Saturday, 2 February 2013

The Tragedy of War

A truly shocking report on the epidemic of suicides in the US appears in today's Guardian. Whilst I don't think our own experience mirrors the US experience, we can't pretend that we too will not have a problem.

It was when I offered to pour my dad a drink as my mother quietly shook her head behind him that I learned how my parents managed the effects of his 25 years army service. Around remembrance day, alcohol made my dad cry, something he himself found shameful. So we quietly excluded him from booze. The collection of photos in an old shirt box gave a clue - pictures of CWGC standard headstones all bearing his regimental badge, taken during a re-visit to the Normandy battlefields he had fought through, taken sometime between coming home from Palestine and leaving again for Korea. In France, Germany, Palestine and Korea he left behind dead comrades, and with each one came the guilt, I realised much later, of having survived.

The recent number of suicides of British soldiers post-combat, 179 in 10 years, is shocking but not surprising. The same must have happened post-1918 and post-1945; this is nothing new, nor are our soldiers today any more lacking in 'moral fibre' than they were in the past. No. In the past there must have been a massive collective resolution to bury the fact, understandably. The non-physical scars of war don't heal. When we send young men into combat they may lose their lives or their lives may be blighted. That's the tragedy of war - no-one really wins.


Tommy Jefferson said...

I spent 6 years in the South African Defence Force, fighting an anti insurgency war, and I can say with hand on heart it was the most awful waste of life, time, money and resources. I'm not a pacifist and Ii'll not hesitate to defend my country, but my overriding feeling about war is always the complete pointlessness of it. There are no winners just dead people. At first I was all gung ho and yeah bring it on, but then I found a picture of a little girl in the pocket of a dead enemy soldier and I couldn't stop crying. The 'enemy' is human, with family and a life just like yours

Tommy Jefferson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
G. Tingey said...

Not always, unfortunately.
There are those who appear to be human, but need exterminating.
They are very few & selecting them out from the "normal" enemy is almost impossible.
Which is one reason why wars get so horrible.
Who are these human-shaped monsters?

Waffen SS
Soviet special commissar's forces & KGB units
For a short list - oh, & mustn't forget the Cambodian nutters.

OTOH, two of my uncles served in WWI & the younger survived the Burma railway as well.

Anonymous said...

TJ, would you rather it had been him looking at your corpse?
Unless he was a conscript forced into the army then he made a choice to be there,he was probably like you,a loyal man ready to serve his cause.
But he was still your enemy and he would have killed you if he had the chance.
A soldier shouldnt gloat over the death of his enemy but nor should he mourn him,but he should remember and respect his enemy as a man who was willing to put his money where his mouth was.
unlike those political scum that seem so fond of wars even though they never take part themselves.

Wildgoose said...

I'd like to second the anonymous comment about the political scum are so fond of sending other people's fathers, husbands, sons (and mothers, wives, daughters) to die (and kill) just so they can preen and posture on the world stage.

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder if anyone ever says thank you to our servicemen and women? Raedwald, if your father is still with us, please do say thanks to him for valient his efforts, from a very grateful Englishman.

Coney Island

Anonymous said...

If you ever get the chance to see a performance of 'After Agincourt' (monologue), you will find it has the same effect on you as your blog. I saw this performed by Roy Heather in a small theatre club. My most memorable theatre performance ever.

Cascadian said...

First and foremost, my sincere thanks to your father and his comrades be they alive or dead, they afforded my generation opportunities and an ease that they denied themselves.

Sadly, the problem you have emphasised does not get the attention it should. I worked (not in any medical capacity) at a very large hospital that had been built specifically for mentally damaged soldiers from the first world war. It was built after a worldwide architectural competition in a quite beautiful setting. The quality of construction and finish was very high, though sadly it was empty and derelict when I was there. The fact that the medical staff in the 1920's had little to offer the patients is an unfortunate part of history, but I do believe they would have received the very best care available, as was their due. I do not see anything approaching that level of concern for our contemporary warriors, that is scandalous.

GaryP said...

The real goal when fighting a war is not to 'win' but to survive.
The Allies did not 'win' WWII but they did survive while the Axis powers were destroyed.
Of course, not all threats were eliminated. The Soviets were made even more dangerous by WWII.
However, the triumph of the Axis Powers would have been worse that the horrible cost of the war.
War is like life. No one wins in life. They do their best and survive as long as possible with, hopefully, their humanity and dignity intact to the end. The best people try to some good during their time on Earth but we all know that there is no chance of triumph, only the possibility of continued survival to fight another day.

Anonymous said...

Cascadian has a very real point. My mother, now in her nineties, recollects seeing these poor unfortunate 'shell-shocked' men when they were allowed out of the Queen Alexandia's Hospital in Portsmouth. They all wore a blue uniform. SHe says that she and her friends were terrified by these men because of their facial expressions. Post traumatic stress disorder is not a new thing.

Tommy Jefferson said...

Anon- I agree with you but it doesn't stop the overwhelming feeling of guilt that you have knowing that you have just killed a little girls father. Somewhere there is a little girl who is never going to feel her dads arms around her again, it's a very difficult thing to live with.

Anon 2 said...

Yes, Raedwald. Most I've known who fought in the last century agreed that they felt badly for the enemy; however, they knew they had to fight for survival.

In Book III of Metamorphoses, Ovid portrayed the ancient monster thus:
"Bloated with poison to a monstrous size; Fire broke in flashes when he glanc'd his eyes: His tow'ring crest was glorious to behold, His shoulders and his sides were scal'd with gold; Three tongues he brandish'd when he charg'd his foes; His teeth stood jaggy in three dreadful rowes."

The bit I always remember though is what happens after Cadmus slays it (for killing his men). A voice tells him to dig the field and sow the dragons teeth in it. After which:
"The clods grow warm, and crumble where he sows; And now the pointed spears advance in rows; Now nodding plumes appear, and shining crests, Now the broad shoulders and the rising breasts; O'er all the field the breathing harvest swarms, A growing host, a crop of men and arms. So through the parting stage a figure rears Its body up, and limb by limb appears By just degrees; 'till all the man arise, And in his full proportion strikes the eyes. Cadmus surpriz'd, and startled at the sight Of his new foes, prepar'd himself for fight: When one cry'd out, "Forbear, fond man, forbear To mingle in a blind promiscuous war." This said, he struck his brother to the ground, Himself expiring by another's wound; Nor did the third his conquest long survive, Dying ere scarce he had begun to live. The dire example ran through all the field, 'Till heaps of brothers were by brothers kill'd; The furrows swam in blood: and only five Of all the vast increase were left alive."
After which, Cadmus managed a treaty and established Boeotia.

But we all know it never ends there.... [nor will it, for the euSSR].