Posts Tagged ‘soldiers’

soldier

 

Hating war – arguing for a pacifist position, even one that is not utterly purely pacifist – does not mean we cannot weep for and celebrate those who fight wars on our behalf.

With the tragically costly conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Remembrance Sunday – just like Anzac Day in Australia and Memorial Day in the USA – has assumed a new significance, and a new enthusiasm from the young.

 

From left to right: Distinguished Service Cross, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-18, Victory Medal 1914-18, Medal for Military Valour, Mercantile Marine War Medal 1914-1918,

From left to right: Distinguished Service Cross, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-18, Victory Medal 1914-18, Medal for Military Valour, Mercantile Marine War Medal 1914-1918,

 

For ourselves, remembering a father who died at 46 worn out by terrifying six years of naval service, a cousin who endured tropical diseases for his entire life after incarceration in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, a Grandfather who served in the trenches in World War 1 and another Grandfather who received the DSC for trawling up mines dropped by Zeppelins in Portsmouth Harbour, we have always paused for two minutes at the appointed hour, bought our poppy to wear in our lapel, and subscribed to war casualty charities.

In our view, despite that, we are convinced that the very best way to show our respect for those we commemorate is to state, unequivocally, the old an unarguable truth.

“War will continue until men refuse to fight.”

This list of current conflicts, worldwide, makes very depressing reading. Are we really doing the best we can?

Listen to any old soldier, and simultaneously, along with their sadness felt for their injured or fallen comrades, and their quiet pride in “a job well done”, you will almost always hear them explain how the horror of war was worse than anything they could have imagined. How they often felt they had more in common with the foot-soldiers opposing them than they did with their own leaders. And always, how anything must be tried, and done, before humankind responds to a crisis by turning to arms.

Even the most significant war leader in 20th century history, Winston Churchill, who through sheer force of will saved the world from fascism and rescued democracy in its darkest hour, remarked, “Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.”

From their graves, the dead of countless wars cry out to us for attention. “Don’t do it again! Don’t do it again!”

If you are interested to purchase my collection of poems called Read Me – 71 Poems and 1 Story – just head here.

I have been thinking a little, recently, about the unending fight against fascism. Against the authoritarians, the anti-democrats, the oligarchs, power elite, the swine.

HMS Clare, with my father on board, location unknown but leaving or entering port, I think.

HMS Clare, with my father on board, location unknown but leaving or entering port, I think.

This is partly because on an ongoing debate I enjoy with a number of close friends on the legitimate role for the State in our lives, but also, no doubt, because I am currently going to sleep at night listening to the audio book “Dominion” by C J Sanson, a provocative “what if” thriller set in a Britain that had sued for peace with Germany in 1940 and which is now, in the mid-1950s, sliding towards its own Jew-culling fascist nightmare. And also because my daughter has been seized by the Hunger Games Trilogy, which, it could surely be argued, is as effective an anti-fascist series of novels as one could want to read, and in targeting its relatively junior audience, a force for good. Discussion of the literary qualities of the novels can take place elsewhere.

(Incidentally, the Wellthisiswhatithink clan went to see the second movie – Catching Fire – and it was brilliantly done. We recommend seeing the first installment just to “get” the story and definitely the second to marvel at Jennifer Lawrence’s superb acting, supported by a great cast and some amazing cinematography.)

Anyhow, whatever the reason, the terrors of opposing an authoritarian regime – still so relevant to far too many of the world’s people – have been something we have been pondering. What would we have done, for example, if we were “ordinary people” watching the Nazi round up and exportation in appalling conditions of the Jews, if, while we were watching, we were threatened with going with them if we protested? What would we say or do today against active oppression in … Iran, Syria, Egypt … Zimbabwe … would we speak up for gays and other minorities in Russia, the Romany people in Europe … what would we do watching the excesses of the regime in North Korea? What do we do, indeed, to fight against the disgraceful demonisation of asylum seekers in our own back yard, contending, as we would be, with some 90% of the political establishment?

And then, by chance, I came across the photograph (above) of one of the ships my father served on during World War II, and found another (below) online.

I 14 - HMS Clare

I 14 – HMS Clare

The HMS Clare began life as the USS Abel P. Upshur but was decommissioned by the Yanks and transferred in the destroyer-land bases exchange to Great Britain, at Halifax, Nova Scotia, 9 September 1940. It was one of the “topsy-turveys” – one of the “Lend Lease” destroyers given to the British in 1940 to bolster the fight against Hitler – and so nicknamed because of their alarming propensity to turn turtle in heavy weather.

From 1940 to 1944, as HMS Clare, she escorted convoys in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. That was when my father served on her. In the early hours of 21 February 1941 she collided with the motor vessel Petertown and was out of action, undergoing repairs, until October 1941.

During 1942 and 1943 Clare took part in the Invasions of North Africa and Sicily. In May 1944 she became an aircraft target ship in the Western Approaches Command. In August 1945 she was reduced to reserve at Greenock, Scotland, and later berthed at Barrow, England, awaiting disposal. She was scrapped in 1945.

T S Yolland

T S Yolland

My father was apparently a cheerful, sometimes boisterous man.

He loved a pint, a cigarette, and a bet. A game of cards.

He was an utterly loyal husband and a doting father. In the middle of his life, when he should have been enjoying financial success and a measure of quiet satisfaction at having survived the Depression intact, married and started a family, he virtually vanished for six years, into the maw of World War II.

I still have his medals. They bear testament to the quiet service he offered … the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean. Malta, India, North Africa,  and all points West and East. He wasn’t the chap manning the depth charges, the guns, or wrenching the wheel around against the storm’s violence on the bridge. “Two points to larb’d, Yolland! Aye Aye, Sir!”

No, he was a quartermaster. The most unglamorous job imaginable on a destroyer. He looked after the ship’s stores, doled them out, and made sure everyone got what they were due to keep them going, which wasn’t much.

Not that he couldn’t have done all the more Boy’s Own stuff, I am sure, but being in the wholesale fish trade he was used to totting up ledgers and keeping track of stores, and all the rest. When they found that out, the Navy assigned him as a quartermaster, and a quartermaster he stayed.

Whether or not his family thought much of his service is lost in the mists of time. His father, Captain D S Yolland, was a trawlerman who got the DSC (just one step down from a VC) for trawling up mines dropped by Zeppelins in Portsmouth Harbour in the First War. I don’t know if they were all that impressed by Dad’s service, but my Mum was, and I am.

He was, by all accounts, a kind, gentle man, and the strain on him of wallowing around in a metal tub waiting for a torpedo up his arse, day after day – month after month, year after year – told on him. He smoked incessantly to calm his nerves, and drank too much, and duly died very young, tragically young, of a heart attack, at just 46 years old, in 1959.

To my mind, he is as much a victim of the fight against Nazism as those who never came home. It took a special type of deep, abiding courage, and an astonishing sense of duty, for him and his shipmates to keep going back, after each leave, never knowing if they would see home again, or how horrible and lonely their death might be. When I questioned my mother about it, she went very quiet, and simply said “It just had to be done. We couldn’t let them win. It was wrong – Hitler, all of it – it was just wrong.”

“It was just wrong.” Quite so. There were millions like my father. Millions of civilians who endured impossible privation, millions of civilians killed, injured and bereaved, millions of children orphaned, and millions of service people mentally destroyed, hideously injured or snatched from their families forever.

Leaders. They get us into wars. But the little people fight them, and the little people are the ones who get us out of them. I wonder if we remember that enough? I suspect we don’t.

Britain continues to export death and destruction to those who are only too ready to deal it out to their own populations, or each other. A disgrace.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/in-the-line-of-fire-a-date-with-despots-at-britains-arms-fair-2354314.html

Thankfully, not everyone is sitting idly by.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/12/london-arms-fair-protest

Many, many years ago, I was offered a job working for an arms manufacturer. They offered me what was, in those days, a king’s ransom. I was a young man, they made all sorts of soothing political and philosophical noises seeking to justify their activities, and then they dangled yet more money in front of me.

I thought about it, and turned them down flat. Then, and now, I could see no moral difference between selling the arms to someone else, and firing them myself, knowing full well what the purchasers intended to do with them. I was not prepared to make my living, no matter at what scale of of arm’s length, by killing people.

Sometimes, we only have our own consciences to guide us, and sometimes all we can do is make a decision about our own lives. I cannot help but feel that if more people simply refused to countenance many of the world’s evils in their personal lives, then they would start to dissipate in a broader sense. My views, essentially, are no different from those Donovan sang about in Universal Soldier, the man “who gives his body as a weapon of the war. And without him, all this killing can’t go on.”

I have always loved Buffy St Marie’s version too … the vibrato in her voice. And something about a woman’s passion for peace illuminates the song even more. That’s on YouTube too – well worth checking out for the difference, and also a recent recording of Domovan singing it in 2010, which is fascinating.

“He’s the universal soldier, and he really is to blame, his orders come from far away no more. They come from here and there, and you and me, and brother, can’t you see? This is not the way we put the end to war.”

It’s so sad, to me, that the simple arguments in this seminal song are as true nearly 50 years after the song was released as they were then.The look of rapt attention – and hope – on many of the young faces in the crowd in 1965 is heartbreaking.

Perhaps all we can do, ultimately, is change ourselves. Not allow our body to be a weapon of the war, and not allow other people’s bodies to be used in our place, in our name.

Be the change we want to see in the world, Gandhi said. Well, something like that, anyhow, would be a start.