Posts Tagged ‘Cold War’

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

On war

May 25, 2017

I bought another of Nobel award-winning Svetlana Alexievich‘s books recently: this one is about women’s experience of war. And I’ve found myself thinking: why do I read so much about war – novels, history and so on, why do I visit so many historical sites connected with wars? You have only to look back through the archives of this blog: isn’t there something slightly obsessive, unhealthy about this? I do wonder, sometimes.

We know there have been wars ever since humans have existed on the planet: somewhere I read once that in the last two or three thousand years of history there have only been about a hundred and fifty years where the world has been at peace – whatever that means.

Reading about war has shown me what an utterly vile species we are in terms of how we are prepared to treat each other. And yet, I have also come across countless accounts of astonishing acts of bravery and altruism. One might rather crassly argue that these two extremes cancel each other out; equally I might argue that without war, neither would occur, and that would surely be better for us.

Reading about war has made me profoundly grateful that I’ve never been called on to be tested in any of the ways I have read about; even more, I recognise how very fortunate I am to have grown up in a time of peace (at least, in the sense that my country has not been involved in a war which means attacks on our territory putting me and my family at risk… actually, writing a sentence like that one so as to be completely correct and accurate is impossible, but I’m sure you get my drift).

Having grown up during the ‘Cold War‘ (don’t politicians and the military love euphemisms!) made me realise at quite a young age that a war between Britain as a member of NATO and the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘our’ side would be attacking countries where member of my family lived, and that ‘their’ side would be likewise attempting to kill us… and made me decide that I would never take part in such craziness. As I said above, I’m very grateful never to have been put to the test.

The more I’ve read and thought, the more I have come to think how utterly utopian it is to expect that things will ever be any different. I don’t think that war can be eliminated from our world without some kind of world government, and somehow I don’t see that happening in the near future. Neither can war be eliminated while the capitalist system persists, and I don’t foresee any end to that in short order. And the human ingenuity that has invented all sorts of gruesome weapons will continue, too, and what has been invented cannot be uninvented…

To look at today’s world briefly: many in the West are alarmed at the numbers of refugees flocking to our shores: it seems blindingly obvious to me that one way to address this would be to stop destroying their countries in the first place! We are very good at fighting proxy wars everywhere, and war is really good for business; although ISIS and Al-Qaeda have sprung from the fundamentalist Saudi Arabian variety of Islam, our leaders continue to buy enormous amounts of oil from that country and to sell it phenomenal amounts of weapons. And our leaders and businessmen are much safer from the random acts of terrorism that continue to afflict us, than ordinary people are.

Back to my first thought about being obsessed by war: I think it’s part of my quest to understand why the world is as it is, and to imagine how it might be different – one day, perhaps, long after I’ve left it…

On the United States of America

November 9, 2016

I have never been to the United States, and I can’t see that I ever will: partly because I don’t fly, and partly because I don’t really wish to cope with seeing people carrying weapons in the street. I’ve read lots about the US in my exploration of all sorts of travel writing, from the very earliest days in the explorations of William Bartram, to the later expeditions of Lewis and Clark, and the twentieth century wanderings of others. There are certainly places I’d like to see: Isabella Bird’s descriptions of the Rocky Mountains and Estes Park in particular have fascinated me, and John Muir’s descriptions of the National Parks are wonderful; of course I’d like to see the Grand Canyon and lots of other places I’ve read about, too.

I was fascinated at school when we got to study US history as half of the course for our O-Level, and I’ve read a lot of American literature, too: the American Literature unit in my second year at university was one of my favourite courses. I wrestled with, and enjoyed Walt Whitman’s poetry, and came to read widely in Mark Twain’s novels, essays and travelogues, all of which I really enjoyed and come back to from time to time. And then there were all the writers of the Beat Generation that I came to know during my master’s degree studies. And Catch-22

I grew up during the Cold War; I can vaguely remember hearing news bulletins at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. I came early to realise that what the US was doing across the world was as evil as what the USSR was up to; what was different was that the US was much better at PR and propaganda and held all the pretty cards. They presented themselves very effectively as the good guys, offering the sweet taste of freedom. However, there is freedom to and freedom from, and when you start looking more closely, the cards are dealt rather differently. The US was very good at suggesting it had a dream, that it was a noble enterprise, a moral force for good in the world, and many people swallowed that.

I know relatively few Americans. Those that I have met, as colleagues or a students, I have really liked, have enjoyed talking with: they have seemed just like any other people I have met and got to know from many different lands. I’ve always enjoyed diversity and learning about other nations, people and places, and regular readers will probably have me down as a curious person.

And so I am dumbfounded today. I’ve often thought that many Americans – the ones I haven’t met, but read about – come from a different planet. Make all the allowances and excuses you like for the US political establishment or the Democratic party being out of touch with ordinary people – and I agree with those sentiments – I cannot see how anyone can think that it’s acceptable to vote for a serial liar who boasts about assaulting women; I’m utterly gob-smacked that any self-respecting woman could go into a booth thinking ‘I will vote for this man to run my country’. I’ve read a lot about the 1920s and 1930s (see my previous post) and I’m getting an awful dense of deja-vu, even though I wasn’t alive then…

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451

November 23, 2014

9780007491568The temperature at which paper catches fire (apparently). This dystopia from the days of the Cold War (1954) is one of the oldest in my library: I’ve had it so long, I noticed the price on the back cover is in real money (3/6 if that makes any sense)… It starts out from a single idea, that the written word is dangerous because it confuses and divides people, causes disagreements – so it’s outlawed. The hero is a fireman, except that in this dystopian USA, firemen go around burning down the houses of people found in possession of books.

Ironically, it’s a book. The film of the novel, made by the French director François Truffaut, is better, because it does just that: there is no written word or letter in the film; titles and credits are recited.

Utopias and dystopias are notorious for their didacticism, and this one is no different: various characters preach to the reader, telling us how certain situations came about and what must be done; these parts are as annoying as some of the most difficult bits of Orwell‘s Nineteen Eightyfour. I don’t know if it is possible to get around such excesses: the author has a point that just has to be made, no matter the effect on the story. And Bradbury is capable of some very lyrical and descriptive writing, with his nostalgia for a mythical golden age in the past where everything was just hunky-dory.

It’s a trope of his – and a very relevant and well-presented one, not just in this novel, either – that in modern society people are increasingly alienated from themselves and each other: conversations are not ‘real’, everyone is diverted constantly by noise, advertising and endless, meaningless, trivial entertainment. People who hang on to the past and its ways are dangerous; Bradbury’s short story The Pedestrian is probably the most chilling example of this.

And yet, real analysis is sadly lacking. Bradbury seems to hint at this alienation being some sort of communist plot – he was writing in 1954 – but this doesn’t wash at all nowadays: I would argue that we see ever more of this alienation and triviality around us nowadays, and that it is a logical and expected facet of late capitalist and consumerist society: if you divide people from each other, you can sell them more stuff; if you fill their heads with trivia then they will consume more in a desperate search for meaning and fulfilment…

The novel ends with the start of a nuclear war, and the only vague hope Bradbury can offer us is a group of misfits hidden in the wilds who have memorised sections of books in the hope of being able to pass them on to future generations. It’s not as grim as the boot stamping on a human face forever, but it’s hardly any more hopeful. In the end, the concept is rather more powerful than the execution; coming back to this novel after a very long time, I was somewhat disappointed.

On the Great War

February 13, 2014

I know I will be revisiting some of the literature of the First World War over the coming months and years. With the arguments about the rights and wrongs, the blame, whether to celebrate or commemorate already under way, in the usual unseemly fashion here in Britain anyway, I decide to put some thoughts on paper.

We remember (supposedly) the war(s) and war dead every year on 11 November. It has increasingly become a matter of routine: do we actually reflect on what it means? To me, the centenary means an opportunity to slow down, and to think properly about what actually happened, and how it has affected our word today. For me, it’s about commemoration, and respect for the dead.

The blame game – who started it, whose fault was it? – is irrelevant, really: the war happened, all those people died. That cannot be undone. Politicians’ job now is to ensure such things never happen again.

We will have the opportunity to remember the actual horror that war is – the deaths, the injuries, the maimings, the mourning: there will be plenty of detail about all that. We need to realise that such things happen in all wars, everywhere, whether our country is involved or not, whether we think a war is ‘just’ (?) or not.

The traces of the Great War remain with us: the places, the cemeteries (I was left at a loss for words so many times on my visit to the Somme battlefields last autumn), the art and the writing. I’m going to write about my reactions to writers from the countries that were involved.

More importantly, the consequences of the Great war are still with us. Eric Hobsbawm‘s massive history contains a volume entitled Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991. It’s a fascinating take on the period, which has always made sense to me: everything flowed from that war – communism and its associated excesses, fascism, the Second World War, the Cold War, and the millions of deaths associated with them. As half-Polish, I remember that Poland re-emerged as an independent nation as a result of the war. And the crazy boundaries in the Middle East, drawn by French and British diplomats and bureaucrats continue to wreck the lives of so many people.

I’ve always felt that war solves nothing. That’s not intended as a glib statement, and it’s sometimes hard to defend, but, as a self-labelled ‘intelligent species’ it’s one that I hope many people will be reflecting on over the next four years.

Soviet Literature (2) Chingiz Aitmatov

August 27, 2013

51pIdTDltfL._AA160_Reflections in the previous post were prompted by my re-reading of Chingiz Aitmatov‘s The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years, after half a lifetime. I’d hung on to the tatty paperback, knowing I’d want to read it again, eventually, but having completely forgotten why. And, as last time, I suspect, it disturbed me greatly.

Aitmatov was a Kazakh writer, who was published in the Soviet Union. He had to change the original title for this novel. I know I initially bought it because of references to science fiction and alien contact and I had recently completed a master’s thesis on science fiction. Aitmatov weaves several plots together quite skilfully: a joint Soviet-American space station makes contact with, and then visits an intelligent alien race; the superpowers are completely thrown and their hegemony threatened by events taken out of their hands and refuse to have anything to do with the aliens…

This plot unfolds against the background of a small community isolated on the Kazakh steppes next to a major railway line. The difficulty of their existence, and their history and myths are explored, and characters created and developed so that we come to understand them and their motivation. One of them is occupied with the need to arrange the proper (according to tradition and religion) burial of a revered older member of the community. And, as the past history of the community is revealed, so are the tentacles of the Stalinist police state and its ability to go even into the desert wastes and devastate lives.

There is, of course, an allegorical dimension, with the history of the mankurt, a slave robbed of his mind and personality during the dark days of the Mongol invasions, a man who has no past, no personality, no future, and who would kill his mother if ordered to… how that got past the censors beats me, but then I have read many accounts of how intellectually limited censors often were.

Aitmatov makes the reader think, and this has always been my touchstone for an author worth reading. Would the human race really reject contact with other, alien, races because of a possible threat to the status quo? What happens to people when they are separated from their past, their traditions, their roots? Aitmatov’s answers are pessimistic, rooted in the Cold War era (the novel was first published in 1980), but I don’t see any different conclusion in our ‘free’ age. How much we are in fact mindless slaves to a greater power is open to discussion. A good novel from the days of the Soviet Union.

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