Sunday 8 June 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

What a week of contrasts this one has been. As I write I have a window open on my browser with a clip of 89-year-old Jock Hutton, veteran of the allied invasion of France, parachuting himself (whilst strapped to a member of the Red Devils) into the same field he landed in 70 years ago. In another window, I have a website showing me images of Bob Bergdahl whose son, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, was held captive by the Taliban for five years. On 31st May Bowe was released as part of a deal that included five detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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?
Now analyse this situation against the background of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-day. I am not for a minute suggesting that both cases are the same, not even similar, but the reaction to both reveals the strange attitudes some of us sometimes adopt towards war.

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.

© 2014

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 11th June at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. I saw the story about Jock Hutton parachuting.

    War is hell, no matter how you cut it. You're right to wonder if any of these things ever would have happened had we been proactive in taking steps to ensure they never did...

  2. Yep, most were about as necessary as what comes out an arse into the loo. But sadly they always have and always seem to come due

  3. So few wars are 'justified' - though a few can be explained. I agree that the treaties at the end of WW1 set the foundations for Hitler - but I'm not sure Germany could have been left to his madness. But the lack of German involvement in the D-Day shenanigans bothered me - it made them into 'the enemy' again - and surely the day had huge meaning for them to. Can't we stand beside them and grieve for the dead on both sides?

  4. A couple of thoughts:

    Most old men do not return to the battlefields of their youth to relive their experiences in their minds. They go back to shed tears.

    In the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, having watched interviews, some lengthy and in-depth, with ten or eleven of the men who served with him in Afghanistan and were present at the time he "walked away" from their base, I am absolutely convinced he deserted. Whether or not he actively collaborated with "the enemy" is still open to question. Some among his former comrades in arms who actually were there believe that he did. In any event, it is a matter for the U.S. Army to resolve based on evidence.

    What troubles most Americans, I think, is the fact that Bergdahl's exchange was for five men who, by any definition, are war criminals, and the exchange was done with questionable legal authority and without required authorization from Congress. The end to this part of the story is a long way from being over.

    Finally, in the abstract wars might not be necessary and there is no reason to have them; in reality, there always will be greedy, arrogant bullies who attempt to take from those they perceive to be weaker than themselves. They are known as "bad guys" and, on occasion, must be stopped the hard way.

    A fascinating post, CiL, and fine music to accompany it.

  5. There are always more losers than winners in war. On both sides.
    On that level we are definitely slow learners. Very slow learners.

  6. Hey, will write tomorrow. But I think this was a very interesting post and I do not think from actual's facts are at all accurate. It is late here so cannot write more right now. Thanks. K.

  7. What a thoughtful post. War is hell and wrong - when will we learn?

  8. i wish we lived in a world where we managed to solve our conflicts without wars.. and in the age of nuclear weapons i do hope there will never be a WWIII - that would be the end of a world as we know it

  9. Hi. I am on a train now so still not in ideal circumstances. I also was struck by the oddness of it all--writing poems this week about both bergdahl and d-day and thinking about war, of course. And I too am rather a pacifist so I very much appreciated your thoughtful post. In terms of Fram Actual-- there are a lot of spurious ideas floating around and a great deal of disregard for the rule of law. I do not have a television so I don't know what the talking heads say-- I read print media-- but I understand that the "interview" of other soldiers in bergdahl's unit was conducted at least initially by republican operatives and not by journalists, and that the official reports do not record things in that way. The unit was troubled and was in a very hot and difficult area.

    The five prisoners exchanged were not hardened war criminals but persons of interest who had been picked up and held for a dozen years but never charged. It is my understanding that were going to be released any way as Guantanamo closes. They joined the Taliban when in fact the US under Ronald Reagan supported and armed the Taliban (against Russian forces). I am not supporting them! I'm not saying that they are good guys or pro-us! After twelve years of being held without charges and probably not treated so well, they are probably not pro-U.S. I'm just saying that it is not accurate to call them hardened war criminals.

    The deal was made without going to congress because of concern for bergdahls health. If he had died in captivity I can assure you that the conservative outrage in the US would have been immense.

    You may find an article from rolling stone written in June 2012 about bergdahl to be very interesting. He was a pretty earnest kid, very troubled by things that had happened in the deployment. I have close family members in the military who have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq and have met their friends also deployed. Some have dealt with repeated tours. I do not feel comfortable detailing their views on the wars, only I can say that the wars are particularly troubling, the missions confused, and for this bandwagon to jump on this young man and his family is appalling. I also lived in downtown NYC on 9/11 and I feel like some of the same people raging about the Guantanamo release are persons who have not in fact been very sympathetic to New York or to anyone living in a situation that feels vulnerable. There is simply a huge amount of political gamesmanship, which is rather horrible in these circumstances. Sorry to make such a long rambling coment. I am on phone, and, as I said, on train!. K.

  10. Surely ONE day our World Leaders will come to the conclusion that most of the population came to long ago...namely that war serves absolutely no one.
    All it can possibly bring is destruction...there can be no winners. Only losers.

    If only every single person could find the courage to refuse to fight...well, the powers that be couldn't punish everyone, could they?

    I say...let the Generals and Heads of State who make the wars do the fighting.
    I can guarantee that then there would never be another war...

  11. A great song to end your post with.
    I hate war!
    Always enjoy my visits here, thank you.

  12. I never know how to express myself about war, except to say I hate it. What I can say is that I don't want ever to live through another one.

  13. i am a little biased on war as well...we seem to slip too easy into it as opposed to seeking other ways...i mean we can justify most anything but that does not make it just....

  14. I felt like applauding as I read--not only the sentiments but also the eloquence expression of them.

    "Unchaperoned thoughts" are a balm to my brain and soul.

  15. Many thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    I watched about an hour of the D-day commemorations last Friday. I think the BBC dedicated about three or four hours to the whole event. I felt a lump in my throat for all these human beings who sacrificed a lot to rid us (yes, me, too, although I wasn't around then!) of fascism. However, I also thought of the circumstances that led these human beings to be there, in that theatre of war. We very often look at the medals the individual wears on her/his chest but not at the cause and effect, nor at the lives destroyed by conflicts. This post was born from such feelings.

    Once again, thank you for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  16. Dear Cuban in London--thanks for your kind visit. I don't have a TV but feel a terrible lump when I see anything about D-Day and have the same questions. I am taking the liberty of posting here a link to a poem I wrote about that kind of feeling last week:

    Please don't feel obligated to visit. I love your thoughtful blog. I wanted to correct my comment in that I believe there were reporters invited to the interview of some soldiers in Bergdahl unit--the interview was arranged by Republican operatives--the NY Times reporter wrote a piece about it, saying that there was no doubt these particular soldiers were genuinely angry, but that some of their specific answers sounded rehearsed in that the language was so identical. I do not mean this to say that the soldiers were not being genuine--there is such a "swiftboating" aspect to the whole thing. Agh. It is all so sad--what makes me just sad and mad are not the soldiers but all the people jumping up and down who never served in the military themselves or actively avoided service. Just so sad. Thanks again for your always thoughtful and interesting blog. K.

  17. WAR is the saddest thing of all, because it's greed, it's pride, it's all so in vain. It's hurting other people who are just like you, who want respect, and happiness, and peace of mind...and then there's the Holocaust, how did we allow EVIL to walk the earth from 1938 to 1945, because they were greedy, they were proud, and mostly they disrespected anyone different...GREED, PRIDE, DISRESPECT, so easy to Love, I've read all of witnesses and historians books, hundreds, and I'm left with the same question, how did we allow this happen, throwing babies in the fire, atrocities I'm sure you know about, and for so long, the horror, the absolute decay of human conscience, because someone was greedy, had pride, and had no respect for anyone other than of course his own. War is only for profits...tortured humans's gotta stop, someone, everyone have to get up and say this has got to stop. It could so easily and that kills me, love, respect, share, 3 words that would stop all wars...I pray i wish upon the stars, I do what i can, and it will never be enough, until disrespect stop...until stars are just humans we adore all for nothing..we just adore peace and embrace for all of humanities...



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