Sep 14 2007

When the Fighting is Over

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 2:55 pm

With casualties continuing to rise in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rod MacGregor shows imperialism’s disdain for working class lives

He’s five feet tall and he’s six feet four,
He fights with missiles and with spears,
He’s all of thirty-one and he’s only seventeen,
He’s been a soldier for a thousand years.

Universal Soldier (Buffy St Marie)

In Dundee’s Eastern Necropolis there is a headstone-free area known as the Poor Ground. As the name would imply, this is where the poor of Dundee’s past lie in unmarked graves, in stark contrast to the imposing headstones and memorials of Dundee’s Victorian industrial barons and merchant class.

Even in death, it would seem, equality can be an elusive concept—the prosperous proclaiming their earthly greatness for all to see, while many of those whose sweat and toil created for them their fabulous riches lie unmarked, unknown, forgotten.

The Poor Ground is possessed of the solemn tranquillity common to graveyards, and on a pleasant day it is a calm and peaceful place to sit on one of the three benches that form a row on the northern edge of the area. Each of the benches has a plaque on it, and the inscriptions on the two westernmost make for an eye-catching and interesting read. They are as follows:

Peter Grant

Peter Grant

In memory of PRIVATE PETER GRANT VC Born 1824
He was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in India 16 November 1857.
He died 10 January 1868 and was buried near here.

And, on the other bench,

Thomas Beach

Thomas Beach

In memory of PRIVATE THOMAS BEACH VC Born 1824
He was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in The Crimea 5 November 1854.
He died 24 August 1864 and was buried near here.

Neither Beach nor Grant fared well after their brief flirtation with fame, and both were dead in their early 40’s, almost within a decade of receiving their VC’s. Thomas Beach left the army in 1863. He returned to Dundee, where he died in the Royal Infirmary on August 24, 1864, aged 40. The cause of death is believed to have been severe alcoholism.

According to a report in the Dundee Advertiser, dated January 11, 1868, Private Peter Grant (who at the time was still a serving soldier of the 93rd Regiment, stationed in Aberdeen) had been missing from where he lived since Friday, December 27, and had not been seen again till the previous morning. His body was removed from the river, near Craig Harbour, by a Constable Bremner.

Still pinned to his uniform coat was his Victoria Cross and his campaign medals. In the pockets of the coat were a fourpenny piece, a penny and a knife. He had been on a visit to friends in Dundee. The last sighting of Private Peter Grant had been in Wheatley’s Public House in the Overgate.

What the inscriptions on the benches at the Poor Ground tell us is instructive.

Despite being feted by the state, their country bestowing upon them its highest award for valour on the field of battle, that same state which honoured their courage so, in death abandoned them, not even caring enough to provide a simple headstone to mark the last resting places of those it had so recently proclaimed heroes, one of whom was, at the time, still a serving member of the army.

Indifference and callousness

Fast forward now from the mid-to-late nineteenth century to the first decade of the twenty-first century. On August 26, 2007, I am reading an article in the Independent on Sunday, the headline of which reads Our boys deserve better treatment than this.

I am habitually and instinctively wary of articles containing the words our boys. Usually, they are flag waving, shallow pieces of jingoism, designed to inculcate in the population the belief that all British foreign military adventures are benign, and to make us feel that there is something wrong with us if we do not support our troops.

Many thousands of us have, of course, been supporting our boys in the best way possible, urging prior to March 2003 that we should not attack Iraq, and calling for the withdrawal of the troops ever since the launching of that ill-thought-out foreign misadventure.

But the article in the Independent is highlighting the plight that our boys face when they are wounded, either mentally or physically. Two cases in particular are highlighted, each in its own way a shocking indictment of the indifference and callousness of the state which would send our young people into combat on a mixture of half-truths and downright lies.

On the Military Families Support Group website, one mother tells of her son, who is home on two weeks’ leave from Afghanistan. She discovered that he was suffering from a double fracture to the jaw, caused by a faulty rocket launcher, which recoiled into his face. Other than pain relief he had received no treatment at all for the injury.

It was not till his mother sent him to her dentist that the true extent of the injury was discovered. He was told at Selly Oak Hospital that as the fractures were, by that time, four weeks old, there was nothing they could do and he was sent back to Afghanistan after being told to eat only soft food.

The second case is, if anything, even more harrowing.

A mother tells how her 19-year-old son, an infantry soldier who served in Iraq, is haunted by witnessing a child sliced in two by a British bullet which was fired into a crowd in Basra. The memory of the boy’s father gathering up the pieces of his child, sitting on the curb and hugging them, torments him.

When the nightmares come he has to climb into bed with his mother and her husband. Before he can sleep she has to cuddle him and rub his nose as she did when he was a baby. Clearly, his mother says, he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but this young soldier has received no counselling.

Many who leave the armed forces fare no better. An article in The Scotsman on August 8, 2007, stated that as many as one in ten homeless people are ex-forces’ members. To put that figure into perspective, if it was proportionate to the size of the armed forces, Britain would have six million serving members in the army, navy and air force.

It is feared that the traumatised of Iraq and Afghanistan will begin to swell the number of homeless ex-service personnel in the not-too-distant future. Many will leave with alcohol related problems and find it hard to adjust to civilian life after traumatic experiences in the forces.

War crimes

At least, unlike during the First World War, we no longer execute those suffering from PTSD. In that most terrible of conflicts three hundred and six disturbed young men, many only boys really, were executed on the orders of military top brass and senior officers. Their sole crime was to have become mentally unwell due to the unspeakable horrors they had witnessed in the human slaughter house that was trench warfare.

Most of those who were executed were vulnerable, defenceless teenagers who had actually volunteered for duty, deliberately selected and found guilty as a lesson to others. Their heinous crimes included desertion (ambling around in a confused and dazed state, suffering from PTSD), cowardice (the same symptoms) and insubordination (some trivial incident that could be twisted into an excuse for trial, conviction and execution).

Regularly, these trials would take place one day (the accused would often have no defence), they would be convicted and found guilty on some specious charge, and they would then be shot at dawn the day after the trial.

The British commander-in-chief, General Haig, himself signed the death warrants of all those killed by their own side for the crime of being human, for the crime of being able only to take so much before becoming ill.

It is a war crime to execute the sick and the wounded.

Following allied victory, in 1919 Haig received the thanks of both houses of parliament, was given a grant of £100,000, and rewarded by a grateful state with an earldom.

Just over a decade after the end of the war, in 1929, the world’s stock markets crashed in capitalism’s great crisis.

For many who had escaped with their lives from Europe’s killing fields of 1914-18, who had endured the unendurable in places which were to become forever synonymous with savage slaughter on an industrial scale—The Somme, Paschendale, Ypres et al—a good day for them would be one when they and their families went to bed at night with full stomachs. Not for nothing were those times known as the Hungry Thirties.

From Victorian England, to the dark days of the First World War, to the present day, a pattern of neglect, and at times, sheer bloody-minded vindictiveness, emerges concerning the treatment and after-care of military personnel. Some might say, I believe harshly, that they knew what they were signing up for and take a hell mend them attitude towards them.

Economic conscription

Instead, it should be contended that, as in most things, prevention is better than cure, that these young men and women should never have been put in harm’s way in the first place.

Many of the troops now doing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan will be young, working class, economic conscripts, lured into the armed forces with the promise of a trade and regular paid employment. They will see it as an escape from low paid, slave wage, short term employment, they will see it as a career.

But it is a career which, just as much now as it ever has been, can come with a lethal price. They are the young men and women denied a fair chancein civilian life by the market forces of capitalism, as well-paid jobs are shipped abroad, where labour is cheaper and health and safety not really much of an issue at all.

How ironic it is, then, that the youth of this country who take the queen’s shilling will, almost inevitably, end up shipped abroad themselves to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where, too, health and safety willbe perilous issues.

What, then, of the future? It does not bode well. Recently, to much rejoicing among the mainstream political parties and shipyard workers, the government announced that it was placing orders for two giant aircraft carriers, the largest warships ever to be built for the Royal Navy. The deal was touted as securing thousands of jobs.

But the implications of this alleged good news have a darker side. The building of these two giant warships tells us much about the government’s long-term perception of what Britain’s role in international affairs should be.

The military purpose of an aircraft carrier is not a defensive one. They are the long arm of imperialism, designed to facilitate the ability to strike anywhere on earth that their political masters deem necessary for the furtherance of imperial wars and ambitions, the chastisement of undemocratic dictators or any of the other familiar, oft-used excuses needed to unleash the dogs of war.

However powerful these ships are, the aircraft carrier is only one tool in the armed wing of imperialism. The chosen target’s population, having been suitably shocked and awed by aerial bombardment, and we from the comfort of our armchairs treated to video game TV news items showing surgical strikes by smart bombs, the dirty work still has to be done.

The task of enforcement and occupation, thinly disguised and euphemistically described as liberation, the bringing of democracy, etc., etc., will fall, as always, to the troops on the ground. It is they who will have to live with the day-to-day horrors of any occupation.

Some will be driven slowly mad by what they witness; others, tragically, will die amid those horrors.

In a letter home from Iraq a young nineteen-year old soldier wrote, I do not see why our lads have to die for something that will not make an iota of difference. Despite his tender years he had come to understand how rotten, how bankrupt his country’s policy in Iraq had become, had always been, how wasteful of young lives it was.

That young soldier was killed while on sentry duty in Basra.

We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung;
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth,
God help us, for we knew the worst too young!

Rudyard Kipling


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