The seductiveness of war.

February 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

As I put the newspaper down this morning I asked myself: “Why is it that young men so willingly go off to fight wars?”

2015 will be yet another year of remembrance for those held in either the thrall of war or, indeed, as Wilfred Owen described it: “The pity of War.”

On the 25th April, Australia will mark the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. The disastrous bloodletting at Gallipoli is seen by many Australians as the true birth of their embryonic nation. (Though many indigenous Australians have a somewhat different take on things)

Two days before the Anzac Cove landings a twenty-seven year old English naval sub-lieutenant died from an infected mosquito bite on the Greek island of Skyros. I suspect the young poet Rupert Brooke was rather hoping for a more glorious end. War was heroic, with death but a rite of passage to immortality.

“Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,

            And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping

With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,

            To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping, …”

Would Brooke’s passion for war have survived the Gallipoli landing? Maybe, maybe not. Even after two years fighting with the French Foreign Legion on the Western front the American intellectual and poet Alan Seeger wrote:

“I have a rendezvous with Death

At some disputed barricade,

When Spring comes back with rustling shade

And apple-blossoms fill the air-

I have a rendezvous with Death

When spring brings back blue days and fair…

 

And to my pledged word am true,

 I shall not fail that rendezvous.”

Seeger did not make it through the Somme. (Fortunately his nephew, the folk singer and social activist, Pete Seeger, was with us until last year.)  Indeed, little made it through either the Somme or Verdun and the romance of meaningless sacrifice began to pale for even the most poetic. Thank God we no longer glorify war, death and killing in the manner of Brooke or Seeger. Thank God we no longer plant in the mind of suggestible young men the old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Strange then that the top film at the moment is American Sniper, which is on course to become the biggest grossing war film of all time. I have to admit to being something of a fan. Yes, he’s a reactionary old grump but having made The Outlaw Josey Wales I can forgive Clint Eastwood most things, and that does include his bizarre performance with the empty chair at the Republican National Convention. Yet I know I could never bring myself to watch the retelling of navy Seal Chris Kyle’s exploits as a sniper in Iraq. By Kyle’s own account he killed upwards of 200 Iraqis most of whom were at least nominally civilians and all of whom died at a safe distance from his snipers nest. The one thing that all his victims had in common with the rest of the Iraqi population is that Chris Kyle despised them all with equal contempt: they were the Other. Oh, and Texas has just announced a Chris Kyle Day.

So I really cannot think why young men would willingly go off and kill their fellow human beings. It’s not something I could ever imagine doing. Mind you, my imagination isn’t what it used to be. Before going further I have to put my hands up and come clean that I’m a congenital coward. When I was a toddler my mother used to sand off the edges of my wooden building blocks because I was terrified of getting splinters. I couldn’t get to sleep without the light on until I was thirty-eight. Why, just last week the woman in the local Spar gave me the evil eye because I apologetically mumbled that the milk she had sold me was past its sell by date and I’ve been too frightened to go back since. Yes, I’m not exactly the first bloke to stand up to be counted and yet, in a moment of rare and inexplicable honesty, I have to confess that as a young man there were at least three conflicts to which I would have readily answered the call of distant drums and marched off to war.

If I rummaged carefully enough through the littered remnants of my youthful idealism I could probably piece together the reasons why, as a young man, I would have willingly taken myself off to war. The problem is that if I start that process I would be confronted by an acute sense of embarrassment. I would be mortified that I would have even considered fighting in two of the wars. As for the third war…well, I wish I’d been a little braver. The irony is that if I had gone off to fight in either of the two wars I’m now ashamed of I would have been doing so entirely legally. I could have been a hero. However, if I’d followed my instincts and gone off to the third I would have been doing so entirely illegally. I could have been a terrorist. Whatever I could have been I didn’t become, no, I was either too cowardly or (I like to think) had a little too much sense. My indecision no doubt also reflects on the company I kept.

So I asked myself as I read the paper this morning what was the combination of context, courage, and common sense, or lack of it, that induced the twenty-seven year old Briton Imran Khawaja to take himself off to fight in Syria for the barbarians who call themselves ISIS. The pictures this young man posted of himself showed too graphically how seduced he was by the glory of war. Yet he was in Syria for less than six months, took no part in either fighting or atrocities before returning home at his family’s urging with his tail between his legs. How then should we deal with young men who get caught up in the glories of battle?

Let’s start with Imran Kwawaja. When he left for Syria he was the same age as Rupert Brooke when he embarked for Gallipoli. Apart from his age it’s hard to see how Kwawaja would have anything in common with the Byronic Rupert Brooke. A young man with learning difficulties and a penchant for body building, he was described at his trial as “the most violent extremist to return to Britain.” Violence in this context seems to be an abstract concept as there was no evidence that he participated in any violence whatsoever. Instead he appeared in a number of particularly vile videos with dead bodies and severed heads, as well as posing with a variety of different weapons. One picture of him sitting grinning on the back of a pick-up truck with a heavy machine gun oddly reminded me of a picture I have of my son when he was a toddler, sitting on a toy digger. Looking up at the camera, a little boy pretending to be a man. All this was apparently evidence, not that he had participated in violence but that he was encouraging others to join the jihad. For this he received a seventeen year extended sentence. He seems to have been tempted home, partly out of fear and discomfort and partly by his family texting him pictures of English food. Six months after leaving the UK his uncle drove to Serbia to bring him home. His uncle received a 21 month jail sentence for rescuing his nephew.

So, not much in common there with Rupert Brooke. Indeed what can be said about the mindless craven slaughter of innocents by naive young men led by ruthless zealots and driven by ill-defined philosophies and a mindless belief that God serves only them. But then more than enough has already been written about the bloodbaths at Gallipoli, the Somme, Verdun and Tannenberg. Let’s turn instead to Syria and Iraq. The casualties continue to mount, the UN estimates that in 2014 there were over 10,000 deaths in Syria and Iraq relating to the conflict in which ISIS is a primary actor. On the first day of the Somme the British forces alone lost 20,000 dead. I wonder how many of them died directly as a result of answering Brooke’s Homeric entreaties. Even now, for all my lethargy and lack of courage I only have to read a couple of lines from Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier and I get an urge to go off and kill a few Hun with my bare hands (just writing that I’ve had to take a break and read some Isaac Rosenberg as an antidote) Equally I wonder just how many of the dead in Syria and Iraq were there as a result of Kwawaja sitting on top of a pickup truck with a silly grin.

Kwawaja was not the only British Muslim with ISIS. There are an estimated 300 young Britons in Syria and Iraq, and as they return disillusioned and bedraggled they get locked up. Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar both aged twenty-two, childhood friends from Birmingham (that notorious Muslim no-go zone) left for Syria in May 2013 and returned 6 months later. They were both such committed zealots that before they left the UK they purchased copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. Sarwar’s mother reported them to the police in the hope they would help get them back. In all they only spent a few weeks in Syria and took no part in any fighting or terrorist activities. When they returned to the UK at the urging of their families they were arrested at Heathrow. While the judge acknowledged that the pair had no intention of committing terrorist acts in the UK and had no previous connections with terrorist organisations or police records, he sentenced the pair to eighteen year extended sentences. A month earlier a young white British soldier, Ryan Mcgee, was convicted of bomb making and possession of knives, axes, and imitation guns. Ryan, an English Defence League supporter, was imprisoned for two years.

Of course it’s not just young British Muslim men who are too easily seduced into fighting meaningless but blood-thirsty wars. Take Tony, aged fifty, a family man, a decent Christian with an avowed respect for other faiths. Had everything going for him, top Scottish public school, educated at Oxford University and called to the bar. He was even the most electorally successful Labour Prime Minister in British History. One of Tony’s problems was he had a good mate, George who was always up for proving a point or two (otherwise known as bullying). George didn’t treat Tony with any great respect, he would do things like shout “Yo Blair” across a crowded room, yet Tony still needed his approval. So when George decided he was going to depose the nasty Saddam Hussein, Tony felt he really had to follow him. The two of them, together with a few other friends, invaded Iraqi. And we all know how well that worked out.

On February 15th 2003 2,000,000 people marched through the streets of London to protest the impending invasion of Iraq. It was an amiable and peaceful assembly (my son and I had somehow wandered into it, we must have got on the wrong bus or something). There was little anger but considerable disbelief. Few people really believed that Blair would go to war, the justifications for the invasion were just so blatantly spurious. Equally, I not sure anyone on the march had any sympathy for Saddam Hussein, who, it was widely agreed, was a megalomaniac despot. The overwhelming belief was that invading Iraq would just be pouring oil onto a smouldering fire and just inflame even greater conflict.

Five weeks later on the 20th March the bombs began falling on Bagdad and the coalition poured over the Kuwait border. On May 1st George W Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared “Mission accomplished”. Twelve years and at least 500,000 civilian deaths later the fighting continues in Iraq with ISIS yet another legacy of what the Americans code named (surely with considerable irony) Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The debate about the legitimacy of the war is just as alive today as it was twelve years ago. What is less in debate is the actual wisdom of the invasion. Few would claim that the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the despot Hussein have made the world a safer place. Even Blair’s mumbling rationalisations seem increasingly shamefaced. Leaked evidence from the Chilcott enquiry suggests that two of the primary reasons why Blair was party to the invasion were, first he thought Hussein was “evil” and secondly because he wanted to support his mate George. Yes, Tony Blair sadly may no longer be a case study in how to be a successful three term Prime Minister but he is certainly a case study in war’s seductiveness. I’m not sure he is that worried, even in the face of ongoing calls for him to be tried as a war criminal; he seems to be doing okay. After all, advising the Khazakstan government on human rights issues must provide him with a pretty good bung.

So do I think that Tony Blair should be tried as a war criminal? I don’t know. I look at the invasion’s outcome and Blair’s bloody minded insistence that in the face of all the evidence he was both right and morally justified in invading Iraq and think: “Surely he should pay some price for the crassness of his decision making and the damage it has caused the world?” But then I also look at the context and what psychologists call the slippery slope of decision making and recognise how seductive going to war was for a man who wanted to impress his mates.

If I’m not too sure whether Tony Blair should be punished for the carnage that is Iraq, do I have any sympathy for Mohammed Ahmed, Yusuf Sarwar and Imran Kwawaja all of whom are serving long sentences in British jails for terrorist offences? Given my avowed cowardism I fear I will be a little equivocal in answering that.

One cannot be too careful. I regularly drive through France and I’m a real safety-Joe. I always check I have my luminescent safety vest, my roadside triangle and my first aid kit. I even have a couple of those compulsory little breathalyser tubes. Even so, the last time I crossed the border into Belgium I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t been arrested for not displaying a je suis Charlie bumper sticker. Yes, the French have really gone to the barricades when it comes to stifling any threats to free speech. Eight year olds are being arrested for not knowing what a terrorist is and even drunken mumbles that the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists may have been provoked are likely to result in four year prison sentences. I suspect the Pope would think twice about giving mass at the Notre Dame for fear he’d be arrested the minute he gets off the plane at Charles de Gaulle airport. No, I certainly don’t want to run aground on the French apologie du terrorisme laws.      

It seems to me that asking if one is sympathetic towards Mohammed Ahmed, Yusuf Sarwar and Imran Kwawaja and the countless other young men in Britain and France who are serving obscenely long prison sentences for similar or lesser offences is rather begging the question. Surely the question that should be asked is whether or not justice is being served by these punishments?  Retribution doesn’t somehow fit the bill, as these are young men who are primarily being punished not for what they have done but for what they may do in the future. They seem to be being punished more for what French generals in WW1 described as pour encourager les autres before sending over 600 soldiers to the firing squad for cowardice. (Yes, the French again!) That policy encouraged the others so well that by 1917 the French army was in open mutiny.

Surely two of the prerequisites of justice must be equivalency and proportionality. Justice must also be effective. That is, the outcome of a judicial process should be a safer and more cohesive community.

It is hard to recognise the principal of equivalency when one group of young Muslim men, who stupidly and naively get drawn into a conflict they barely understand, are imprisoned for exceptionally long periods, whereas another group who, if you like, are on the other side, receive more lenient sentences. In contrast to these young Muslims, Ryan Mcgee, a British soldier with fanatical far right views is imprisoned for two years for bomb making and possession of illegal arms. I’m sure very few British soldiers have fanatical views, most are just doing their job. For example, in 2005 L/Cpl Mark Cooley, 25, was jailed for two years, Cpl Daniel Kenyon, 33, received an 18 month sentence and L/Cpl Darren Larkin, 30, 140 days for torturing prisoners and taking sexually explicit photographs of them. These sentences seem to be around the benchmark for all the coalition soldiers fighting in Iraq. Charles Graner of the US Army Reserve and his colleague and alleged lover Lynndie England, the two ringleaders of the notorious Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, served respectively six and a half years and one and a half years. Graner’s sentence may have been higher as he had a long standing record of domestic violence and a string of similar allegations against him when he worked in the US prison system.

Justice should also be proportionate, not only should the sentence fit the crime, it must also reflect the context of the crime and the consequences of the sentence on the convicted. A simple example. In Sweden speeding fines are pro rata to the speeders income rather than based on the speed itself. It recognises that the consequences of a 1000 krona fine for an unemployed man driving a beaten up Volvo is considerably greater that a similar fine for a multimillionaire driving a Ferrari. The lenient sentencing of young British soldiers convicted of torture in Iraq is another form of proportionate sentencing as it takes the context of the crime into account. It takes account of the fact that young men, at the best of times, are prone to stupid decisions and that young men seduced by war and battered by its actuality can be even more stupid.

Indeed, since World War Two judicial systems have been remarkable sympathetic to young men attracted to the glory of war. Between 1940 and 1945 the Nazis brutalised the Netherlands, yet tens of thousands of young Dutch men voluntarily went off and fought for the SS and the Wehrmacht. They fought on the Eastern front, in Normandy and even battled the free Dutch army in Belgium and Holland. Yet when they returned home at the end of the war very few, unless they had committed proven war crimes, were punished except for losing some citizen rights for a couple of years. Today the Netherlands is one of the most socially cohesive countries in the world.

I’m not even going to begin to get into the Good Friday agreement and the release of hundreds of convicted “terrorists” in the cause of peace and some semblance of social harmony on the island of Ireland, so…

On the morning of March 16, 1968, 24 year old second lieutenant William Calley led Charlie Company into the small village of My Lai in South Vietnam. By the end of the morning the bodies of around 500 unarmed civilians littered the village and surrounding countryside. The victims were elderly men, women, children and infants. Some of the women were gang raped and their bodies mutilated. Three other officers and around 100 enlisted men were involved in the massacre. Calley was the only man to be convicted of the murders. After an initial cover up, in 1971 Calley was found guilty of murdering 22 unarmed civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment. His sentence was met with public outrage and was almost immediately rescinded to house arrest. After three years Richard Nixon gave him a presidential pardon. Calley was, after all, only doing his duty and war doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in young men. Calley was born in Florida, perhaps if he had been born 1000 miles due West, Texas would have named a state day after him.

Maybe as Steve Earle put it, Calley and his men were just poor boys fighting in a rich man’s war but in those few hours, bloodlust and a righteous belief that they stood before the dominoes that would collapse and crush civilisation led them to mass murder. The fact that the dominoes were the elderly, women and infants became immaterial. What then seduced Mohammed Ahmed, Yusuf Sarwar and Imran Kwawaja into their, in comparison, somewhat pallid attempts at jihad? Their sentencing, like that of many similar young men, always seems to follow a preamble in which sombre judges lecture on their radicalisation and how this made them dangerous and seduced them into terrorism. The UK is fine-tuned to recognise radicalisation; even teachers are trained to identify any sentiments in their students’ essays that suggest the contamination of Islamic fundamentalism. Yet when I hear these lectures on how Islamic fundamentalism has driven these men to fight in Syria I experience a disconnection, a disbelief…don’t judges ever watch the television, listen to the radio, or read the newspapers?

Ever since the initial Arab spring, the Western media have lauded those who have risen up and attempted to overthrow the despots of the Arab world. From Tunisia, through to the almost orgasmic response to Gaddafi’s death, onto Egypt and then eventually the civil war in Syria, Western politicians and their media have been the biggest cheerleaders of the strife that has swept through North Africa and the Middle East. How many discussions have there been in the last two years about what aid the west should give to Assad’s opponents and whether or not the West should bomb the Syrian army to aid the rebels? The young men who went off to Syria may have been seduced for all sorts of reasons but the West more than anyone encouraged and legitimised the civil wars that have spread across the region. Yet what the West never recognised, even in the face of its abject failure in Iraq, is the one big lesson that came out of the Spanish Civil War. When societies break down in the face of revolution or civil war it is never the rational, the thoughtful or the democratic that come to the fore. Instead it’s the well organised thugs, psychopaths and zealots who fill the vacuum. And when young men hear a distant drum and follow either their idiocy or their ideology, they always fall into the clutches of the zealots. The judges, police officers and politicians who lecture on radicalisation should remember that the drums that called the young men off to fight in Syria and Iraqi were beaten harder in the West than anywhere else.

And then there is effectiveness. Will the punitive sentencing of these young men work? The application of pour encourager les autres in the First World War seemed to only further inflame the growing mutiny in the French army. I suspect the length of the sentences and their perceived unfairness rather than discouraging young Muslim men from radicalisation will merely reinforce their growing alienation from British society. As for the other British Muslims fighting in Syria and Iraq, such sentences are hardly going to incentivise them to come home. On the contrary, however fearful they may be, however foolish they may feel they have been, they are unlikely to feel welcome back in a country that rewards their return with 18 year prison sentences. They will have little choice but to stay as the cannon fodder of the zealots. Denmark does it a little differently. Returning Jihadists are assigned a social worker who provides ongoing assessment and close supervision. Now I know social workers have a pretty rotten reputation but the chances are that far more young Danish Muslims will return from Syria and be successfully reintegrated back into society than returning British Muslims.

So do I have any sympathy for ISIS? None whatsoever. They are barbarians, on par with the Khmer Rouge, whose only rationale seems to be to return civilisation back to some imagined medieval year zero. Do I have any empathy for some of the young men who stupidly got drawn into their influence and as a result are now serving long prison sentences? I look back on my youth and shamefully acknowledge how easy it would have been for me to have been seduced into going off and fighting in an even dirtier little war and I have to say, yes, I do have some empathy for them. From all that I’ve read on their trials it seems to me that they are not the anti-Christ, instead, to paraphrase Monty Python, what they appear to be is very naughty boys. Certainly they should be punished but with some semblance of justice and through the application of equivalency, proportionality and effectiveness.

We are about to commemorate and no doubt idealise Rupert Brooke’s death (and okay, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester isn’t a bad poem), a man who did as much as anyone to glorify the senseless bloodletting of most wars. We are in a time when one man’s pathological hatred of anything non-American justifies him killing upwards of 200 Iraqis and Texas dedicates a Chris Kyle day. It is also rare that a day goes by without seeing the smug “Ah shucks” grin of Tony Blair pass across our television screen as he waltzes off to lecture multi-millionaires on the obligations of wealth and only pauses momentarily to deny that he has any responsibility whatsoever for the horror that is Iraq and Syria. When we place the culpability of Mohammed Ahmed, Yusuf Sarwar and Imran Kwawaja against that of Blair, the only thing that can truly be said about these young men’s sentences is that they are obscenities, travesties of fairness. I wonder what Tony Blair would say to Mrs Majida Sarwarf if he ran into her while shopping at Tesco’s. What would he tell an honest, hard working, decent woman who did everything she could to rescue her son and his best friend from the vile clutches of ISIS, a woman who was praised for her courage by the judge before he handed down the18 year sentences? What would you say, Tony? Maybe a brief homily on social justice and accountability?

Finally, a last word on war by Rudyard Kipling whose jingoism did much to support the British war effort at the beginning of World War One. He actively encouraged his son John to join up. Frail and with poor eyesight, John kept failing the medical examinations. Rudyard Kipling was friends with the Army Chief of Staff, he pulled strings and John was commissioned into the Irish Guards. John Kipling was slaughtered at the Battle of Loos September 1915, aged 18.

If any question why we died

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

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