just burn it.
Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 11th June at 11:59pm (GMT)