Whom to mourn?

IssueJuly - August 2010
Comment by Jeff Cloves

As deaths – and casualties – mount in Afghanistan and crowds turn out to greet the returning coffins and TV stations show bereaved families united in grief, I imagine the conflicting emotions I feel are shared by most PN readers.

We know exactly how many British servicemen and women have been killed in the prosecution of this war, yet we have no idea how many enemy combatants have been killed. In fact, we have no idea who they were or if they were actually combatants.

We are told the enemy is the “Taliban” and we know our troops kill its troops but we never see their funerals or grieving Taliban-supporting families.

In the Korean and Vietnam wars, it was held that US troops had the odds stacked against them because they never knew which Vietnamese people – “gooks” to the rude soldiery – were “our” gooks and which were “theirs”.

Then, as now, when US troops seized enemy-held land, the enemy simply melted away – without uniforms and visible weapons – into the civilian population. Thus all civilians became suspect; and discovered and undiscovered acts of revenge took place.

As always, in wartime it’s deemed unpatriotic to be concerned about the fate of the enemy. Messrs Cameron and Clegg, like Mr Brown, seem to accept the equation of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan with “terrorists” bombing buses in London.

This, they sorrowfully argue, is why our servicemen and women must carry on dying and why we must mourn their deaths. But do I mourn their deaths? I ought to, I know, because I believe that all the dead of all wars must be mourned.

I am writing this while listening to Radio 4 and have been stopped in mid-composition because the core findings of the Saville Report on Bloody Sunday have just been announced on the news. By the time you read this piece, the report’s contents will have been picked over and analysed endlessly but I never expected to hear a British prime minister unequivocally acknowledge what happened that dreadful day and accept that the truth was finally out.

Fourteen civilians were killed on Bloody Sunday by young men who were soldiers by choice. In the course of the Troubles, more than a thousand of soldiers were killed. Similar young men are soldiers by choice in Afghanistan and Iraq and war is being made on civilians in the belief that they are the enemy.

And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut used to write. He wrote of the bombing of Dresden with sorrow and anger. He wrote without hatred but with something approaching resignation. Resignation is what all of us involved in the anti-war movement (not the same thing as pacifism) feel sometimes. Wars always seem to have a momentum of their own and what pacifists acknowledge is that they have always been waged against civilians.

It is claimed that the Second World War was the first war in which civilian deaths outnumbered those of the armed forces, but the deliberate use of shock and awe is as old as warfare and civilians have always been the softest targets.

I try to imagine how I would feel if my own two boys somehow defied their nature and nurture and voluntarily joined the British army. Of course I would be devastated that they had freely chosen to learn the trade of killing and justified their choice by spouting the mantras of Love of Country and Defence of Freedom. I know, however, it wouldn’t stop me loving them and if they were killed, my tears would be for them specifically and not for their anonymous uncounted victims.

It is a terrible but understandable paradox that the bereaved families of soldiers mourn only their own sons and daughters. I realise, of course, that what I’ve written here is a statement of the bleeding obvious as far as PN readers are concerned but I believe it needs restating sometimes.

We can all get bogged down by arguing the politics of this war or that war while ignoring perhaps our much more powerful case. War allows us to morally justify murdering each other. When the families of servicemen and women grieve over the deaths of their own sons and daughters they are grieving – whether they acknowledge it or not – the deaths of all sons and daughters.

Topics: Afghanistan
See more of: Jeff Cloves