Heroes… or Fools?

Most of my writing is controversial (or it would be if more of it was published). It’s controversial not because I enjoy writing things that make people uncomfortable or angry, but because what I write needs to be said. As that great truth-teller George Orwell declared: “During times of universal deceit telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

Quite so.

The funny thing is that when I look back at things I wrote some years ago I seldom embarrass myself very much. I don’t find myself thinking how wrong I was, or how extreme my opinions were. If anything I realise they weren’t extreme enough.

So when I write things that I know would cause widespread offence it’s not because I get some weird kind of pleasure from it, I do it because it must be said. The subject for this little essay would definitely cause outrage, because my question is this: which is more accurate: to describe the British armed forces as heroes… or fools?

Of course the overwhelming majority of good British citizens would, after recovering from their outrage at even being asked such a scandalous question, cry ‘heroes’ without even a moment’s thought. They will recall the ‘great’ battles of history… how Edward Longshanks pacified the Welsh and hammered the Scots, remember Agincourt, the Armada, Trafalgar, Rourke’s Drift… perhaps even the Pals Battalions in that senseless slaughter of the ‘Great’ War – ‘None Wavering, None Doubting The Cause’ (or so hundreds of war memorials tell us) – then there was the Battle of Britain of course, D-Day… etc, etc, etc. The list goes and on in one long seamless link, as it’s meant to do, right up to today and ‘our boys’ in Iraq and Afghanistan… again.

But what is the first duty of a soldier or, to put the question more correctly, what should be the first duty of a soldier?

Is it not to protect his homeland or, more correctly, to protect the ordinary people of his homeland? After all, it’s the ordinary people who pay him, who protected and nurtured him through childhood and from whose ranks his friends and comrades came. Surely the first duty of the soldier is to protect these ordinary people?

Of course it should. But this isn’t his first duty at all; and it never has been. The first duty of today’s soldier is the same as it’s always been: to serve the purposes of the super-rich.

Of course this is not how the thing is taught. From grandfathers, fathers and uncles who themselves once took the queen’s shilling – and lived to tell the tale – to schoolteachers and priests, to newspapers and our TV screens, young people are relentlessly bombarded with fanciful nonsense about the ‘heroism’ of the soldier. They are never, NEVER taught about the barbarity of war, the senseless slaughter, the inexcusable pain, suffering and misery inflicted on defenceless people… in the sacred name of plunder – just so the super-rich may become even richer.

This is the painful truth about soldiers: they’re killers, employed to serve the super-rich. They’re not social workers, or aid workers, or champions of freedom and democracy – as their slick PR departments would have us believe. They’re killers, sent thousands of miles away from the people they should be protecting – in order to kill defenceless civilians.

It might be argued that no one else sees soldiers quite like this – certainly not their families, who fear for their safety, nor the soldiers themselves who are either ‘only following orders’, or doing ‘a job they love’, nor the wider public who stand cheering in the streets and waving their little Union Jacks as the troops march past. But… how do their victims see them? How does the dirt-poor peasant farmer feel when his family is obliterated by some overweight geek sitting in air-conditioned luxury at a computer screen on the other side of the world? Or the mother whose door gets kicked in at three o’ clock in the morning by gun-toting thugs to see her husband or sons dragged screaming from their beds to torture and indefinite imprisonment… or worse. Even the very people soldiers should be defending – their own kind – are not safe from the savage and cynical brainwashing to which all soldiers are routinely subjected. How many defenceless civilians have suffered at the hands of those who should be protecting them, in the sacred name of ‘only following orders’ or ‘just doing my job’? From the Peterloo Massacre to the Armenian Holocaust to the slaughter of hundreds of civilians in Gaza – all by armies of their very own countrymen. Or what about the murders of young soldiers by firing squads of their very own comrades – at the rate of about three every two weeks during the First World War, the ‘Great’ War, the ‘War To End All War’? How would all these victims have seen all those ‘heroes’?

I’ve read quite a few accounts of the First World War, the ‘Great’ War, the ‘War To End All War’. The most moving are always those from the survivors and the relatives of those who were killed or horrifically injured. What you never, NEVER read in these accounts is people saying how glad they were that the war happened, how proud they were of what the soldiers did. You read the exact opposite. You read about old soldiers who refused to speak about the war for the rest of their lives, who became sad or angry or broke down in tears whenever it was mentioned. These are not the actions of people who are proud of what they did. One of the most powerful silent testimonies of all is that of Annie Souls of Great Rissington. Annie was a lady who lost five sons in the ‘Great’ War and who, afterwards, refused for the rest of her life to stand up whenever the national anthem was played. The horrific betrayal of those hundreds of thousands of young people by those they, and their families, trusted was perfectly summed up by Wilfred Owen, who was himself sadly cut down scant days before the armistice. Owen wrote:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
.1

War memorials are meant for one reason and one reason only: to make heroes of soldiers, to make soldiery seem such a noble calling that new hoards of children will be gulled into following in the doomed footsteps of previous generations. I see the Tomb to the Unknown Soldier and I always wonder where is the Tomb to the Unknown Civilian? Whenever I look at a war memorial, and read there some variation of Owen’s Old Lie, I always think how much more appropriate it would be to replace those words with the simple truth – just one word would do it … FOOLS!

  1. It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. []

John Andrews is a writer whose latest book is The People's Constitution. He can be contacted through his website. Read other articles by John.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on March 19th, 2011 at 9:30am #

    Good point. Remember the old song: “Solidiers who want to be heroes number exactly zero, but there are millions who want to be civilians”. I think the “heroic” side of soldiering will take quite a pounding as we approach the anniversary of WWI, which, with its prequels and sequels, lasted from 1911 (Libya!) to 1925 and left an incredible mess in its wake, chunks of which have not been cleaned up even today. WWI will also alter the perception of WWII as “heroic”, something which is often used to glorify and justify subsequent wars. Fundamentally, I’m very optimistic about the future, at least as far as Europe is concerned.

  2. John Andrews said on March 20th, 2011 at 3:51am #

    MichaelKenny,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Sadly I don’t share your optimism about Europe – not in the foreseeable future anyway. With the exception of Switzerland, the only country whose democracy is almost worthy of the name, most other European countries seem to do exactly the same as the UK: follow orders from the imperial master.

    Neither do I think the centenary celebrations for the ‘Great War’ will ‘pound’ the heroic image of soldiering very much – sadly – not whilst the media continues to be run by warmongers anyway.

  3. AMeggers28 said on March 21st, 2011 at 2:15am #

    Hi John. I read your article and I have to say that I agree with pretty much all of it. Soldiers, like the general population are manipulated into thinking that the actions of now are for the greater good. I know quite a few “squaddies” and the patriotism and belief in their nation is quite overwhelming. As you alluded to earlier, that is all well and good when you want to protect the values of a good nation, but it seems like all the UK wants to do, and has always wanted to do, is to take as much as it can for itself at the expense of many innocent people. These youngsters are quite willing to die in places like Afghanistan and Iraq because they believe it will bring glory to themselves and their nation. To me, it just seems like many young lives have been cut short. In saying this, though, if we were all the same, and all thought along the lines of anti-capitalism and alternative ways of living it would amaze me even more, as some people need leading and showing the way, whereas others want to lead. I call these people sheep!