Monday, October 29, 2018
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
I have just been considering military matters on this week’s posting, with comments on two books by English authors – Max Hastings’ Vietnam, An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 and Richard Overy’s Why the Allies Won. I might as well make comments on military matters in the “Something Thoughtful” section too, especially as I want to talk about something that has often disturbed me
It is the matter of physical courage.
When we see fictionalised war films, or read war novels, or even when we watch documentaries and read non-fiction works concerning war, we cannot help but admire those soldiers who display physical courage - the guy who single-handedly takes out the machine-gun post, or who is the first to charge into a heavily-defended position or who gives his life to let others get away. And there is a good reason for us to admire them. We are aware that in similar circumstances we would be highly unlikely to act with the same degree of courage. Such people really do deserve our admiration.
But there is a problem here. What we read and see on screen often suggests that bravery is confined to those who fight in a righteous cause. Older and crasser works of propaganda would have us believe that while “our” fighting forces are the model of courage, “their” forces consists of cowards, sadists, buffoons etc.
The simple problem is, that this is not true. Fighting men can behave with exemplary courage for the worst of causes as well as the best. This holds true for ancient wars as much as for modern ones.
I have recently been reading Caesar’s Commentaries on his Gallic wars. He tells many stories concerning the courage of his soldiers – the centurion who encouraged his hesitating comrades to face the Briton hordes on the beach, by jumping into the surf while clutching the standard of the legion; the cohorts, greatly outnumbered by besieging Gauls and allied Germans, that held out in their camp until reinforcements arrived; the messenger who passed through dangerous enemy lines to get necessary information to a general. In fairness to Caesar, he also frequently commends the courage and fighting spirit of the various Gallic and Germanic tribes whom he fought. Even so, the righteousness of Roman forces is always assumed. And yet, despite Caesar’s bland justifications for his actions, it is plain to see that most of his Gallic wars consisted of unprovoked attacks upon peoples who did not wish to be conquered, or battle with peoples who were rebelling against his conquest. In other words, Caesar was engaged in an aggressive, expansionist war – building an empire largely to gain greater power and prestige for himself.
The courage of the soldiers was real, but ultimately the cause was not a justifiable one.
I could ramp this argument up by referring to more recent wars. I am convinced that many Confederate soldiers fought and died bravely for the cause of defending the institution of slavery. I recall seeing the very good German film Der Untergang (Downfall), made in 2004, depicting the last days of Hitler. The film emphasised the fanaticism and folly of both Hitler and the last defenders of his regime. But it also showed scenes of what can only be called great courage. Hard to imagine a more reprehensible figure than an SS doctor, but one sequence [based –as the whole film was – on factual events] had such a doctor running, through heavy shellbursts and gunfire, to get necessary medical supplies. Great courage in a rotten cause.
At this point I could go off topic and talk about reprehensible behaviour in good causes (yes, there are verifiable atrocity stories of Allied soldiers in the Second World War), but I will continue with another apect of genuine courage.
If we criticise a foolish strategic decision, or the poor planning of a campaign, or the idiocy of commanding officers, I sincerely hope that we are not implicitly criticising the men caught up in these things. In the First World War, the first day of the Somme was lunacy of the first order – an idiotic offensive ordered by general staff. But the men who marched into slaughter under machine-gun fire were not cowardly. The Gallipoli campaign was simply not worth undertaking, but this is not to question the tenacity of British and Anzac forces who managed to hold on before the inevitable evacuation. In the Second World War, God forgive the nitwit who dreamt up the Arnhem offensive without bothering to research adequately the obstacles – but the stories of battlefield bravery are real. If I regard the much-vaunted “Dambuster” raid as more a propaganda coup than a real crippling blow to the enemy, it does not mean that I am doubting the nerve of Guy Gibson and his crews. Nor am I an “armchair critic” who thinks he could have done better in the circumstances.
So here are two things I conclude about wartime and battlefield courage. One, it is a matter of individuals, not of the worthiness or otherwise of the causes they serve. Men can be brave (or cowardly) in bad causes as well as good ones. Two, to question strategy and decisions made by commanders is not to belittle the courage of fighting men.
I am not one to go “making mock of uniforms”.