Monday, October 8, 2007

Warring With Conscience (2007)

From the October 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

A personal statement from a former soldier who has become a socialist.

I got angry again yesterday - I mean deep in the gut angry and it disturbs me a great deal for several very good reasons, not least is that so much adrenaline pumping around my system is shortening my life. First though, I need to explain that the reason I was angry was because of some of the content of a book - Howard Zinn's A Power Governments Cannot Suppress. It isn't important for you to know exactly what angered me. I get angry and emotional a lot these days now that I have the time and inclination to learn, to dig out the truths buried beneath the lies and the propaganda and the "bullshit" on which I fed for so much of my life.

I was a soldier you see, a professional, a volunteer and I served in the Parachute Regiment, "The Maroon Machine" or "The Mob" as we liked to call it; I was proud then and I still can't totally suppress that (misplaced) sense of pride that goes with being a member of such an elite organisation. When I took the 'Queen's Shilling' I swore to serve Our Sovereign Lady but that changed pretty quickly once I finished training and joined my battalion. Here there was a different ethos; here we were family, here we looked after each other, we soldiered for the "buzz" of adrenaline, for our wages and for our mates, our loyalty was always to each other and our Airborne Family, it was certainly not for "Queen and Country". Together we did whatever the government tasked us to do because we were professionals and we had a "contract".

Any risk to life and limb was an accepted part of the deal – no regrets. There was no moral dimension to this, although in certain theatres of operation I remember feeling that we were doing the right thing in making an orderly transition from colonialism to independence possible. The fact that the "natives" thought we should never have been there in the first place and were actively resisting us and the imposition of our ideas of democracy on their (usually) tribal societies was of little import and actually added some spice to our lives - wasn't this what we joined up for, a bit of excitement, a bit of a rumble? Shameful as it is to me now, all you have to do to cope easily without any niggling doubts is dehumanize the 'enemy', give them tags like 'Argy', 'Rag-head', or 'Nig-nog' and they could be 'wasted' without conscience. Just so much rubbish to leave behind for their own to clear up. In this the media is always complicit - just think back to the jingoistic headlines in the build up to and during the Falklands "Campaign".

When questions were raised the "Brass" would assert that racist attitudes were not tolerated in our Army. But for us "Toms" the object of the exercise was always to go in hard and aggressive, get the job done and then get out together with our mates, our 'clan' and ideally, all in one piece. If a bit of racial profiling helped to get us "jacked up" so much the better. Over a beer some might admit to a grudging respect for the 'raggies' much in the mould of Kipling and his "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" but care was taken not to let this cartoon image take on too human a form, after all, we had to go back to work again tomorrow, didn't we?

In case you think you're safe in the UK from this kind of attitude from "our boys" let me assure you you're not. My partner and I have been together for many a year - she has been an instinctive Socialist all of her life, active on picket lines and protests and we both know that in those days I'd have cracked her head as easily as I would have any other Bolshy pacifist and not suffered the slightest twinge. How easily an ordinary, generally well balanced young man can be conditioned and "guided" to become a very sharp tool of the establishment; in reality a controllable psychopath. I doubt that anything has changed in the modern British Army - apart from the improvements of weapons and tactics.

Maturity can bring many benefits; in my case it was a blossoming of inquisitiveness, a recognition of the other person's humanity, and a tadge more tolerance which seemed to be associated with a reduction in testosterone. Traits that had been suppressed began to surface - I found that I detested racism and sexism, that unfairness and injustice towards my fellow human beings had me on my feet and getting active and the inhumanity of the Global Capitalist System enraged me. I still hadn't made the connect between socialism and my gut feelings, for me socialism was Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Trotskyites - socialism was just the other side of the same old fascist coin. There didn't seem to be any organised groups of people who felt as I did.

My partner found the Socialist Party first and ordered up pamphlets and books - for both of us it was a revelation - for her it was a "where has this been for so much of my life" moment. I was a bit more in the "Yeah! But . . ." camp, but fascinated and intrigued non-the-less. She applied to join and was accepted, and she encouraged me to join too, but I'd seen the questionnaire (her answers she refused to show me and only revealed them after I'd also applied and been accepted) and had one particular concern. The principle of non-violent action was and is a challenge, I get really mixed up about it. The logic is clear to me, I know (from limited personal experience) that jaw-jaw is better than war-war; violence solves nothing in the long term. Nation states like the US, UK, Russia and others have been dishing out violence in one form or another for years, yet for all their sophistication and technical superiority in firepower and delivery systems they were defeated in Vietnam, in Kenya, and Afghanistan; in Iraq and Afghanistan the greatest war machine in history is going down to defeat and taking its junior partners (UK and NATO) with it. Even where they appear to triumph in the short term, one by one their fiefdoms have, or are crumbling as people; ordinary people face them down and assert their human rights to life and liberty.

The Global Economic Colonialists are less safe now than ever in their history and no spurious War on Terror will change that. So, I do understand that violence is counter-productive. Non-violent resistance in the face of the overwhelming violence wielded by the enforcement agencies of Global Capital appears noble but futile. Equally futile is violent resistance which invites greater and greater retaliation. I don't have an answer (even Gandhi and Martin Luther King believed that there could be occasions when force would be necessary to avert a greater evil), just that persistent old gut reaction that says that "it's better to die standing up and resisting than to die on your knees in submission". Then came a flash of memory from a book I'd read years ago - Joseph Heller's - Catch 22 "it's better to live on your feet than to die on your knees". True - but in order to live, to really live we cannot allow ourselves to remain as vassals to another man or to a system that decrees the world and all that is in it is the property, not of humankind but of a few individuals and corporations. Violence demeans, debases and dehumanises us. To throw down one evil, corrupt system using the very same policies and tools of that system is to replace one monster with a necessarily greater one.

When the UK joined the US to wage total war on the poor benighted people of Iraq I found that many formerly rational folk became morally unhinged; they began talking about still being against the war but having to "support our boys and girls in uniform". Why? If the war was wrong before it began, if using overwhelming power to grab the oil reserves of a sovereign nation was immoral before the fact, why has that changed? Our "boys and girls" are professionals, they do what they do for money not Queen and Country, like I and my comrades once did, they left their morals at the door of the "Careers Office" to do the bidding of the bosses, the elites. If my own experience is anything to go by, they don't actually care very much what the public back home thinks. Some apologists will argue that just as in the US there is economic conscription in the UK, that there is little or no choice, that the Army is better than the dole or sweat-shop wages filling shelves or burgers. Is it? It can appear better only if you let your morals become 'their' morals; only if you are prepared to bury your higher instinct to care for and protect your fellow human-beings and subsume yourself to the creed of the mercenary. There is always choice, even in our conditioned and controlled societies.

I get angry when I learn more of what's going on in Iraq or Afghanistan, when I manage to see through the suppression of information by governments and their cronies in the media. The violence of starvation and deprivation of basic human needs burns at me . . .  I feel violent and very un-socialistic towards the perpetrators of these injustices, these murders, maimings and indignities. I have irrational wishes that the resistance fighters of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, in fact from just about anywhere will triumph over the Powers of Global Darkness. Then I get angry at myself for being so irrational and out of control, what we have now is bad enough, compounding it with an equal evil would really have the lunatics taking over the asylum.

When I eventually submitted my application to join, I thought I knew the answer the Party was looking for but knew that I had to be honest and express my reservation. I doubted that the party would want a member who did not appear to fully accept and embrace the principle of non violence, so was amazed when the letter of acceptance came accompanied by a thoughtful and empathetic note from one of the committee who also struggled with this question. He suggested some reading materials and I found more for myself. Slowly the pieces began to fall into place; pacifism did not imply acceptance, non violent action was just that - action without violence.

So, how to channel this angst in a creative way . . . Well, I use the information that is so disturbing to me to inform, to disturb and to take down the walls of complacency and indifference that surround so many in the comfortable, pampered, developed Western world. I let my anger and passion show through - clearly, and now I refuse to let anyone get away with their prejudices or complacency unchallenged. I don't make trouble any more, and I better recognize my bouts of emotional immaturity for what they are, yet I still have the smoke of battle in my nostrils - my enemy now is that self-same complacency, indifference and prejudice and my weapons are ideas and concepts that have yet to have their day. I haven't "signed up" any new members yet, but I'm finding more and more folks who are amazed to learn, when once the veneer of consumerism is stripped away and we get down to basics, that the core values that most of us share of fairness, justice, respect are really the core values of socialism and that socialism is not what they thought is was. If nothing else, there are a lot more people out there whose brains do not switch off or pass over without thinking whenever they see or hear the word socialism or learn of the endless crimes against humanity perpetrated in the name of freedom that is nothing but a cover for the hegemony of Global Capital. There are even those now, who jump in before I do to correct or challenge a bit of misguided thinking and then add "Isn't that so, Alan?"

Drip - drip - drip! One drop at a time . . .

When the subject has refused allegiance,
and the officer has resigned his office,
then the revolution is accomplished.
Henry David Thoreau

Alan Fenn