Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
Robert Laurence Binyon - For the Fallen

Liberty sometimes requires sacrifice and our freedom is purchased with the blood of others. Those who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice deserve our respect. Yet here is one of the most difficult areas for commentators on life such as myself. How to both give those who serve the honor that they deserve whilst still highlighting things which we feel are wrong? Ultimately though I think we have a duty to the truth that over-rides all else.

I remember a discussion I had at college with a left-wing supporter of a particular movement. He explained that his stance could be summarized as "unconditional but critical" . That is to say he supported the group without reservation but would comment on their strategy where they disagreed with it. On exploring it turned out he fundamentally disagreed with the group's approach even to the point of believing that they could never be successful, however he would continue to support them no matter how badly he felt their tactics went awry. Whilst I can respect his sincerity this was not a purely theoretical discussion about politics. The tactics which he was supporting, even though believing they were not working, involved killing innocent people including children. In my view, by continuing to support the group and not pressuring them to find a different approach, he was betraying not just the dead innocents but the group he claimed to be in favor of. If people like him withdrew their support, the group would be forced to find alternative methods which might actually be successful. Sometimes it needs courage to speak up but it is a friend who will let you know your flaws when an enemy remains silent.

Back in my country of birth we did not treat our military with much respect. Politicians mouthed supportive platitudes at the same time as cutting essential resources such as body armor. The controversy of recent conflicts led to a withdrawal of popular support for the military which was undeserved. The armed forces go where they are told to and carry out the operations they are instructed to by their superiors who are usually under the direction of civilian politicians. It is this latter group which deserve our wrath not the brave souls who actually fight. Yet because the soldiers are more accessible than the politicians, and are the more visible face of the unpopular policy it is they who face the moral indignation. A story which made my heart go out concerned one of our equivalent of the National Guard, back from Iraq, who wounded was dumped at the door of a civilian hospital and immediately told by a nurse to take off his uniform before he offended someone. What a terrible way to treat someone who had been fighting in the name of his country.

As an immigrant attitudes towards the military prove particularly challenging. It has to be realized that the US military is not always regarded with affection around the world. This can be as true of its allies as its enemies. Whilst I understand why the Department of Defense wants to protect its personnel, one area that proves extremely controversial is the US attitude towards friendly fire deaths. When other countries hold inquiries into these deaths, which are normally required by law when any of their citizens dies overseas, the US military is generally seen as highly obstructive. Usually these investigations are not about apportioning blame but understanding what happened and helping to prevent it occurring again. The families of the victim know that in the theater of war sometimes split second decisions are needed and mistakes can be made. The deceased son or daughter is probably of a similar age to the person who killed them and they faced a common foe and issues. Indeed it is only circumstances that their positions are not reversed because in war it is so easy for there to be accidents. However there is a parent bereft of their child and they have a right to know the circumstances in which they died, it won't give them any greater comfort but while there are unanswered questions it is harder for them to have closure. The inquest into the death of UK corporal Matty Hull was sadly typical. The US military initially refused to release the cockpit tape and was only persuaded when a national newspaper took up the issue.

When you have had one perception of the US military, it is not easy to shift gear, simply because you are now in the country. Another common perception of the US military is that they are too gung-ho, shooting first and asking questions later. Some years back, I remember talking to a young US soldier who was being deployed to Iraq that week. He was very enthusiastic, particularly about finally having the opportunity to kill people. He gushed how he wanted to shoot Arabs. A Vietnam veteran tried talking to him softly "No son, you really don't" but he couldn't be dissuaded. He gave the impression that he didn't really care about the innocence or guilt of his victims, he just wanted people to be in his gun sights. In these circumstances I can respect the uniform but not the person wearing it. There may have been some bravado, covering up fear of what he would face overseas but the picture he portrayed of a US soldier was a depressing one. It confirmed why even allies often have concerns about the US military and the attitudes they display.

I read an account by a foreign commander describing the difference in how his forces and the US troops entered an Iraqi city after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In his view the US troops behaved like conquerors not liberators. They drove through the city, firmly ensconced in their tanks and military vehicles engaging the people in no way. Arabs are a proud people and in keeping their distance the American military appeared to scorn them and opened the way for the insurgents. Though the strategy was supposedly "hearts and minds" the US military approach seemed to show little sensitivity to either. When this commander ordered his troops in, he had them remove most body armor, opened the tanks and had his troops sit on top of the vehicles where possible. Food and candy was handed out to the crowd. Looked at objectively he took a risk, his troops were exposed to the threat of potential snipers and had there been an ambush things would have gone very badly for his men. However by making it clear the people of the city should not regard his troops as a threat, he felt that he suffered much less trouble in the subsequent days. Certainly insurgency levels in areas of Iraq controlled by non-US forces were often significantly lower than those held by the US military so his strategy may have worked, at least initially.

 I can understand why the US military entered the city in the way they did. Protecting US troops was their commander's highest priority and he did nothing which brought them into danger. However at the same time the troops seemed remote from the local inhabitants of the city. It may even have seemed the entry convoy was a display of US military might, a threat of what might happen if people did not fully co-operate. Often there is neither one right nor one wrong answer when it comes to situations of perception. There are many possible answers each of which have different consequences. The tactics applied in an active war zone may be very different from those needed on a rescue mission or when helping to rebuild a country after its defeat. It is easy to fall into the stereotype of seeing the military as only about war without recognizing the many other areas in which they serve this country and others. Whilst researching the "Don't Act, Don't Tell" blog post I came across a very emotive picture of a US soldier cradling a foreign baby in his arms. I was very tempted to use it, because of how it helped to challenge portrayal of the military illustrating perfectly how sensitivity and humanity is often as much a part of the role as ability to shoot accurately, reflecting how soldiers are often used after disasters such as earthquakes to help bring aid to areas where conventional civilian forces cannot reach or dare not go.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that the "just man justices" meaning that each of us brings out that which is most integral to our nature. As a writer, I write. Yet I must recognize that the pen, or nowadays the keyboard, is a weapon, just like a submachine gun ,and just as easily used inappropriately. I have never served in the military and am too old now to do so. It is easy to scatter invective but the writer must be cautious when criticizing those who are prepared to put their lives in danger in a way he is not. The young US soldier I described earlier may well have learned from the hardships of conflict the error of his earlier opinions, and come to realize how precious life is, and how it should be shed only when there is no other option.. or he may himself be dead. I have no idea. Many in the US adopt the same unconditional approach to supporting the military as did my college friend and his liberationist group, however I cannot accept that for the reasons already given. I can criticize the institution of the military whilst still retaining respect for the individual soldier or vice versa depending on circumstance. To question is both a right and a duty. The military buy us freedom with their blood and we should never forget or dishonor their sacrifice. However the best way that freedom can ever be used is to challenge injustice, to cast light on areas that some would rather remain shaded and to seek to make society better. Thus I do not think we should be afraid to ever apply critical facilities even when those being analysed are those who won us the right to question in the first place.