12 November, 2006

Why I never march on the various ‘Amnesia Days’ that have been devised

Why I never march on the various ‘Amnesia Days’ that have been devised

12 November 2006

Remembrance Day 2006 has just been ‘commemorated’ in Britain with a tight formation of four Vulcan jets screaming over Hyde Park and traffic diverted around the heavily securitised unveiling of a new monument to New Zealand’s dead of World War II and subsequent conflicts. This year featured a speech by New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, who we know holds a very different view of the present military adventurism in Iraq, refuses to host nuclear powered and armed naval vessels, and has disbanded most of the offensive sections of the New Zealand Air force. Yet Helen Clark’s government refuses to acknowledge that some of New Zealand’s military personnel were involved in one of the twentieth century’s bloodiest and most illegitimate wars, the CIA’s Secret War in Laos, during the American Indochina War.

“Where have all the poppy sellers gone?” was a front-page headline on the aptly named giveaway tabloid ‘London Lite’. Indeed, there seem to be fewer people wearing the tawdry little red flower, which was probably mass-produced in Bangladesh or, dare I suggest, Vietnam. There has even been some discussion as to whether people should be coerced by social obligation to wear this thing on their lapel. A religious organisation has even suggested that the red poppy ‘smuggles in’ the message that redemption can come from participation in war. They have the temerity to suggest that we should look afresh at the principles of ‘Just War’ and that the flower should be white, to symbolise purity and peace.

Remembrance Day and similar commemorative events play a vital role in reinforcing the nations’ mythology of righteousness, purity and goodness in the face of a great deal of evidence to the contrary. These annual officially supported events help to underpin the ‘high external threat – high internal cohesion’ formula that keeps governments in power and well-funded militaries under civilian control.

The real point of ‘remembrance’ is that ordinary people have been persuaded by distorted history and disinformation into performing high risk ‘tasks’ at the expense of their own well being. These ‘tasks’ have included putting their own lives at risk and taking the lives of other ordinary people. As David Grossman says, this breaks all the fundamental conditioning of human beings that tells us that killing is taboo. People have to be trained to kill and it often causes them great, if very private, remorse and frequently psychiatric illness. Many veterans cannot express disclosure regarding their experiences for many years after the traumatic events. Some psychopaths enjoy this kind of work and no one really knows how to reprogram them.

‘Remembrance’ gives political and religious leaders the opportunity to enhance their own positions of authority, reinforce the precarious righteousness of the Christian ‘Just War Theory’ and sanitise the historical record of the nations’ narrative mythology. It also gives the veterans and their families the mistaken impression that these leaders actually care for the well-being of this audience and valorise this mythology to the wider audience of the nation.

Veterans, especially but not only those who experienced combat at close quarters, but including those who killed by remote control, as well as those who performed the support tasks, all need to be rehabituated into civil life and need to feel ‘OK’ with what they have experienced. Some will need to come to terms with things that they have done. For others it might be remorse for what they failed to prevent others from doing. Some veterans grieve over fallen comrades and feel guilty to be enjoying their own survival.

I am reminded of the SAS storming of the Iranian Embassy in London in 1982. One story that has had little airing alleges that the SAS soldiers entered the building through a smoke grenade cloud and disabled everyone on the floor. They then pumped bullets into the heads of all but one of the hostage takers. This was all standard procedure for SAS personnel. One hostage taker lay down with the hostages and emerged from the Embassy building alive to be seen by the waiting media contingent. The hostages had not ‘given him away’. The operation was considered to be a ‘failure’, not because the hostage takers ‘escaped’ interrogation and were not brought to trial; but because one hostage taker lived to see his day in court, and no doubt revealed details of what had happened. It is also said that the Coroner did not record the nature the ‘execution style’ killings – a very British approach to public amnesia in the face of inconvenient facts. No one knows the names of the soldiers or hears their explanation.

The identity of the ‘Veteran’ is a person scarred by war. A meticulously constructed ‘public amnesia’ prevents a closer examination of this phenomenon. The comfort the veterans feel with this identity depends on a valorising narrative. They were brave, they fought for their country, and they fought so that their fellow citizens can enjoy freedom. Yet they return from wars with persistent military habits, with a simplistic logic that the strong should always prevail - that force can always settle problems, a desensitised culture of violence and an inability to associate their actions with the well being of others. Substance abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, child abuse, family murder-suicide, risk-taking behaviours and self harm all characterise the destructive cycle that can be experienced by veterans affected by PTSD and similarly ‘uncategorised’ affects of war.

Governments often make the appearance of respecting the dead whilst wilfully ignoring the pleas for help and the sometimes ‘invisible’ injuries suffered by veterans. Those whose personal narrative reminds them that they performed their ‘tasks’ in undeclared and clandestine conflicts are at most risk to their own well being. They are at risk of being, co-victims of ‘plausible denial’, together with millions of unknown civilians, when their exploits do not fit comfortably into the nations’ mythological narrative of ‘bravery, purity and righteousness. The extensive deployment of Special Forces around the world in the Long War, also known as the War on Terror, will inevitably lead to some more of this ‘short-changing’ when these people return wounded or worse for wear. There will be some ingenious explanations for ‘remembrance’ humbug, I think.

I never march. I always cry inside.

Willy Bach