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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Sunday November 10 2013

Today being Remembrance Sunday, but not having got out and about during it, I instead looked for Remembrance photos past, and came across the archive containing these.

imageI was struck by one in particular, in which we see the phrase “To All Our Heroes” inscribed on a cross with a poppy on it.  That word “heroes” makes me slightly uneasy, especially in the plural.  Were they all heroes?  Similarly, the way all these dead are so often described as having “given” their lives for freedom, or for their country, or whatever.  It must surely be more accurate to say that many of these men were victims, and that their lives were taken from them.  It might be rather insulting to describe them thus in public displays honouring their memory, but maybe more accurate.

The cross on which the word “heroes” is inscribed is surely rather more accurate, as a description of what really happened, to most of these dead.  I do not deny that there were indeed many heroes, in all these wars.  But surely, for most, war, and death in war, were things they endured.  That is a kind of heroism, of course, but is not quite what is usually meant by the word.

I lost an uncle in World War 2, although it happened before I was born.  He was the victim of a training accident.  I respectfully mourned him from time to time throughout my childhood and have gone on doing so ever since.  But there was nothing especially heroic about his death, and that has just seemed to me to be yet further cause for sadness.  Many times I wished that Uncle John had died heroically, if he had to die at all.  But, he did not die heroically.  War is like that.

The cross seems to me to be a somewhat more accurate representation of what happened to these countless men than does the word “hero”.  This was surely more like a catastrophe which swallowed people up, in the manner of a natural disaster such as an earthquake or a flood or a fire.  Some who suffer or die in the course of events like that are very properly called heroes, because they did indeed behave, and perhaps die, heroically.  Most, however, are merely described as victims.  No disrespect is intended with that label, and I intend no disrespect in suggesting that many of these war heroes were really just war victims.  Their deaths are no less worthy of being remembered and reflected upon, merely because we describe their deaths that bit more accurately.

A lot hinges on whether you consider the fights and wars that all these dead people died in were worth it.  There is something inherently somewhat unheroic about dying in a fight that could not accomplish anything good.  Part of being a true hero is that you choose the fight in which you will risk and perhaps lose your life, and that you choose it well.

If anything in the above angers you in any way, the chances are that this is because I didn’t say it right.  I’m trying to say something that is somewhat hard to pin down, and maybe said it wrongly.  I am not trying to say anything demeaning or disrespectful, either towards the dead themselves, or towards the feelings of those who still, like me, mourn them.

Reflections like this really do make me think of World War 2 as different. The enemy in that case was so unspeakably evil that to fight in this war really was to accomplish something good, or at least to prevent something very very bad. Few wars are like that. (I am also struck by the sense that whatever bad things British and Allied propaganda said about the enemy on the home front during the war, in reality it was much worse than that).

Of course, the Germans who were being shot at in that same war were mostly not unspeakably evil themselves, but just regular guys who were recruited, trained, and fought in much the same way as the British guys shooting at them. Maybe on the ground it was less different from other wars than it feels to me looking at history.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 11 November 2013

Astonishing numbers of servicemen died in training accidents. Not exactly an example of a training accident, but an example of how the military and civil authorities just lived with / forgot / covered up deaths that were not “meaningful”, was what happened to Exercise Tiger, a rehearsal for D-Day.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exercise_Tiger

946 dead.

(You may be the person who alerted me to this - I can’t recall.)

Yet, like Michael, I continue to think of World War II as the Good War. Possibly because a very high percentage of the people telling and hinting otherwise visibly have other agendas.

The point you make about “heroes” is true, but might just be an example of the modern tendency to want all to have prizes, in this case the nice title “hero”. Perhaps also a distaste for too close examination of what actual military heroes do to earn their medals.

Posted by Natalie Solent on 13 November 2013

Well, if not the Good War, the one with the Bad Enemy that knows no revisionism. However bad you think the Nazis were, study it in detail and you will discover that they were worse than that. If you tell or hint otherwise, you have to have another agenda. In the case of the Nazis, it’s simply not possible unless you have another agenda.

Visiting the former Soviet Union, one encounters monuments and memorials to “The Great Patriotic War”. Russians and other people in what was the USSR are proud of their role in the defeat of the Nazis. They are perfectly right to be, and yet when you do this you are taking Stalin’s side. Was Stalin as bad as Hitler? Well, yes. (Hitler was creepier, though). Was a victory of Stalin over Hitler none the less desirable (for the Russians, and for us). Well, yes, that too. This adds a historical awkwardness to the legacy of Stalin that does not exist with the legacy of Hitler. I visited the Stalin museum in Stalin’s home town of Gori in Georgia. The gift shop sold lots of coffee cups showing pictures of Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt at Yalta. I think another of the crimes of the Nazis is that they somehow managed to put Stalin on the side of good, at least for a moment.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 13 November 2013

According do that Wikipedia article, most of the people who died in Exercise Tiger did so when the training exercise was attacked by the German navy. That actually strikes me as being closer to “died in combat” than “killed in a training accident”.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 13 November 2013

Agreed, but to me the chilling thing is that this huge number of deaths, a very substantial fraction of the 2500-4500 Allied deaths on D-Day, were so downplayed. Even now, their only memorial appears to be the work of one local civilian.

An even more chilling thing is that I can quite see the reason for doing so at the time, although it should be corrected now.

Their deaths, like the death of Brian’s uncle, were unheroic. Unlike the D-Day deaths, they didn’t die breaching the walls of the evil empire. From the point of view of the allies, it sort of was an accident caused by carelessness and poor procedures, as many dreadful accidents are caused.  I wince writing “unheroic” because of exactly the tendency Brian talks about to perceive saying that in a factual sense as being an insult, when it’s not. they had no opportunity to be heroic.

---
“Well, if not the Good War, the one with the Bad Enemy that knows no revisionism. However bad you think the Nazis were, study it in detail and you will discover that they were worse than that.”

YES.

Posted by Natalie Solent on 13 November 2013

Of course, the Spanish people who were being taken at in that same war were mostly not unspeakably wicked themselves, but just frequent people who were enrolled, qualified, and battled in much the same way as the English people capturing at them. Maybe on the floor it was less different from other conflicts than it seems to me looking at record.

Posted by Rebirot on 12 December 2013
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