Archive for the ‘Modern War’ Category

Remembrance: the War Dead

9 November 2010

This Thursday, 11th November 2010, is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I will be submitting my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the second of three about commemoration and remembrance.

Anthony King (sociologist at Exeter University, not the politics professor Anthony King) appeared on Thinking Allowed in June talking about changes in the way that the war dead of the ‘Afghan War’ (i.e. Op Herrick, the British mission in Afghanistan since 2001) are presented to the public in contrast to earlier wars.  This was based on his research for an article of his (pdf).

The article is interesting, looking at how soldiers are presented as human beings (and family members), as heroes, and as professionals doing their jobs.  It was based on (a fairly small number of) the websites that the MoD puts online whenever a British serviceman or servicewoman is killed.  Among the insights are comments that I definitely agree with about the public display of intimate relations and personal life that has changed in the last 50 years (since the Korean War, which he talks about) or 90 years (since the Great War, which I know about).  Where I question his findings is about the level of attention given to dead soldiers, sailors and airmen, and their treatment as individuals.  He rightly comments that the way that the state presents the war dead has changed substantially, but I think he downplays or ignores very important aspects of the history of commemoration.

First, the rate of casualties is very low by the standards of the ‘big wars’ of the past.  Really, Herrick is not a big war other than in cost and, importantly, public attention.  342 service personnel have died on active service in Afghanistan since 2001, that is roughly three per month – since the deployment to Helmand the number is 329 and the rate is 6.5 per month. In the Falklands, 258 died in three months, in Korea 1,109 died in three years (37 per month, although actually most were in 1950-51).  In the First World War, 582 servicemen from the British Empire died every day! This is a major part of the reason that the dead of those earlier wars (and especially the Great War) were not given the national and personal treatment that modern war dead are – there would have been nothing else in the newspapers! Added to which, the internet provides an unprecedented arena for the public display of commemoration and appreciation of the war dead, one in which people can take in as much or as little as they wish, without the information crowding out other news.

Second, the dead of the Great War were treated as individuals with personalities in the public notification of their deaths. It is true that national notification came only in lists of casualties (he talks specifically about lists of Korean War casualties), but this was not the only medium for them to be displayed. I have written before about the fallacy that British casualty figures were withheld from the public. The prime medium for this was the local press – local communities were much more important to life in 1918 than in 2008. As well as published casualty figures and ‘war shrines’, there were various ways in which the war dead (and, indeed, other casualties) were reported in local newspapers: King talks about the use of photos and personal details on the MoD page (his examples include the pages for Michael Smith and ‘Tony’ Downes). The passages from comrades and superiors are very similar to those written to families in 1914-18, many of which were reproduced in the local press. Photographs and personal details were also published  locally  during the Great War (see examples on this website). Although often the reports were short (as quoted on this web page) some were longer (see A.B. Machray on this page) . There were also attempts to make a permanent record: local, like the “King’s Book of York Fallen Heroes” at York Minster, with information about 1441 men associated with the town and photos of all but 19 ; and national, such as Du Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour (see an example entry).

The prevalence of local notification and dissemination of information about war casualties shows how important these men’s identities were to those who mourned them and in their local communities.  Rather than presenting the way that men are remembered on the MoD website now as especially novel, I would say that they reflect three main changes: 1, the much lower number and rate of British war deaths in Afghanistan compared to other wars; 2, the increasing importance of individuals and their lives (and deaths) in modern Britain; 3, the increased levels of intimacy in what can be (and is) told in the press; and 4, a change from local identification with the war dead to a national one. Where in 1916, one might read of a the death of a man who went to the local school or worked for a local business, now one reads of people who have similar tastes, interests and concerns to civilians of the same generation, another way of identifying with the dead and bringing their loss home to civilians.  It is important to be aware of the costs of war, both in general terms and in the personal losses suffered by all sides (one change has been increased, but obviously not equal, attention paid to civilian war deaths in war zones).  In terms of the local war dead they did this in the First World War through local newspapers, we do it now nationally through the internet.

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Remembrance: Poppies

7 November 2010

This Thursday, 11th November 2010 is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I will be submitting my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the first of three about commemoration and remembrance.

The British Legion’s Poppy campaign has been in the news again this year. Yet again, there has been criticism of Jon Snow, who has rightly proclaimed that part of the freedom for which the World Wars were fought is the freedom to wear his poppy when and where he chooses.  His choice of the word ‘fascism’ in relation to the idea that all (especially on TV) must wear poppies was perhaps a little extreme, but then perhaps not – it really should be up to the individual as he says. (See this piece in the Guardian for reasoned commentary on the matter).

Beyond the poppy-enforcement campaign, there has also been criticism from veterans about the style and aims of the poppy appeal. Some veterans of Britain’s wars since the 1960s have written this letter to the Guardian:

The Poppy Appeal is once again subverting Armistice Day. A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars. This year’s campaign has been launched with showbiz hype. The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored.

The public are being urged to wear a poppy in support of “our Heroes”. There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict.

Remembrance should be marked with the sentiment “Never Again”.

They certainly have a point, the ‘showbiz hype’ for the launch of the campaign (apparently this year is was launched by the Saturdays singing and some aerobatics (not by the Saturdays) in Colchester – can’t say I noticed either) has very little to do with the horror and futility of war.  Equally, it is indeed hardly ‘heroic’ to be blown up.

On the other hand, though, the whole point is to raise awareness and money for the British Legion and charitable efforts to support veterans.  Would it not be just as insulting not to bother with any kind of launch?  If charities want to raised awareness, don’t they need to take on modern marketing strategies (the poppy was very much in the mould of wartime and prewar charity campaigns, such as flag days). Quite how elderly men and women (or local cadets) selling poppies from a cardboard box does more to highlight the horror and futility of war (the latter surely a matter of opinion) is not clear. In fact, I think this years posters with an amputee and the message ‘It only takes a second to put on a poppy’ are quite effective. Amputees tend not to make the cause of their wounds look sexy and exciting, and these posters will been seen by more people than the showbiz launch.

The British Legion state that their campaign is apolitical and is designed to support the veterans and widows of Britain’s wars, not to promote support for those wars. Fundamentally, this will always be a matter of opinion. Does the campaign accept that wars happen and deal with the consequences, or does it give the government the message that it is okay to launch wars because the BL will pick up the pieces (in this country at least) afterwards? Quite possibly it does both.  Should the campaign and prominent fundraising stop in an attempt to stop the wars?  This line of thought is rather circular, and is (in part) the critique behind the White Poppy for peace.

The glitzy launch for the Poppy Appeal does seem rather crass to me, but then it is for a good cause and is only once a year (and I hadn’t really noticed until reading about it today).  Back in the early post-WW1 years, it was not clear what 11 November should be – there were Balls on Armistice Day at the Albert Hall and drunkenness among ex-servicemen, but these were forced out by the perceived needs of the bereaved for a more sober (literally and metaphorically) reflection of the nation’s losses.  I would like to think that the showbiz launches of poppy appeals recall this, but they do not – they are part of the charity campaign, not celebrations of hard-won peace and freedom.

People will always disagree about the aims and methods of the Poppy Appeal, as with anything to do with wars, and indeed welfare provision.  That people feel strongly enough to argue about it is a good sign, although the enforcement of poppy-wearing is antithetical to what British soldiers have fought most of the major wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for.

(Anyone interested in the early histories of Armistice Day and the British Legion should read Adrian Gregory’s The Silence of Memory, Niall Barr’s The Poppy and the Lion and Deborah Cohen’s The War Come Home)

Everybody hates Tony

23 September 2010

Tony Blair has been in the news a lot recently with TV appearances, his book and the abandoned book tour.  Given the reception given in the media and by angry anti-Blairites, it is hardly surprising that many people assume that the book is all ‘self-serving and dishonest‘ – this is the wording of the question not a spontaneous statement and the poll was taken the day that the book came out (37% agreed with that statement, 31% didn’t know).

Alex Massie has written a piece for Foreign Policy entitled ‘Everybody hates Tony: How Britain’s golden boy lost his luster’, which describes the remarkable shift in opinion since 2003 to the point that “Blair’s name is mud on the eastern side of the Atlantic. The former prime minister has been entirely disowned.” Although he rightly points out that the visceral Blair-hatred is a minority sport, he still makes out as if the ex-PM is universally disliked. Polling data show, though, that he is divisive rather than hated and disowned.

A recent Yougov/Sun poll* shows that opinion on Blair is largely unchanged since he left office in 2007. People’s opinions of his premiership were recorded as follows (this is a shortened form of the stated responses):

Very Good (VG): fallen from 11% in 2007 to 10% in Sept 2010

Fairly Good (FG): 38% to 37%

Fairly Poor (FP): 28% to 21%

Very Poor (VP): 18% to 25%

In total, then, 47% think he was a good PM and 46% that he was poor (2007: 49% and 46%). What the figures says to me is that he is slightly less popular than in 2007, but that those who disapprove have got angrier since 2007. The 7% increase in 2010’s ‘very poor’ presumably coming from the ‘fairly poor’ column in 2007. Blair has not been completely disowned.  He is not popular or broadly hated, he divides opinion.

The idea that Labour voters hate him is also not borne out, despite the current Labour leadership contenders trying to distance themselves from Blair.  Figures for Labour voters were 22% VG, 58% FG, 11% FP and 7%VP; that is to say that 80% of Labour voters think that he was a good PM. Of course, this does not mean they want a Blairite leader now, but that they think that ‘he had many successes’ or ‘his successes outnumbered his failures’. Meanwhile 70% of Conservatives saw him as FP or VP, which is hardly surprising. Massie’s comment that the Guardian-reading Left-ish ‘chattering classes’ are the most anti-Blair are certainly accurate, but he neglects the evidence that many people, especially Labour voters still feel he did a good job.

Further evidence that he is divisive rather than hated comes from the Yougov question over who was the ‘Best’ and ‘Worst’ post-1945 PM to serve for more than 5 years. Margaret Thatcher topped both polls with 36% best and 31% worst, while Blair came a close second at 20% and 25%. (The others were Wilson, Attlee, Macmillan and Major; over 20% didn’t know in each poll). Again there was a party split between Thatcher and Blair, but their placement clearly shows that they occupy a much greater and more complex position in the public mind than other prime ministers.

Interestingly, given that the anger against Blair is widely seen as based on his policy of war in Iraq, the poll shows that more people (in all age groups over 25 years, but especially the over 60s) felt that his immigration policy was a greater mistake (62%) than the war in Iraq (54%). A poll in 2007 showed the same result (58% to 55%).

Yougov’s poll trackers also suggest that disapproval of Blair did not come as a result of the failure to find WMD in Iraq (as Massie states), but it was already there in February 2003 – suggesting that the feeling grew over the Iraq debacle well before the war began. A BBC graph shows opinion dipping in early 2000 and late 2002. Yougov stats show dissatisfaction with him fluctuating between 57% and 63% in 2003 (the BBC graph shows a wartime blip, the ‘rally round the flag’ is a widly-recognised response to wars), and in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

The BBC graph (using MORI polling):

No doubt Iraq was the cause of this solid body of dislike, but it came during the build-up to the war and was only confirmed by the growing evidence of Blair’s misleading of the public (and it was not unprecedented). Today, poll questions on the evidence for a rightness of war are phrased to acknowledge the dodgy grounds for war.  Even at the time a narrow majority of people felt that Blair was handling the situation badly (see stats quoted in this amusing attempt to show how great Blair was).

Contrary to the impression sometimes given in the press and on TV – and by noisy protesters – most people do not think that Blair is a war criminal.  He has not been completely disowned by his former-voters, even if they would not necessarily trust him (or people seen to be like him) again.  He is, however, a hugely divisive figure – apparently nearing a par with Margaret Thatcher – on both his domestic and foreign policy legacy.

* The report of the yougov poll states different figures than the data they provide on pdf, and didn’t terms, which is rather confusing.  My figures come from the pdf, not their report.