Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

The White Rose

Sophie Scholl and other members of White Rose

One of the most disturbing, heart-rending and thought-provoking films we have ever seen was “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days”.

The movie covers the efforts of a resistance group fighting the Nazis called “White Rose” Although the White Rose is well known in Germany, it is not well known overseas.

Der Weissen Rose was a group of mostly students at the University of Munich in Bavaria. Some were studying philosophy. Most, but not all, were religious in some way. Some of the boys had done military service but were allowed to do stints at university between stints on the Eastern Front. This experience provided them with more knowledge of what was actually going on than the average person living in Germany at the time, and it appalled them, but in their courageous resistance they still come across as young and somewhat naïve. It is this naivety that has made the White Rose so appealing. They operated from “pure” theological and philosophical intellectual opposition to National Socialism, to fascism, to dictatorship, to the war, and to the slaughter of Europe’s Jews.

To believe that there was very little resistance to Hitler inside Germany is a serious misunderstanding. Resistance to the Nazis began, of course, before they even came to power, and continued during the thirties and throughout the war.

Serving members of White Rose

Serving members of White Rose

Resistance came from political groups of the left, centre and even conservatives, from unions, from churches and religious people, from within the government and branches of the military. Several attempts were made to assassinate Hitler both by groups and individuals. Although it did not succeed in overthrowing Hitler or ending the Nazi tyranny, the resistance did have an impact on the war and the ultimate defeat of the fascist regime. this is a useful reference to the many Germans who opposed Hitler, and many who suffered the ultimate punishment.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Germans_who_resisted_Nazism

Why does it seem otherwise?

Well, the Nazi regime set out systematically and ruthlessly to destroy all opposition. Thousands of the people who would have been part of an even more effective resistance movement fled into exile soon after Hitler came to power.

Many more were perfectly understandably frightened by the danger and sank into silence and inaction.

Sophie Scholl was guillotined, as was her brother, another brother was lost on the Eastern front. In a final meeting, Scholl's father told her he was proud of her and not to regret her sacrifice. She replied that she would see them again in Heaven.

Sophie Scholl was guillotined, as was her brother, another brother was lost on the Eastern front. In a final meeting, Scholl’s father told her he was proud of her and not to regret her sacrifice. She replied that she would see them again in Heaven.

Yet many did not and paid the price. At least 5,000 were executed and many more spent time in prison. Some were simply murdered. Hitler personally ordered a “good number” of guillotines to be built to deal with the opposition.

There was a feeling within Germany that people really shouldn’t undermine the government during wartime

Many ordinary Germans saw members of the resistance as traitors because that was what almost every source of information available to them told them they were.

Unlike in the countries Germany tried to conquer, the resistance had to assume that much of the population actually supported the government and would report their activities from a sense of duty or from totally justified fear, thus making their actions even braver.

Nevertheless, their writings struck a chord with many in the community.

guillotine

A guillotine found in a Bavarian museum’s storage area is believed to have been used to execute thousands of people during the Nazi era and may well be the device used to execute the Scholls and their friends.

The nations fighting Germany during World War II also decided not to publicise the German resistance to Hitler during or even after the war. The insistence on unconditional surrender and the strategic bombing raids which caused so many civilian casualties made it necessary to see Germany as guilty as an entire nation rather than as itself a victim of Nazi tyranny. The allied armies knew about the resistance and benefited from it but did not want to praise it, at least initially.

MovieSophieSchollSo the story of Sophie Scholl and her family and friends remained almost un-talked about until about the 1970s, when the German community started to discuss the war years more openly, and then again in 2005 when the remarkable film about the events was released.

You may be able to watch the entire film, in its original German, with subtitles, on YouTube or elsewhere if you hunt around.

If you haven’t seen it, we cannot recommend it highly enough – search it out or hire it – but we warn you that it is gut wrenching. Find a couple of hours, pour yourself a strong drink, and watch it.

Those that died deserve to be remembered.

When people discuss the White Rose it has been suggested they were a brave but ineffective resistance movement. That is, in fact, not true. When they were active they caused the regime considerable annoyance. Although many who received the leaflets in the mail handed them in to police, many did not, and the regime had to deal with the fact that those who handed them in may have read them.

Sophie Scholl was an ordinary girl - devoutly Catholic, she fell in love with one of her fellow conspirators, she loved the countryside, she adored her parents. She was very ordinary, just very, very brave.

Sophie Scholl was an ordinary girl – devoutly Catholic, she fell in love with one of her fellow conspirators, she loved the countryside, she adored her parents. She was very ordinary, just very, very brave.

They managed to establish branches in Berlin and particularly Hamburg where sadly many of Hamburg White Rose met the same fate.

The White Rose also had a role in a student uprising in Munich— which was quickly suppressed.

After their execution graffiti appeared on walls in Munich: “Ihr Geist lebt weiter” “Their Spirit Lives On”.

Others carried on the fight. Copies of the leaflets were smuggled out to the Allies and later dropped in their tens of thousands by bombers over German cities.

An example of the leaflets (there were a total of five) is produced below. The courage of young people who could make these arguments against the might of the Nazi Reich simply beggars belief. Especially as they operated in the sure and certain knowledge that one day they must be caught, with their horrifying deaths as the inevitable result.

Many brave people died during the Second World War.

These young Germans were amongst the bravest.

THE THIRD LEAFLET

Salus publica suprema lex (Public safety is the supreme law)

All ideal forms of government are Utopias. A state cannot be constructed on a purely theoretical basis; instead, it must grow and develop in the same way an individual human being matures. But we must not forget that at the beginning of every civilization the state already existed in a rudimentary form. The family is as old as man himself, and out of this initial bond man, endowed with reason, created for himself a state founded on justice, whose highest law was the common good. The state should reflect the divine order, and the highest of all utopias, the Civitas dei, is the model it should ultimately resemble. We will not compare the many possible states here—democracy, constitutional monarchy, monarchy, and so on, but one issue needs to be made clear and unambiguous; every human being has the right to a just state, a state that safeguards the freedom of the individual as well as the good of the whole. For according to God’s will, man should be free and independent, while fulfilling his natural duty of living and working together with his fellow citizens, and strive to achieve earthly happiness through self-reliance and self-motivation.

But the present “state” is the dictatorship of evil. “Oh, we’ve known that for a long time,” I hear you object, “and it isn’t necessary to bring that to our attention again.” But, as I ask you, if you know that, why do you not rouse yourselves, why do you allow these men in power to rob you step by step, both openly and in secret, of one of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state system presided over by criminals and drunkards? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right—or rather, your moral duty—to eradicate this system? But if a man can no longer summon the strength to demand his right, then he will definitely perish. We would deservedly be scattered over the earth like dust in the wind if we do not marshal our powers at this late hour and finally find the courage we have lacked up to now. Do not hide your cowardice behind a cloak of expedience, for with every new day that you hesitate, failing to oppose this offspringof Hell, your guilt, like a parabolic curve, grows higher and higher.

Many, perhaps most, of the readers of these leaflets cannot see clearly how they can mount an effective opposition. They cannot see any avenues open to them. We want to try to show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system. Solitary withdrawal, like embittered hermits, cannot prepare the ground for the overthrow of this “government” or bring about the revolution at the earliest possible moment. No, it can only be done through the cooperation of many convinced energetic people—people who agree on the means they must use to attain their goal. We have few choices as to these means. The only one available is passive resistance. The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to bring down National Socialism, and in this struggle we can’t shrink from any means, any act, wherever it is open to attack. We must bring this monster of a state to an end soon. A victory for fascist Germany in this war would have inconceivable and terrible consequences. The first concern of every German is not the military victory of Bolshevism, but the defeat of National Socialism. This must be the first order of business; its greater imperative will be discussed in one of our forthcoming leaflets.

And now every resolute opponent of National Socialism must ask himself how he can most effectively fight against the present “state”, how he can inflict the most damaging blows. Through passive resistance, without a doubt. We can provide each man with a blueprint for his acts; we can only make general suggestions, and he alone will find the best way to achieve them.

Sabotage armament industries, sabotage every assembly, rally, ceremony, and organisation sponsored by the National Socialist Party. Obstruct the smooth functioning of the war machine (a machine designed for war that is then used solely to shore up and perpetuate the National Socialist Party and its dictatorship.) Sabotage in every scientific and intellectual field involved in continuing this war—whether it be universities, technical colleges, laboratories, research stations, or technical agencies. Sabotage all cultural institutions that could enhance the “prestige” of the fascists among he people. Sabotage all branches of the arts that have even the slightest dependence on National Socialism or serve it in any way. Sabotage all publications, all newspapers, that are in the pay of the “government” and that defend its ideology and help disseminate the brown lie. Do not give a penny to public fund-raising drives (even when they are conducted under the guise of charity), for this is only a cover. In reality the proceeds help neither the Red Cross nor the needy. The government does not need this money; it is not financially interested in these fund-raising drives. After all, the presses run nonstop, printing as much paper currency as is needed. But the people must never be allowed to slacken! Do not contribute to the collection of metal, textiles and the like. Try to convince all your acquaintances, including those in the lower social classes, of the senselessness of continuing, of the hopelessness of this war; of our spiritual and economic enslavement at the hands of the National Socialists, of the destruction of all moral and religious values; and urge them to adopt passive resistance.

Aristotle, Politics: “Further….[a tyrant] should also endeavor to know what each of his subjects says, or does, and should employ spies everywhere…and further, to create disunity and division in the population: to set friend against friend, the common people against the notables, and the wealthy among themselves. Also he should impoverish his subjects; the maintenance of guards and soldiers is thus paid for by the people, who are forced to work hard and have neither the time nor the opportunity to conspire against him…Another practice of tyrants is to increase taxes, after the manner of Dionysius at Syracuse, who contrived that his subjects paid all their wealth into the treasury within five years. The tyrant is also inclined to engage in constant warfare in order to occupy and distract his subjects.

Please make as many copies of this leaflet as possible and pass them on!

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beaver lodge

Beaver Lodge, then home of the Attenboroughs, where we momentarily shared the high life.

So Dickie Attenborough is dead, at 90.

We knew him. Well, not so much knew him, you understand, as “We met him once”.

Back in 1987, there was an election on. The Liberal Party, for which we campaigned, had entered an uncomfortable “Alliance” with a new political grouping called “The Social Democratic Party”, which was essentially a small group of right wing rebels from a Labour Party that had been temporarily overwhelmed by the irritating forces of the trotskyite Left. The new “SDP” appealed to a sort of vaguely left of centre middle class consensus type – they’d be called “soccer Mums” in America or “doctor’s wives” in Australia.

Anyhow, for some bizarre reason lost in the mists of time deep in the last millenium, the leaders of said Alliance decided to hop on a barge and meander down the River Thames one Sunday afternoon, ending up at Dickie’s pile in Richmond. The vague plan was that there were a string of Liberal-SDP Alliance target seats in a row along the river, and this was a spiffingly good wheeze to make a news impact on all of them in one hit to try and shake loose a few of the seats that had voted Tory since time immemorial in that area. Needless to say, as a photo op it simply made the Alliance leaders look like a bunch of middle class numpties and it was largely ignored.

Attenborough and his equally well-loved brother, documentary maker David, share a happy moment.

Attenborough and his equally well-loved younger brother, documentary maker David, share a happy moment.

It is why, though, late on a lovely summer’s afternoon, we came to be standing around in the Attenborough’s charming little pied-a-terre, and standing around very uncomfortably to boot, given that we were unquestionably in the presence of the great and good … a sprinkling of theatre people, some famous politicians, a clutch of local grandees … and as we (and by we, we mean a bunch of local campaigners who had been invited to turn up to rub shoulders with the glitterati who had descended upon us) were dressed almost universally in jeans, odd t-shirts covered in campaign buttons and sporting scraggly beards, we felt somewhat out of place.

Since that time we have become more familiar with the questionable joys of small talk, clinking crystal and nodding with glazed eyes while not really listening. At that stage, however, the art form was unknown to us. So we stood near the front door of what was undoubtedly the grandest room on the planet, exquisitely furnished, and shuffled uncertainly from foot to foot, muttering darkly to one another about how we’d rather be out canvassing for votes on council estates instead of all this wank.

Suddenly, though, Attenborough himself swept through the crowd, making a beeline towards us with a tray of champagnes weaving memorably past the obstacles presented by overweight councillors and gesticulating theatricals. I am reasonably sure there were black-tied waters in attendance too, but for some reason he was doing the honours himself. “You chaps look like you need a drink!” he grinned, and his charm and bonhomie was infectious. We took a glass each and smiled uncertainly. “Yell out if you want another!” he cried, disappearing back into the maw of 200 or so of his closest friends. It was a gentle and kindly act, and perfectly typical of the man, apparently.

Richard Attenborough was one of the most famous and talented actors of his generation, with a string of credits that sound like a potted history of 20th century British and Hollywood cinema. Stolid and honourable in “The Great Escape”. Menacing and psychotic in “Brighton Rock”. Avuncular and deluded in “Jurassic Park”. Pugnacious  in “The Angry Silence”. Utterly chilling in “10 Rillington Place”.

As a director, he made some of the more important movies of the era, reflecting his own progressive view of the world, such as the memorable filmed version of “Oh! What a lovely war!” and in the historically accurate and star-filled exposition of the disastrous military adventure of Operation Market Garden in “A Bridge Too Far”, tackling courage against the apartheid regime in South Africa in “Cry Freedom”, and, of course, with “Gandhi”, the triumphal conclusion of 20 years effort, for which he received two Oscars.

Less well-known is that during the Second World War, Lord Attenborough served with the Royal Air Force, and was seconded to the newly-formed RAF film unit at Pinewood Studios after initial pilot training. He appeared in the 1943 propaganda film Journey Together before qualifying as a sergeant and flying on missions all over Europe filming the outcome of Bomber Command sorties. He saw enough of the horrors of war to imbue “Oh! What a lovely war!” with a heart-rending immediacy, as seen so well in the closing sequence of the film, below. As we remember the 100th Anniversary of the First World War, we could do no better to show respect those who fell than to play the whole film on free-to-air TV in all the combattant countries. It is a theatrical tour de force, and deeply moving.

And when they ask us, how dangerous it was,

Oh, we’ll never tell them, no, we’ll never tell them:

We spent our pay in some cafe,

And fought wild women night and day,

‘Twas the cushiest job we ever had.

And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us,

The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre,

Oh, we’ll never tell them, oh, we’ll never tell them

There was a front, but damned if we knew where.

As an aside, and notably, Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim, who though stricken with dementia survives him after nearly 70 years of marriage, also co-starred in the original West End production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in 1952, which has since become the world’s longest-running play.

David Owen

David Owen

Anyhow, the afternoon drew on towards evening and the champagne grew warm, and then leader of the SDP, Dr David Owen, who it must be reported had looked grumpy and perfectly bored the entire time – an impression he managed to give for his entire career, to our eyes – decided it was time to leave.

He bustled his way towards the door. Attenborough, seeing his star guest leaving, struggled through the crowd waving to get Owen’s attention, seemingly unsuccessfully. In the end, he called out plaintively “David! David! Call you, darling!” but in vain: he was talking to thin air. Owen was gone.

I caught Dickie’s eye, and he smiled and shrugged. He waggled his hand to indicate “Another glass of bubbles?” but we politely demurred. We were heading down the pub for a proper drink. He smiled again, good naturedly, as if in understanding, and turned back to tending to his other more civilised guests. Momentarily, I considered suggesting he join us for a hand of dominoes and a couple of pints, suspecting he might enjoy himself more, but I didn’t dare.

Richard Attenborough may have been a luvvie, my darling Reader, but he was a ferociously talented and genuinely big-hearted version of that uniquely British theatrical caricature.

And that’s why everyone loved him. A decent bloke: a life well lived. Our condolences to his family and innumerable friends.

Footnote

In British use, luvvie is a humorously depreciative term for an actor, especially one regarded as effusive or affected. The reference is to a stereotype of  thespians habitually addressing people as ‘lovey’. When the OED revised its entry for lovey in 2008, this sense, which had by then become established in the variant spelling luvvie, was made a separate entry. The earliest quotation found at the time was from author and actor Stephen Fry, writing in the Guardian in 1988:

Acting in a proper grown-up play, being a lovie, doing the West End, ‘shouting in the evenings’, as the late Patrick Troughton had it.

1988 Stephen Fry in Guardian 2 Apr., p. 17

The off-hand manner in which the term is used here suggests that the word may already have been somewhat established in this sense at the time.

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.

I have been doing a lot of contemplating of life, recently. This is hardly a surprise for a creative writer and poet; it is, after all, our “stock in trade”.

But sometimes one’s life events conspire to make one even more reflective than usual, and lead to discoveries that one was not deliberately intending to try and make.

Grief, it appears to me, is one of the more unpredictable, distressing and difficult things any of us have to go through.

And like most lives, mine has had its share.

Before my life really got going at all my father died of a massive coronary when I was just two years old.

Psychological prognosticating that I have engaged in as I settle into my middle years suggests that this event may have had more impact on me than I had previously suspected.

L-R Betty Yolland, Derek Yolland, me, Stewart Yolland

L-R Betty Yolland, Derek Yolland, me at a week or so old, Stewart Yolland

Not only was I alone in the home with Dad for a couple of hours after he suddenly collapsed and died rather inelegantly on the toilet – apparently when people came home I was very distressed and kept repeating “Big man won’t get up …” until I was bundled next door, (an event which I think I recall clearly), but I now suspect the subsequent experience of grieving in the household, indeed, in many of the events surrounding my growing up – the plethora of aunts, uncles and friends conferring sadly with my mother on the memory of Dad and the unfairness of his being taken from us at just 46 – had a considerable effect on how I have subsequently processed emotional matters.

My mother, you see, was a “coper”. Indeed, like many of her generation, she “coped” heroically, and made a virtue of it. She didn’t deal easily with the sympathies of others, and habitually turned them away with a self-deprecating comment.

Of solid Lincolnshire stock, and raised in lower-middle-class respectability in Swansea in South Wales, born in the middle of the Great War and growing up with all the national angst and sadness that implied, she was famously independent, ferociously strong willed – she left school at 15 without telling her parents for six months, which says something about both her and her parents – and demonstrated a stoic acceptance of whatever life threw at her, including Dad’s unexpected demise.

She coped heroically with the Great Depression, with living with a young child, (my eldest brother, Derek, 17 years older than I), under the horrific Nazi bombing of World War II, with Dad being away on destroyers for all six years of the war, with the death of a child, (my “middle brother”, Roger), with the ups and downs of life as a small retailer, and then with the trials and tribulations of impoverished widowhood with another young child to look after.

She was from the generation for whom “stiff upper lip” was more than a badge of honour, it was the only expressive option on offer. This meant, of course, that whilst she was a kind and thoroughly hard-working mother, she wasn’t the most emotionally “giving” person. She didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve so much as tucked away in a hidden pocket inside her voluminous layers of undergarments. I am sure many British kids from the era, whatever their social class, can picture themselves in the description I have just offered.

In primary school, I very clearly remember feeling somewhat lost and other-worldly amongst my contemporaries.

Only one other boy in our coterie had lost a father, and he was so fearfully clever as to eclipse even my better-than-reasonable academic performance and I really didn’t like him much, (especially as he was always shoved in my face as a paradigm to aim for), so I felt something of an oddity, as if the other kids somehow steered a little clear of me for fear of catching the disease of dead Dadness.

All the while my mother was busily coping, and my brother had moved overseas, and I recall plainly wondering why it had fallen to my lot to be moderately poor (in a relatively well off area), without the love and guidance of a Dad who everyone assured me was a great bloke, (which just made it worse), with a charismatic and good looking elder brother who lived seven thousand miles away and who I only saw for a couple of weeks every two years or so, and to cap it all not having all that many good mates either.

(I had some, though, and they know who they were and are, and I am forever grateful.)

I was happy enough, till Dad died. That was the start of a long haul.

In retrospect, then, I had grief as an undercurrent in my life for much of my growing up. And I managed it by doing the only thing I knew how. I intellectualised it away.

I was precociously clever, imaginative to a fault, (I could play alone contentedly on my bed with toy soldiers and whatnot for hours, indeed, I remember the elaborate fantasies I constructed in my head as some of my happiest days of childhood), and so I neatly compartmentalised my brain to deal with my life.

The things I grieved over – the absence of Dad, the distance of my adored brother, the un-reachability of the extended family I enjoyed so much spending time with in Wales, even my mother’s odd remoteness – as I write these words I wince at that word, because it seems so unfair for one who attended to her responsibilities with such care, but emotionally remote she undoubtedly was – these things I plonked into cardboard boxes in my head and stuck them down with sticky tape and did my level best to develop into a “coper” myself.

I repeated this process when I was unexpectedly dispatched to an English boarding school at 11, courtesy of having waltzed my way through a scholarship examination, (without any understanding of why I was sitting it – if I had known, I would have failed deliberately), and promptly found myself ensnared in the most emotionally abusive environment yet dreamed up by social engineers to torture sensitive, intellectually-gifted children.

I was bullied. Unmercifully.

Psychologically, physically – by both teachers and students – for my plummy southern accent, for my enthusiastic willingness to answer questions in class, (usually with the right answer, naturally), for the fact that I was not the biggest kid around (I filled out later, some would say as a deliberate subconscious response to avoid getting kicked in the shins by life any longer), for … well, for whatever reason they chose to dream up on the day, really.

First XV

I am prouder of this picture than most – I finally made the First XV – but looking back, at what cost? Anyway, here’s the proof. And I had nice legs, too.

Looking back, the fact that I did not raid the Combined Cadet Force lockers for a Bren gun and take fifty or so of my torturers out is entirely to my credit and to my development as a coper.

Indeed, ask my contemporaries at that school today and they will confirm that whilst they knew I was bullied, they were also impressed by my leading performances in school plays, as a capable top tenor in the school choir, as a moderately good rugby player (I made the First XV once, and played every other game of the final season of my schooling in an “unbeaten” Second XV – I should and could have played all season in the First XV but key individuals didn’t like me) and generally that I seemed like a capable and well-balanced fellow, for the most part, despite the bullying, who was making a pretty good fist of sharing their allotted time in middle-class prison.

And they were right, in a way. I was damned if I was going to let the system beat me, and ultimately it didn’t. I ended up with a passable liberal education and left on the very first day I could, a couple of weeks before the end of the last term (on some pretext or other) and breathed a very cold “And fuck you all.” as the taxi left the school grounds to take me to the quaint nearby station and home.

The pattern was set. I duly coped when a youthful first marriage went disastrously south prematurely (prematurely, that is, in my opinion, at the time; in later years the wisdom of hindsight has convinced me it was the right decision for both of us). I poured my grief out in poem after poem many of which form the first part of my book. I thought the process was cathartic – it wasn’t. I was crafting on the page a simalcrum, a mirror, an expression of the grief I was feeling, but as if that grief was happening to a third party, not me. The poems are good, and even when edited some 20 years later for publication they stood the test of time as worthy explorations of the psyche of lost love, but as a way of genuinely dealing with my grief they were merely sophisticated boxes and tape.

In time I coped with other broken love affairs (like everyone does, to be sure).

I coped with moving to the other side of the world and feeling most insecure to have done so.

I coped with working in an abusive environment that I had to ensure I stayed in because I needed the money, I coped with … well, whatever life threw at me really.

I coped when my brother died suddenly at 52, just when I thought we might get to spend some quality time together one day soon.

I don’t claim any special credit for this coping, nor am I looking for praise; I simply didn’t have any alternative, because that was how I had been brought up, do you see, and in any event, it’s not as if coping is such a bad thing. Any grief I felt at life’s shitty little surprises I neatly packed up and put away, decided on a course of action, and followed it with determination and even occasional élan.

So this was all very well, I guess, and something and nothing and a testament to the upside of coping, except that in later years the pressure of shoving all my distress and grief away into cardboard boxes in my head became too much.

When something really unconscionably close and awful happened – our first daughter got tangled up coming out, and was taken off life support five days later – it turned out the cupboard was full, there was no more room for any more cardboard boxes of neatly disposed emotions, the grief at an event so unexpected, so cruelly unfair, so immeasurably awful and unpredictable, meant I fell entirely, massively, and utterly into a heap.

Yet even then the effect of this terrible and almost unendurable life-moment was delayed by my innate copingness.

I didn’t know how to grieve. So when Rhiannwen Cari Yolland died, my first priority was her Mum.

I knew what I had to do: cope.

And so I did, I coped for 18 months. I strove to live up to, despite the pressure I was under, my image of being a “good man”. I held down a job with some success, I tried to be supportive to my wife, I didn’t allow myself to become overwhelmed when she was, I tried instead to be cheerful, I … coped. In retrospect, with the benefit of 24 years of reflection, my flaws as a husband during this period are all too obvious and cringeworthy, but I assure you, Dear Reader, I did my best; my best as I knew how. I kept going. And even now, inside you, admit that some of you are nodding approvingly at my traditional, male-role-oriented determination to “carry on”.

Leaving the hospital with Caitlin. I was already near to a complete sanity breakdown, and indeed, my smile looks a bit wan. Nevertheless a wonderful gift: this is known, reflecting our earlier troubles, as the “You got a take home one, Daddy!” moment by my daughter.

Except that then, when our second daughter, Caitlin, was born, I promptly lost it. Altogether. The doors of the cupboard broke open, and within twenty four hours, I was pretty much a basket case.

Unable to grieve effectively, to grieve for so many reasons of which the baby’s death was just the most recent and most dreadful, and with grief accumulated inside my head for so long, I overnight developed a crippling case of Obsessional Compulsive Disorder which made life almost impossible to live, (not to mention its effect on the lives of those around me), and I struggled with it for fully ten years or more before a recovery slowly began and persisted.

My mind simply revolted from the pressures to which it had been subjected for all my life, having been refused the outlet of grieving.

OCD is the most pernicious and awful “mental” illness. It seems tailor-made to torture the “coper” with exquisitely precise horrors. Starved of the chemical transmitters that one needs to function rationally (which are “used up” prematurely by years of unresolved tensions and continual low level stress, and, ironically, used up most quickly, it seems, in individuals of high intelligence) the brain instead erects “rituals” designed to put the world back into order.

If only I tap my foot a certain number of times, all will be well with my day. If I count a certain number of telegraph poles correctly while driving to work, and click my teeth between each of them, it’ll be a good day. If I wash my hands, repeatedly, slather them in disinfectant or antiseptic cream, if I avoid touching anything, then I will never become sick or die, even if my hands become red, cracked, suppurating mockeries of hands. If I never say a word beginning with B, if I never use the number 6, if I always count to fourteen before speaking, if I don’t tread on the lines between paving stones, if I turn to the left and never to the right … the rituals and “rules” are as many and as bizarre as the endlessly creative human mind can construct. And all the while, with all the effort involved, they are completely, utterly, ironically incapable of controlling the world around you, of deflecting the real and natural experience of grief, or of protecting you from the future randomness of life.

That’s why OCD holds a special place in the list of “things not to get”. Not only does it turn you into a non-functioning recluse (at best), but it doesn’t even work. It doesn’t help you cope. The rituals solve nothing. Bastard. Bastard bastard bastard fucking illness. I hate it. Indeed, my hatred of OCD is so intense, it prevents it recurring in my life. My emotions over OCD are untrammeled, un-contained, unreduced. It is a bastard trick our own brains play on us, and my hatred of it is healthy and realistic.

You don’t “cope” with OCD – you can’t. You beat it, or it beats you. You smash it into little pieces, no matter how wild or scared or angry you have to become to do so. And every day, thereafter, for the rest of your life, you allow your mind to revel in its disgust at this vile illness, as you encourage everyone around you to fight it too (it affects about 4% of people and is no respecter of sex, age, social station, or any other divider) by facing up to whatever it is that triggered the brain’s response in the first place.

And that’s why, on this pleasantly warm summer’s day in my comfortably mostly-paid for home in the world’s most liveable city, looking forward to enjoying a meal this evening with my endlessly patient and loving wife and talented and adorable daughter, I am allowing myself to grieve.

Indeed, more than that, I am co-opting you to share the experience, I am reaching out to you to share it, because it is painful, and it hurts, and I don’t want to go through it alone and silent.

As regular readers will know, my dog was put to sleep eleven days ago, and I am not over it. And my rational mind is telling me that it’s silly to grieve over a dog all that much, let alone for nearly two weeks, you imbecile, and my new, pristine, “don’t always try and cope” mind is telling my rational mind to go boil its head.

I work at home. If I didn’t have meetings out, Zach was frequently the only living creature I would talk to in the day.

He would invariably come and lie at my feet, and usually on my feet, or he would lie as close to my office chair as he could, behind it, which meant I would often absent-mindedly “run over him” when pushing the chair back or stretching. This would invariably result in a plaintive yelp but no lasting damage, and an affectionate admonition from me along the lines of “Well, then don’t lie there, then, you stupid animal” as I massaged his toe, tail, or whatever. He never paid any attention to my warnings.

This morning, as I rolled the chair back, he wasn’t there. It hurt. I got hurt. And there’s no one here but you, Dear Reader, to rub my heart and make it better, so instead of rushing on and ignoring my hurt and putting it in whatever battered old cardboard box I have left up there, I am writing to you instead.

See: a little while ago, just before starting to write this article, I did the dishes.

By which I mean, specifically, I walked to the dining room a few times, rescued the dendritus from last night’s meal, and brought it back to the kitchen and stacked the dishwasher. Except today the dog didn’t ploddingly follow me from kitchen, to dining room, to kitchen, to dining room, to kitchen, waiting for scraps to fall off the plates and dishes, whether deliberately or accidentally, as his expected supplement to his daily diet. And I didn’t have to mutter “for fuck’s sake, dog, get out of the way before I break my neck” as he wandered purposefully towards me, looking up with mournful but expectant brown eyes. And he didn’t sit by the kitchen fireplace, rigidly sat to attention, following me with those huge brown pools of light grown cloudy in old age, just in case a crust, a bit of bacon rind, or a handful of left over rice was about to get lobbed in his general direction as the dishes went into the dishwasher.

And because I have vacuumed, again, there are ever fewer of his silken, golden-white hairs inhabiting the nooks and crannies of our home, needing me to pull them off the furry head of the vacuum cleaner and feed them up its capacious mouth by hand, because we’re gradually getting them all up. And one day, there won’t be a single dog hair anywhere in the house, none stuck to any of my socks, none hiding under chairs or behind tables, none floating past the window on a gentle zephyr, and then he will be totally, erasedly gone. Forever.

And it hurts. It hurts like hell.

Please understand, I don’t want you to do anything with my grief. Except listen to it.

Zach
This photograph was taken a few minutes before he died. Our local vets were magnificent, as they had been since the first day we had taken him there for puppy training, a lifetime ago. (If any of you need a caring vet, and you live near us, I’ll gladly give you their number.) They gently confirmed that his lungs and spleen were riddled with cancer, and even if we got rid of the tumour on his skin then the ones inside him were killing him with inexorable certainty, and that he was almost certainly – uncomplainingly – in considerable pain and discomfort. That was why he was coughing. That was why his back legs had gone wonky. It was time to say goodbye.

To their eternal credit, they arranged for us to gather round him as he lay on a comfortable pair of towels, in soft sunshine under a lovely tree. The vet patiently explained what would happen as he died, that it would be very fast and painless, and that animals don’t fear death as we do, and we should know that he was really quite happy, and happy to be with us.

I took him to a nearby water bowl, and let him have a drink, which he did, gently, and it seemed to me, thankfully. I don’t know why, I just think I thought being thirsty was an unnecessary indignity. I knew he was going to be dead in two minutes, but “there’s no reason for him to die with a dry mouth, is there?” I reasoned to myself.

My wife placed her hand reverently on his panting chest as he lay there, and my daughter massaged his velvet ears, as she had done ten thousand times before, and murmured to him quietly how much she loved him. We all said a small prayer, unsure of whether God has a place for dogs, but hoping against hope he does. And then the green liquid flowed into the catheter in his leg, and his eyes closed, and my wife said “There.” Because his chest was suddenly still.

And it was very sad, but it was OK. They let us leave by a side gate so we didn’t have to run the gauntlet of the people in the waiting room with our tears flowing. I took one look back. His giant body lay so still in the dappled light, and he looked simply and contentedly asleep in the garden, as I had seen him so many times over thirteen and a half years, and more than that, he looked at peace. As if the burden of plodding from place to place with the pain inside him and keeping the love in his eyes constantly there despite his trials had been lifted from him, and now he could really, genuinely, finally rest. And it was very sad, but it was OK.

And eleven days later, I miss him every time he doesn’t stick his great, silly, donkey-like head enquiringly round a corner. And right now, my days seem longer and emptier and lonelier. And you know what? It’s OK to feel that, and it’s OK, even, to say it.

That’s my discovery. It only took 53 years, since the day the big man wouldn’t get up.

Thank you for listening.

On the day that Australia and Afghanistan struggle with the official confirmation that Aussie troops in Oruzgan province shot and killed two shepherds aged 8 and 7, mistaking them for insurgent who had been firing at them, this fascinating piece of reportage from William Salaetan at slate.com a few days ago argues that, far from the indiscriminate slaughterer of innocent civilians that they are often painted to be, controversial unmanned drones in fact kill fewer civilians than conventional weaponry such as bombs. We comment at the end of the article.

Article begins:

An American Predator drone fires a missile.

An American Predator drone fires a missile.

UN: Drones killed more Afghan civilians in 2012,” says the Associated Press headline. The article begins: “The number of U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan jumped 72 percent in 2012, killing at least 16 civilians in a sharp increase from the previous year.”

The message seems clear: More Afghans are dying, because drones kill civilians.

Wrong. Drones kill fewer civilians, as a percentage of total fatalities, than any other military weapon. They’re the worst form of warfare in the history of the world, except for all the others.

Start with that U.N. report. Afghan civilian casualties caused by the United States and its allies didn’t go up last year. They fell 46 percent. Specifically, civilian casualties from “aerial attacks” fell 42 percent. Why? Look at the incident featured in the U.N. report (Page 31) as an example of sloppy targeting. “I heard the bombing at approximately 4:00 am,” says an eyewitness. “After we found the dead and injured girls, the jet planes attacked us with heavy machine guns and another woman was killed.”

Jet planes. Machine guns. Bombing. Drones aren’t the problem. Bombs are the problem.

Look at last year’s tally of air missions in Afghanistan. Drone strikes went way up. According to the U.N. report, drones released 212 more weapons over Afghanistan in 2012 than they did in 2011. Meanwhile, manned airstrikes went down. Result? Fifteen more civilians died in drone strikes, and 124 fewer died in manned aircraft operations. That’s a net saving of 109 lives.

On Monday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai banned his security forces from requesting NATO airstrikes in residential areas. Why? Because a week ago, an airstrike killed 10 civilians. What kind of airstrike? Bombs.

The My Lai massacre in Vietnam. As in most cases in that and other conflicts, bullets and bombs inflicted the majority of civilian casualties.

The My Lai massacre in Vietnam. As in most cases in that and other conflicts, bullets and bombs inflicted the majority of civilian casualties.

In war after war, it’s the same gruesome story: crude weapons, dead innocents.

In World War II, civilian deaths, as a percentage of total war fatalities, were estimated at 40 to 67 percent.

In Korea, they were reckoned at 70 percent.

In Vietnam, by some calculations, one civilian died for every two enemy combatants we exterminated.

In the Persian Gulf War, despite initial claims of a vast Iraqi death toll, we may have killed only one or two Iraqi soldiers for every dead Iraqi civilian.

In Kosovo, a postwar commission found that NATO’s bombing campaign killed about 500 Serbian civilians, almost matching the 600 enemy soldiers who died in action.

In Afghanistan, the civilian death toll from 2001 to 2011 has been ballparked at anywhere from 60 to 150 percent of the Taliban body count.

In Iraq, more than 120,000 civilians have been killed since the 2003 invasion. That’s more than five times the number of fatalities among insurgents and soldiers of Saddam Hussein’s regime. (Wellthisiswhatithink considers the likely figure to be nearer 500,00 civilian casualties due to all causes, as we revealed in our article “The Dead and Not So Dead In Iraq. However only a tiny percentage of those deaths could be attributed to drones.)

 Why so many noncombatant deaths? Study the record. In Vietnam, aerial bombing killed more than 50,000 North Vietnamese civilians by 1969. Each year of that war, the least discriminate weapons – bombs, shells, mines, mortars – caused more civilian injuries than guns and grenades.
We know all about the atomic attackjs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Far worse was the "firestorm" attack on Tokyo using incendiary bombs. The Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 87,793 people died in the raid, 40,918 were injured, and 1,008,005 people lost their homes. Robert Rhodes, estimating the dead at more than 100,000 men, women and children, suggested that probably a million more were injured and another million were left homeless. American planners estimated the areas attacked to be 84.7 percent residential.

We know all about the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Far worse (and virtually forgotten) was the “firestorm” attack on Tokyo using incendiary bombs. The Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 87,793 people died in the raid, 40,918 were injured, and 1,008,005 people lost their homes. Historian Robert Rhodes, estimating the dead at more than 100,000 men, women and children, suggested that probably a million more were injured and another million were left homeless. American planners estimated the areas attacked to be 84.7 percent residential.

In Kosovo, the munitions were more precise, and NATO tried to be careful.

But according to a postwar report by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, NATO’s insistence on flying its planes no lower than 15,000 feet—a rule adopted “to minimize the risk of casualties to itself”—“may have meant the target could not be verified with the naked eye.” In Afghanistan, a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch found that “civilian casualties rarely occur during planned airstrikes on suspected Taliban targets.”

Instead, “High civilian loss of life during airstrikes has almost always occurred during the fluid, rapid-response strikes, often carried out in support of ground troops after they came under insurgent attack.”

Drones can overcome these problems.

You can fly them low without fear of losing your life. You can study your target carefully instead of reacting in the heat of the moment. You can watch and guide the missiles all the way down.

Even the substitution of missiles for bombs saves lives. Look at the data from Iraq: in incidents that claimed civilian lives, the weapon with the highest body count per incident was suicide bombing. The second most deadly weapon was aerial bombing by coalition forces.

By comparison, missile strikes killed fewer than half as many civilians per error.

How do drones measure up? Three organizations have tracked their performance in Pakistan. Since 2006, Long War Journal says the drones have killed 150 civilians, compared to some 2,500 members of al-Qaida or the Taliban. That’s a civilian casualty rate of 6 percent. From 2010 to 2012, LWJ counts 48 civilian and about 1,500 Taliban/al-Qaida fatalities. That’s a rate of 3 percent.

The New America Foundation uses less charitable accounting methods. But even if you adopt NAF’s high-end estimate, the drones have killed 305 civilians, compared to some 1,500 to 2,700 militants, which puts the long-term civilian casualty rate at about 15 percent. NAF’s figures, like LWJ’s, imply that the rate has improved: From 2010 to 2012, NAF’s high-end civilian casualty tally is 90, and its midpoint estimate of dead militants is 1,410, yielding a civilian casualty rate of 6 percent.

The highest reckoning of noncombatant killings comes from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Since 2004, BIJ counts 473 to 893 civilian deaths, against a background of roughly 2,600 to 3,500 total killings. Using BIJ’s high-end estimates, if every fatality other than a civilian is a militant, the long-term civilian casualty rate is 35 percent. Using BIJ’s low-end estimates, the rate is 22 percent. But again, if you break down the data by year, they point to radical improvement. From 2010 to 2012, BIJ’s count of 172 civilian deaths, against a background of 1,616 total fatalities, yields a civilian casualty rate of 12 percent.

In Yemen, NAF says drones have killed 646 to 928 people, of which 623 to 860 were militants. If you assume that everyone not classified as a militant was a civilian, that’s a civilian casualty rate of 4 to 8 percent. LWJ’s Yemen numbers are less kind: it counts 35 civilian deaths and 274 enemy deaths in 2011 and 2012, yielding a rate of 13 percent. BIJ hasn’t tallied its Yemen data, but if you add up all the fatalities it counted as civilian in 2012, you get a civilian casualty rate of 10 to 11 percent. (For one strike last May, which several witnesses attributed to a plane, BIJ counts more noncombatant deaths than total deaths. If you don’t include those fatalities in the drone column, the civilian casualty rate for 2012 is just 7 percent.)

You can argue over which of these counting systems to believe. But the takeaway is obvious: Drones kill a lower ratio of civilians to combatants than we’ve seen in any recent war. Granted, many civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other such wars were killed by our enemies rather than by us. But that’s part of the equation. One reason to prefer drones is that when you send troops, fighting breaks out, and the longer the fighting goes on, the more innocent people die. Drones are like laparoscopic surgery: they minimize the entry wound and the risk of infection.

Over the years, I’ve shared many worries about the rise of drones: the illusion of withdrawal, the militarization of the CIA, the corruption of law, the evasion of congressional restraint, the risk of mission creep, and the proliferation of signature strikes. But civilian casualties? That’s not an argument against drones. It’s the best thing about them.

Wellthisiswhatithink believes we need to re-evaluate the drone programme. Its range, its usage, its timing, its command and control.

We are on record as saying it poisons civilians against what the West is trying to achieve, and is explicitly making the already fraught relationship between America and Pakistan, in particular, even worse than it already is. However debate on drone warfare should be based, as far as possible, on facts, not on emotion. If we are going to fight wars – a questionable decision in its own right – then we need to fight them with lowest possible impact on the civilian population, for all sorts of practical reasons, leave alone the moral ones. Recent history is, sadly, littered with examples of politicians deciding to deliberately target civilian populations, the direct opposite of their responsibility under the rules of war.

Coventry. Dresden. Nagasaki. Hiroshima. Tokyo. Hanoi. Sabra. Shatila. Srebrenica. Sarajevo. Aleppo.

It is a very sad list, is it not?

Man's deadliest killing machine, by far.

Man’s deadliest killing machine, by far.

Last but not least, in deciding how best – I will leave you to decide your own personal interpretation of “best” – to kill our fellow human beings, we should also constantly remind ourselves that bullets – fired by one person from one weapon – still kill more people in conflict zones than all other forms of ordnance put together.

Controlling the merchants of death who sell them indiscriminately to the highest bidder might be the most immediate and most “do-able” thing we can do to reduce casualties of all kinds. The first step is to make it clear to our political masters that we don’t want our countries involved in this bestial trade. Meanwhile, we would all do well to remember the simple arguments of Edwin Starr in his immortal “War”. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.