Saturday 7 June 2014

Some Thoughts about D-Day

I woke up this morning, and saw yet more coverage of long ago wars. A whole day of TV dedicated to the D-Day landings of 70 years ago. Union Jacks all over my social media feeds, and newspaper front pages. A wholesale massacre of roughly 12000 people, though the counts vary depending on the source you use. Like a lot of people (not all, but a lot) I was mildly upset by the continuing glorification of war, and given that this is all just before the proper kick off of the first world war centenary remembrances, I thought 'this is going to be a very long four years'. I said something along the lines of “you didn't get stuff like this about the charge of the light brigade fifty odd years ago” to my wife, and then wondered how long the Germans were going to have to keep apologising, and feeling vague guilt over the whole thing, as, if I were a German over here at the moment, watching all the tributes to the allied dead (and a lot of the facebook statuses I saw this morning were explicit that they were only remembering the allied dead) I would be feeling pretty shitty, despite it being 2 generations ago, and not my fault at all. I posted a facebook status to that effect, and that was where the trouble started.

Not as much trouble as I have been running into by other political posting recently, because every rebuttal I got, I countered with the terribly diplomatic reply that I was not getting into it, as it is a very emotive subject, I know people who were directly involved, and people indirectly involved, and these are people I love and respect, and do not want to upset. Particularly my friends in the military, who, while not involved in D-Day itself, are understandably very much on the “we will remember them no matter what, don't you bring your pacifist lefty shit into it today please Dave you hippy twat!” side of things. And I love them for that, and decided to keep quiet. But then I saw a promotion for a D-Day celebration, and I figured a celebration of a massacre is really going a bit far and I thought I'd write a blog on it, and set out my hippy, pacifist, lefty agenda, and did a load of research. I was not prepared for what I found out, and I am less angry on others behalf than I started out.

Let me say at this point that I am not patriotic in anyway, I think national borders are arbitrary lines drawn on a map, and people are the same wherever they are, and utterly different despite being from the same place, all at the same time. Thus the many wars for territory fought over the last few millennia seem like childish playground squabbles that the bigger boys have managed to get their smaller friends to take all the hits for. Yet for some reason, people persist in this idea of a fixed national identity, no such thing I'm afraid, we are all individual and very different. This is a good thing.

I began thinking from the perspective of the ordinary German citizen today, including their veterans, and decided that they were no more guilty of any crimes than the British soldiers. All of them were told that what they were doing was for King and country (or fuhrer and country if you like) and nobody needs it thrown in their faces that they were very much being fed lies and propaganda. Though had they been on the winning side, would it have been different? Given that it has since come to light that in 1944 a large faction of the Nazi party were planning to overthrow Hitler, would the Reich have gone as far as set out in Mein Kampf? Would they have stopped the systematic slaughter of Jews, Gypsies, and political dissidents? Or would they have operated in the same way as the Soviet Union did, and Red China still does. We will never know. As to whether there was another way to finish the war other than D-Day, history again suggests not. Though as mentioned, the Reich may have torn itself apart, but allied forces had no way of knowing that.

This however, was not intended to be a what if? History lesson, although it is a bit. I then decided to have a go with the double standard argument, since Hitler's dream of a thousand year Reich, and lebensraum for the German people was possibly based on various Empires. Particularly the British Empire, on which the Sun never sets (sorry, it's a commonwealth now, is that a better thing?) The war that put the coffin nails in the great empires, world war one, had left Germany with nothing but huge reparations to pay, and their lands split up amongst the other empires. The German people were not likely to take it for long, had it not been Hitler, some other leader would have done something, the second world war was inevitable from the shambles that was the treaty of Versailles. Which is a shame, as had things been dealt with better in 1918, the world would be a better place today, and we wouldn't have had to have the replay. I would like to think that the end of the second world war marks the end of aggressive imperialism in the world, but it's too early to say yet.

After all my wonderings about Hitler's position on Empire, and Britain's own colonial past, which is far from pleasant, I posited the question, do the Zulus mark the anniversary of their brief victory at Isandlwana? Do the Sioux nation mark theirs at Little Big Horn? Of course, I scoffingly assumed that they would have more dignity than that. I was wrong, but they certainly do have dignity, and still mark these occasions, despite having ultimately lost against the occupying forces they were opposing, as you can see here.
and here
That's how wrong I was, you can remember massacres with dignity.

At which point I started to think that these anniversary remembrances are not so crass after all. I looked at the numbers, and there were at least 9000 (up to 11000) killed from the “winning” side, against, between 500 and 3000 (depending on your source) on the losing side. Apparently it is a question of percentages when you're playing the game of war, check Rourke's Drift for another force that were hopelessly outnumbered, but pulled through (although they had a significant advantage). And then at lunchtime, I put the TV on, and saw some of the guys who were there telling their stories. And there are none so humble as these chaps, they have tears in their eyes still as they tell of the hell they had to live through, mostly with a few gags thrown in, and a couple of chuckles. I have nothing but respect for those who were sent off to die as cannon fodder in the political machinations of their leaders. It would be nice to think this wouldn't happen any more, but sadly we still convince our young men that they are fighting for the good of all, when they are mostly fighting for corporate interests. And we send them off to die in foreign lands, while ironically, increasing the chances of domestic terrorism with the same decision.

I suspect it is the twenty four hour news culture that makes it all that little bit grating for me. Were it a tasteful service on the beaches for the veterans and their families from all sides, and then everyone shakes hands, tells a few stories and has a nice day out I would doubtless have had no problems at all. But a whole day of BBC1 given over to a huge world-wide media circus, with world leaders and their wives in nice dresses making moving speeches seems horrendously over blown. Grief porn if you like. Hours and hours of moving montages with rousing music, and Huw Edwards smiling benignly through the whole thing, if you want to bury bad news, do it today please. Constantly being told we must be grateful for the world we live in because so many died for it is slightly patronising, particularly coming from the ruling classes who are systematically trying to dismantle everything that generation achieved for us. By all means have small tasteful remembrance services, but these TV spectaculars are tasteless, crass and frankly insulting to the dead, who were more likely fighting in the hopes that they wouldn't get killed rather than for any future generations.

This TV coverage showed wide-eyed children being shown the landing beaches, and eager to learn about the great sacrifices made that day to keep us all free. I sincerely hope that this is true, and kids today have learned from the past. I remember myself and my brother on beaches in France with war time fortifications on them, and rather than being eager to learn of great sacrifices, we made machine gun noises at each other and shouted “Die you Nazi bastard!” while playing our merry war games. But it was the 80s, and we had been raised on a steady diet of Victor, Eagle, and Commando comics, with a sprinkling of war movies like a Bridge too Far, the Longest Day, the Great Escape, the Dam-busters, and Bridge over the River Kwai. All fine pieces of art, but not unpartisan, and faintly jingoistic. I hope that the current generation of kids are brought up in a more tolerant way, but I suspect they play at terrorists and still pretend to die while one of them shouts “ack-ack-ack-ack-ack” and “Die you Muslim bastard” at them. And with the world cup fast approaching, I would like the playground to be devoid of the chant “Two world wars and one world cup, doo da, doo da” but I will probably be disappointed. After all, the England supporters band still play the theme from the Great Escape at matches, I'd like to think it's because it's a jolly rousing tune, but I suspect I am wrong there as well.

A chap posted this on a Billy Bragg thread earlier, which kind of sums up how many of us feel when we see the many and various union jack and poppy tinged posts about the massacres on social media, particularly when linked to odious groups like Britain First, and I repeat it here for you, as it helped me to get through it all,

While we commemorate the brave soldiers from all the allied countries, including the commonwealth, who fought on D-Day, let’s also take a moment to remember what they were fighting for. It was not for ‘patriotism’, Britain or anti-Europeanism. It was a fight against Fascism and all it entails.
When ‘Britain First’, the EDL, the BNP, UKIP or any of the racist and bigoted factions try and hijack that fight for their own political agenda it makes me sick. The sacrifice that those courageous men made was in response to an evil man who exploited antipathy towards Jews, Gypsies, Ethnic minorities, Gays, Unions and the Unemployed to control the population and who offered hatred as a solution to his country’s problems. These groups wish to peddle the same ultra-right ideology and the fact that they choose to do so by exploiting the very men who fought against such prejudice and intolerance is shameful. WW2 was described as the war to end all wars. Sadly humans still continue to destroy each other in armed conflicts the world over but Europe, at least, has lived without war since. If we return to days of obsessive and subjective patriotism, hatred of other races and colours, intolerance of religious or sexual persuasion and the demonization of the unemployed, the poor and the needy then we truly do dishonour every man that lost his life on those beaches on that day 70 years ago. Say NO to Fascism – that’s how I will commemorate them.”

Now I heartily endorse this (although I think he means western Europe, the eastern half has not been so lucky) but with all the propaganda being thrown around by both sides back in the war, I don't think any of us can truly second guess the motives behind each and every soldier fighting. Every man there fought for his own personal reasons, most were probably just trying to make sure their homes and families were safe. Some of them may have just been doing it because that was what they felt they should do, after all, they weren't cowards. A lot of them may have had no idea why they were there, and suddenly found themselves in a world of bullets, shells, blood and death with no idea how to cope with it, and were fighting just to stay alive. Had I been alive then, I would almost certainly have been a conscientious objector, and ostracised for my dangerous strain of pacifism. I worry today that those right wing groups who are just “saying what we're all thinking” are employing the very same hate tactics that the National Socialist Party of Germany did 80 years ago. After all, I doubt all their supporters thought they were racists either, but those Jews eh? Can't trust them, you know what they're like. Trying to infiltrate our schools with their Sharia laws....

Anyhow, I wanted to remember the people involved in the D-Day landings, who shouldn't have had to be there in the first place. Moved around like puppets by a ruling class (on both sides) desperately clinging to empires that no longer existed. If only Hitler had written back to Gandhi. 

I leave you with a story from my friend Devlin Butler about his father who was on the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago, it brought a tear to my eye.

On this day in history;
The Normandy beach invasion began and a certain SGT Arthur William Butler (My Dad) and his friends and squad members took to the beach in the first wave of the Normandy invasion. My dad never really spoke about the war or that day much the only thing he really said was "it was hell".
We all know roughly what happened we know of the heavy machine gun fire the countless losses etc. but on this day while most focus on the loss and devastation, I can not help but smile as I remember one of the only things my father ever told me about that day, it is not the graphic detail or the sheer horror knowing about four thousand allied troops died this day that makes me smile, only a completely deranged head case would find that even remotely amusing, but I will explain what does.
So, picture the scene, before even getting to the beach under heavy mortar fire, then hitting the beach still under mortar fire but now within range of the heavy machine guns, friends, comrades gunned down or blown to bits right next to you, everyone trying to get through the water which is now pretty much nothing but blood and bodies to find a defensible spot to take cover behind and get their bearings, somehow my father managed to do that.
So there he is pinned down behind a rock by machine gun fire in his words "The army makes a man of you and puts things into perspective, I thought this was the day I was going to die". So with this in mind, my father who was always very down to earth a complete realist decided in his wisdom that if this was the day he was going to die he was not going to die hungry, and in his webbing he had secured two (I forget if they were pork or lamb off hand) chops and a hard boiled egg, when he told me this I said "but dad? isn't webbing for ammunition etc.?" he said "yes, but there is always room for food" (my dad liked his food lol) and so he proceeded to eat them right there behind that rock being shot at by the German army.
And so, he finished his little picnic (as I call it) and continued to fight on, he survived that day and counted himself fortunate for the rest of his life, he died a few years ago of a brain tumour, pretty much the last thing my mom, myself or anyone who knew him even considered would be the end of him, his final words to me were "Do not cry, I have no regrets"
When people think about war (those who have never experienced it and hopefully never will) the first thoughts are usually the loss of lives, the bravery and heroism etc., and while these are things that are worth thinking about, also remember, all those who fought died were normal people the same as you or I. If you were in that situation, thinking this was your last day on earth surviving all that had come before and knowing you had to charge into the mouth of hell would you have had enough foresight to have packed something to eat? again in my fathers words "To die is one thing, to die in the service of your country is expected, but to die hungry is something else completely".
R.I.P. All of those who gave their lives that day and throughout the whole of WW2
R.I.P. SGT Arthur William Butler (my hero in so many ways, my father)

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