Autumn marches forward, and soon we are in November, that means one thing; Christmas is just around the corner. Christmas shopping, Black Friday, Day of the Dead in some cultures. But in my culture (Manx – British Crown Dependency) it also means a hail of Armed Forces Parades, religious remembrance services for the dead (with a keen focus on the guys from our side, of course) and the selling of red poppies at every corner.
This morning, a special assembly was held to educate us – the students – about Remembrance Day. Abide with Me was played. Poppies were flourished. Siegfried Sassoon was featured. And we were shown a Sky News video of The Battlefield where the infamous Somme took place (presented by a white, middle-aged British man speaking the Queen’s English, of course). While I felt moved by the presentation and mournful at the sight of the huge monuments to the dead, I peered with interest at the names on the graves that were shown. Not a single remotely foreign-sounding name was cast into the stone.
While I think it vital we – as a collective world – remember the atrocities of the first and second world wars (and all conflict), I feel too much patriotism has been placed in this. Remembrance Day has become a tirade of English hymns, Last Posts and Allied Forces poetry – indeed, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are on the school English specification. While I in no way wish to take away from the great sacrifice made by soldiers, nor remove the enormous heroism portrayed by those on the front lines, I wish to serve as a reminder of the facts of the war – not the tale that ends “… and then the bad guys were defeated.”.
Who are the bad guys? I have always been told they were Germans and Russians and Japanese and Italians, but my family in Austria have been taught that it was the British, the Americans and the French. After all, conflict never arises from a good party and a bad party; it stems from a disagreement or one civilised Country deciding that they would rather like some other savage country’s land, people and resources and then the narrative blossoms from that point forth. Suddenly, the press of one Country demonises the dwellers of the other Country. Locals of the nationality we (the good guys, of course) are fighting against becoming targets in the community and killing people magically becomes a deal of militaristic, nationalistic, and imperialistic pride.
And one more thing, young men forced to kill each other.
In 1916 (when it became clear that we, the good guys, were going to lose power only by volunteer servicemen) the Military Service Act was passed, forcing all men to Fight for King and Country. While the law claimed to exempt Conscientious Objectors (those who disagreed with the war on a moral grounds) in real terms, you had to have an excellent reason to explain why you don’t want to kill others – indeed the excuse “I don’t believe in murdering people.” Became like the dog ate my homework which “Will not cut it here, young man.” Approximately 2.4 million men were pushed into against their will the war just from the British alone.
But if you weren’t lucky enough to have your moral objection to murder sustained by a court, you most likely wouldn’t just be killing the soldiers of the opposition; you’d be killing and terrorising the civilians of the other Country too. Bombings, rapes and supply sabotage were not uncommon by any means. Indeed, gang rape on civilians was a known tactic the British and American military leaders utilised to bond their troops. It remains to be to this day.
So yes, I do honour the lives of the young men that got killed in bloody conflict, but no, it was not a matter of patriotism and honourable duty. Their Country didn’t need them – they needed them to become collateral; collateral for military leaders who begged for Dreadnoughts in the 1910s and politicians (exempt from conscription) who had played with imperialism. The sun never sets on the British Empire. Perhaps not. But it does set on the lives of the young men who were sent into the battles, with leaders knowing full well they would not survive “… your husband will be home soon, ma’am.” Becoming a blatant lie.
I will spend Remembrance Day remembering the lives of everyone – no matter who they fought for – who died in the war. The ones who died because they volunteered to fight for King and Country and those who went because not to do so would be to face the Hangman’s noose.
And those who were murdered by their own side for being a Conscious Objector.