Monday, 19 May 2008

Military awareness

Do you think military awareness should be part of the national curriculum?

Do you want to see soldiers in uniform wherever you go?

Do you want your children encouraged to join in military activities at school?

Do you want discounts for soldiers in shops?

Do you think that discriminating against someone in military uniform should be a criminal offence?

Do you want more military parades - on the streets and on television?

Do you think major football clubs be compelled to host military parades?

Do you want a public holiday devoted to celebrating the armed forces?

And what would you think if these laws were in force in North Korea? in Iran? in the United States? in Russia? in Britain?

If you've been following the news, you'll know that these propsals have been welcomed enthusiastically by Gordon Brown and are likely to become law. And if you've been following this blog, you'll have guessed that, as a Quaker and a pacifist - and as a mother - I'm not pleased.

I should say that
I haven't read the whole report. It's a big pdf file and I can't open it on my computer. Instead I've depended on a series of press reports. These seem in agreement on the main report but offer different details.

I've met plenty of soldiers. I've talked to them, drunk with them - even fenced them. I disagree with their choice of career but I know that many are well-intentioned and courageous. I think that, as we have an army, we should treat soldiers well. The state of facilities for military families and the number of homeless ex-soldiers is a national scandal.

But I don't want to live in a society which celebrates the military or encourages small children to see themselves as soldiers. I don't want lies about the glory of battle or any suggestion that it's sweet and seemly to die for your country. I had enough of that at school.

I was nine years old when I was introduced to the poetry of Henry Newbolt. We read "Vitai Lampada" in class. It's a poem which begins with a cricket match one evening at a public school. The players, we are told, aren't after trophies - all any schoolboy cricketer cares for is "
...his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote -/ 'Play up! play up! and play the game!'"

In the second verse, the scene shifts to some outpost of empire:

The sand of the desert is sodden red, -
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; -
The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

And there's a third verse, to tie it all together and imply that this is how it should be - that schoolboy games are train boys in unquestioning obedience to orders.

Even at nine, I knew there was something odd and disturbing about the poem. Like other poems by Newbolt (the second poem in the book we studied was "He Fell Among Thieves"), this poem is in love with death. There is so much it doesn't say. There's no indication of why the soldiers are fighting or who the enemy is. The opposing forces aren't even described - it's as though they don't exist. British soldiers are overwhelmed by "dust", "smoke" and "the river of death." There's not even any suggestion of ethics of loyalty - England and "honour" are discounted. All that matters is the memory of a schoolboy game and this time the game ends in death.

Newbolt wasn't the only writer of that period to praise the romance of death to a young audience. The first act of Peter Pan ends with Peter, trapped on an island with the seas rising. Alone on stage, he summons up his courage and declares, "To die will be an awfully big adventure."

They took that line out of the Christmas productions during the First World War. And many of the boys who had read read Newbolt and thrilled to Peter Pan did what was expected. They played the game and faced the big adventure of Gallipoli and the Western Front.

I've heard that terrorists say "You love life but we love death." A hundred years ago, there was a love affair with death in British culture. Please don't let this new celebration of the military bring it back.

Note: The children in the picture are North Korean, by the way.


Anonymous said...

Remember the bit in Fahrenheit 9/11 where Michael Moore goes around urging lawmakers to send their children to serve in the military in Iraq? Wish someone would ask the lead author of the report, Quentin Davies MP, why he isn't in the military himself, being such a paragon of loyalty and team spirit.

KateJ said...

Well said. I agree it's a very worrying trend.
I know quite a few soldiers, soldiers' mums and soldiers' families - where I live there's quite a tradition of lads joining the army, getting a "useful skill" such as being a mechanic or a driver, seeing the world, then coming back home and settling down. At least that was the idea. A few years ago one neighbour told me proudly of her two sons serving with UN peacekeepers in Kosovo. Now it's all changed. Iraq has shown up the reality of what the army is for. People don't want their kids ending up dead or maimed.
Even the local Cadets (free equipment, free camps and trips, fun for boys and girls...) seems to have a crisis of membership - not one boy or girl from my village is currently a member, whereas a few years ago there were about a dozen.

And another point to consider: I've worked with homeless people and with people with severe mental health problems. I was always struck by how many people in both categories were ex-servicemen.