War

Its a shitty business. War is. Last night I was reading Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell; his experiences on the front during the Spanish Civil War. The experiences that would go on to shape many of his views on totalitarianism in the future and eventually result in the modern classics Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm. As I was reading it, for some reason my mind drifted to a trip my son and I took to Washington D.C. this summer. To Reagan airport specifically, where I saw, while waiting to board the plane, a man wearing a t-shirt that said:

Back to Back World War Champions

He was referring to America’s victories, in World War I and World War II I suppose. Both wars in which America played a decisive influence and without which it is certainly doubtful whether the allies would have been successful. It does behoove us to remember, though, that by the time the United States entered the war the Russians or the erstwhile Soviet Union rather, had lost untold millions. And the siege of Stalingrad was yet to follow. The total deaths of the Soviet Union in World War II are said to be 27 million. The British had been at war with Nazi Germany for three years before the United States officially entered the war. The combined death tolls  for the United States and the United Kingdom? 800,000.  While I am fully aware of the sacrifices made by that generation; that when the bugle call came, farm boys from Iowa, city hands from New York and young men of all stripes everywhere signed up to fight Nazi tyranny, it helps keep things in perspective and how the war is viewed in different parts of the world.

One other fact–and this is personal for me because of where I was born and raised —  that also goes mostly unmentioned in any historical account of the war is the  total number of Indians dead. 2.2 million. The tragic part? 2.1 million of those deaths were a direct result of famine caused by Churchill’s policies; when he thought it prudent to hoard food for the British troops on the front line. The even more tragic part? The stockpiles were overflowing with surplus grain that the troops didn’t need. Wheat and other grains that could have saved millions of lives. Food he refused to divert to famine stricken Bengal in spite of innumerable pleas from Indian leaders. Lives that were deemed inferior and thus dispensable by Churchill; the hero of the twentieth century in most Westerners’ eyes, the greatest Briton that ever lived, according to most Britishers.

While we are on the topic of World War II, if there is one work and only one work you will read about World War II to understand everything that happened leading up to, during and the end of the war — Versailles to Hiroshima —  I would recommend The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. There is a character in that book; a German general who writes his memoir of  the war while awaiting trial after the war. A book within a book. Kind of a loosely fictionalized version of The Rommel Papers. In that memoir the fictional general writes, of Hitler’s desire for lebensraum (living space) for his ever expanding Reich as he invaded Russia. The fictional general draws quite a compelling parallel about India being Britain’s lebensraum. “Russia is our India”, he writes, solely to be used for resources, the people; the inferior Slavic race as the Nazis considered them, for slave labor and the land for living space.  Kind of like India was to Britain.

Returning to the gentleman in the t-shirt at Reagan airport; Kurt Vonnegut, in his wartime classic memoir Slaughterhouse Five writes that the only people who are enthusiastic about war are the ones that have never fought in one. That would explain why Cadet Bone Spurs has to rub one out every time he hears the word missile. So, I was irritated, that’s the best word I can use to describe my feeling, when I saw that man wearing that shirt and wondered to myself whether he had ever been to war ? If he has, then hasn’t he seen the misery wrought upon by it to be so naive? Perhaps he hasn’t. I have never been to war but as part of some service work I’ve been performing I have had the chance to visit a behavioral health clinic that houses many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans makes it sound like they are old or at least middle aged men and women. The handful of men and women I met were mostly barely adults, in their early twenties, if that. They were all there partly for treatment for PTSD as a result of their deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan and partly for other issues.

The historian James McPherson, in his book on the Civil War Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era writes that a common refrain among confederate soldiers was that it was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s battle. That could probably be said of most wars I think. The singer songwriter Steve Earle, in his song Ben McCulloch, narrating (or singing) the story as a soldier in the confederacy under General McCulloch’s command, sings:

I killed a boy the other night
Who had never even shaved
I don’t even know what I’m fighting for
I ain’t never owned a slave

The song starts like this:

We signed up in San Antone, my brother Paul and me
To fight with Ben McCulloch and the Texas infantry
Well the poster said we’d get a uniform and seven bucks a week
The best rations in the army and a rifle we could keep

One of the most haunting poignant anti-war songs you will ever hear is the ballad The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, sung by Shane McGowan of The Pogues. Singing about an Australian conscript in World War I thrown into the hell that was Gallipoli he sings:

We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk he was ready, he primed himself well
He chased us with bullets, he rained us with shells
And in five minutes flat he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we stopped to bury our slain
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again

It continues:

Now those that were left, well we tried to survive
In a mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
But around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over tit
And when I awoke in my hospital bed
And saw what it had done, Christ I wished I was dead
Never knew there were worse things than dying

And the concluding paragraph:

And now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
And I watch my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving old dreams of past glory
And the old men march slowly, all bent, stiff and sore
The forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question

I would recommend one give a listen to that song, the Shane McGowan rendition. It brought a lump to my throat the first time I heard it. Gallipoli, incidentally happens to be the other great, acknowledged Churchill blunder.

So almost thirteen hundred words later, what is my point you ask? The one I started off with. War is a shitty business. And that no one in their right mind should be glorifying it.

Thanks for reading.

Lakshman Hariharan,
09/30/2018 Prosper, TX.

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