Archive for the ‘Military’ Category

Keith Park, art and fascism

14 August 2010

A google search for ‘Keith Park statue’ brings up, of course the website for the campaign to have a statue of this Hero of the Battle of Britain erected in London.  Before that, though, the top result is this piece of gibbering, irritating  rubbish from a Guardian art writer.

In a nutshell, Jonathan Jones hates the statue and all that it represents.  In being a figurative statue it highlights the stupid divide between ‘proper’ and ‘modern’ art, apparently.  In representing Sir Keith Park, it is actually ‘a fascist icon [...], brooding over the heart of London’ – and therefore a symbol of all that ‘the Few’ fought against.

I don’t know enough about art to fault Jones on the quality of the statue.  His attack on the fact that it is figurative seems a little bizarre when he is criticising the divide in British art. He says that ‘Modern art was called into being by modern life, and as we hurtle into the future there is no sign of its pertinence diminishing.’ Be that as it may, the Fourth Plinth is there for contemporary art, not specifically modern art (which I take to mean it is for chronologically modern, not aesthetically ‘modernist’ or what have you). I don’t think that the Park statue is the best thing that has been on there – the HMS Victory in a bottle is very good. However, the art there is supposed to make a point, and not always an artistic point (much as that might surprise an art critic) – the point in this case being that if Dowding, Harris, Slim, et al, deserve statues, so does Keith Park.  You don’t have to be as angered by modern ignorance of 1940 as Clive James is to see that it is a valid argument, even if you disagree over whether a new statue is needed, or is aesthetically pleasing.

More worrying for me is his attitude towards the history. I don’t think many people want to see the plinth permanently taken up by a military figure. We do, though, have a history of building statues to people who played a pivotal role in the nation’s history – especially to save us from tyranny. It is also a very recent history – Slim’s statue was erected in 1990, Harris’s (amid public protest) in 1992 and Alanbrooke‘s in 1994.  Since then we have had some collective monuments – including the Battle of Britain Monument on the Victoria Embankment and the dreadful Women of World War Two one on Whitehall.  Are these fascist icons?

What Jones seems to miss, or simply not understand, is that fascism revolves around the worship of the collective – a homogeneous whole that does not accept dissent or outsiders in its midst. It is an idea that requires a dynamic leader, but which is based in ideas of a (non-pluralist) collective.  Monuments celebrating individual play a role in this, but really they should be attempting to inspire action, which the Park statue does not.  The Edith Cavell one perhaps comes closest, with the message ‘Patriotism is not enough.’  No, really, a collective monument that celebrates action is what we need if we want a fascist icon. Not the Cenotaph then, that is to the ‘glorious dead’ and doesn’t inspire action, only memory and mourning – the Women of WW2 one remembers action but does not depict it.  Actually, the Battle of Britain memorial is much more appropriate:

It depicts movement and shows the idealised fit young male, all very Junger-esque.  Indeed, the whole idea of ‘the Few’ and its retrospective idealisation is much more in line with ‘fascism’ than a statue of one of its leaders looking rather meditative is.

In fact, the word that Jones is looking for is ‘nationalist’, not fascist.  The two are not synonyms, much as some might have you think – including the BNP with their ‘nationalist’ name and fascist ideology. But then, of course, it doesn’t make such good copy – and ‘the Few’ were weren’t fighting against nationalism, they were fighting for the survival of their own nation, or rather nations. Fascism is one of those words that journalists like to use for ideas (especially anything so right-wing as celebrating a war hero, apparently) to which they object.  In this case, and I suspect many others, it is simply sloppy and inaccurate.

Learning to bear losses

12 August 2010

Earlier this summer, the Prime Minister commented that the nation should expect a spike in casualty numbers as the summer ‘fighting season’ begins, just as Sir Jock Stirrup said last summer in the build-up to operation Panther’s Claw. These are perfectly sensible comments, the number of casualties does increase in the summer in Afghanistan – and, of course, when coalition troops carry out offensive operations.

One such statement at the start of this year struck me as very reminiscent of warnings about casualties in the First World War.  Bob Ainsworth, warning of casualties in Operation Moshtarak, said that

“Of course casualties are something we have to come to expect when we’re involved in these operations and people have had that brought home to them. This is not a safe environment and it doesn’t matter how much kit and equipment we provide for them, we cannot entirely make these operations risk-free…We shouldn’t deny or pretend to people that we can provide security and that casualties are not a very real risk on these kind of operations and people have to be prepared for that.”

Compare that with this memo, issued to the press in 1916:

Together with patience, the nation must be taught to bear losses. No amount of skill on the part of the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the part of officers and men, no superiority, however great, of arms and ammunition, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives. […] The aim for which the war is being waged is the destruction of German militarism. Three years of war and the loss of one-tenth of the manhood of the nation is not too great a price to pay in such a cause.

The writer was the new commander-in-chief of the army in France and Flanders, Douglas Haig.  These days, Haig is seen as the quintessential callous butcher of the Western Front.  This comment can be read as a heartless disregard for the lives of his men, suggesting that 2 million war deaths would not be too high a price.  Actually, though, it is a recognition – like Ainsworth’s – of the need to link the costs of war to its aims and scale. The war’s are of vastly different scales (Britain’s losses of Afghanistan being similar to those of a small town in 1914-18), but reaction to war deaths is still vitally important.

Work by American academics looking at public opinion have concluded that support for wars is affected by ‘elite cues‘ (whether those politicians/parties with whom one agrees with on other issues support the war), identifiable objectives (or reasons for fighting) and perceived likelihood of success. In their view, casualties are less important – they add to disillusionment if these other factors are lacking.

In the Great War, great losses were largely accepted because the aims were seen as just and important – the defence of the nation and men’s homes and families from an apparently barbarous enemy. The idea that people did not know the level of casualties (repeated, for example, by Walter Lippman) is, frankly, rubbish – at least in terms of the UK.  Lists of the dead were published in national and local press, as were total national casualty figures from 1916. While people believed in eventual (or imminent) accepted the reasons for the war – basically national defence – people continued to support the war.

In Afghanistan, by contrast, it is far from clear to most people why our troops are there. A recent yougov poll for Chatham House showed division between staying the course, coming out in a year or two and withdrawing immediately.  In Iraq, of course, support was partial from the start.

Wars cost lives. It’s an inescapable truth.  The public can cope with it if they think that the war is just and winnable.  If those key beliefs are lost, public support for the war falls away and casualties bring opposition to the war.

Voting and young soldiers

5 April 2010

Today, the BBC News website reports that the think tank Demos has reported in favour of lowering the UK voting to 16 (from 18). I am undecided on the issue (but erring towards opposition to a change) and am interested to hear a clinching argument either way. In amongst the arguments in the report is this passage (in the report’s defence, this is the only mention of soldiers, the BBC chose to focus on the issue):

Being able to join the armed forces at 16 is just one example of an age-differentiated right that lends support to an argument for lowering the voting age to 16. The ‘Votes at 16’ coalition states that some 4560 16 and 17 year olds were serving in the armed forces as of April 2007. Of the first 100 British soldiers to be killed in the ongoing war in Iraq, at least six were too young to have ever cast a vote in a general election.

At first, of course, this seems a striking anomaly: soldiers able to fight and die for their country but not to vote?  The implication is that they were underage when they were serving in Iraq and were killed. This conclusion is reasserted by the report’s author, who states (to the BBC) that

“They are able to take a bullet for their country before they are old enough to cast a ballot for who governs it.”

Clearly, this is unacceptable – in 2003 the Government signed a UN protocol banning the use of under-18s in a war zone (it later admitted that some had been sent ‘by mistake’ to Iraq and Afghanistan). That those in the armed forces can be recruited under the age of 18 is an interesting and potentially worrying, but separate, issue.  The fact is that Government policy and international law stipulate that those in war zones must be over 18.  All those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were at least 18 at the time that they died. If there had been an election while they were there, they could have voted.

The fact is that there will always be people who are of age but were unable to vote in the last election: anyone born after May 1987 at the moment, i.e. anyone under 23.  Should we withdraw all soldiers from the front line if they haven’t yet had the chance to vote? There have been several men killed in Afghanistan who would not have been able to vote in 2005 even if the voting age had been 16.

Naturally, I do not wish to denigrate the service of those who have fought and died in our modern wars.  Nor, I hope, do the authors of the Demos report (which names the men) or BBC news story, but the fact is that they are making a spurious point about voting age, based on the deaths of servicemen.

The Representation of the People Act, 1918 (which extended the vote to all men over 21 and women over 30) made servicemen aged 19 or over eligible to vote while they were serving. In that case, the difference between the age of voting and the age of military service at the front was large – 18, 19 and 20-year-olds being able (or rather compelled) to serve at the front. Hence those who were serving were given the vote (I’m not sure of the situation in 1939-45. Voting age was lowered to 18 in 1969).

There are strong arguments for voting reform in the fact that thousands of under 18s are in the armed forces, and millions more are in the tax-paying work force (see the pdf 16 reasons for votes at 16). Service in the firing line is not one of them.

p.s. on the subject of the Iraq War Dead, I saw Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country at the portrait gallery yesterday and was again struck by its simplicity and power.


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