George MacDonald Fraser
Bookworm of Bookworm Room has a first rate post in which she notes the decline in American appreciation of heroism from World War II to today. She quotes this passage from the superb memoir of the novelist George MacDonald Fraser, Quartered Safe Out Here, about his experiences fighting as a British soldier in Burma during World War II, to describe the change that has come over the West in the past seventy years:
An outsider might have thought, mistakenly, that the section was unmoved by the deaths of Gale and Little. There was no outward show of sorrow, no reminiscences or eulogies, no Hollywood heart-searchings or phony philosophy. Forster asked “W’ee’s on foorst stag?”; Grandarse said “Not me, any roads; Ah’s aboot knackered”, and rolled up in his blanket; Nick cleaned Tich’s rifle; I washed and dried his pialla; the new section commander – that young corporal who earlier in the day had earned the Military Medal — told off the stag roster; we went to sleep. And that was that. It was not callousness or indifference or lack of feeling for two comrades who had been alive that morning and were now names for the war memorial; it was just that there was nothing to be said.
It was part of war; men died, more would die, that was past, and what mattered now was the business in hand; those who lived would get on with it. Whatever sorrow was felt, there was no point in talking or brooding about it, much less in making, for form’s sake, a parade of it. Better and healthier to forget it, and look to tomorrow.
The celebrated British stiff upper lip, the resolve to conceal emotion which is not only embarrassing and useless, but harmful, is just plain common sense.
But that was half a century ago. Things are different now, when the media seem to feel they have a duty to dwell on emotion, the more harrowing the better, and to encourage its indulgence. The cameras close on stricken families at funerals, interviewers probe relentlessly to uncover grief, pain, fear, and shock, know no reticence or even decency in their eagerness to make the viewers’ flesh creep, and wallow in the sentimental cliché (victims are always “innocent”, relatives must be “loved ones”). And the obscene intrusion is justified as “caring” and “compassionate” when it is the exact opposite.
The pity is that the public shapes its behaviour to the media’s demands. The bereaved feel obliged to weep and lament for the cameras (and feel a flattering importance at their attention). Even young soldiers, on the eye of action in the Gulf, confessed, under a nauseating inquisition designed to uncover their fears, to being frightened — of course they were frightened, just as we were, but no interviewer in our time was so shameless, cruel, or unpatriotic as to badger us into admitting our human weakness for public consumption, and thereby undermining public morale, and our own. In such a climate, it is not to be wondered at that a general should agonise publicly about the fears and soul-searchings of command — Slim and Montgomery and MacArthur had them, too, but they would rather have been shot than admit it. They knew the value of the stiff upper lip.
The damage that fashionable attitudes, reflected (and created) by television, have done to the public spirit, is incalculable. It has been weakened to the point where it is taken for granted that anyone who has suffered loss and hardship must be in need of “counselling”; that soldiers will suffer from “post-battle traumatic stress” and need psychiatric help. One wonders how Londoners survived the Blitz without the interference of unqualified, jargonmumbling “counsellors”, or how an overwhelming number of 1940s servicemen returned successfully to civilian life without benefit of brain-washing. Certainly, a small minority needed help; war can leave terrible mental scars — but the numbers will increase, and the scars enlarge, in proportion to society’s insistence on raising spectres which would be better left alone. Tell people they should feel something, and they’ll not only feel it, they’ll regard themselves as entitled and obliged to feel it. Continue reading
One of the more obscure Victorian military campaigns, the British conquest of Tubbyland was notable for a fair amount of ineptitude among the British commanders, redeemed by the usual courage shown by the “Tommy Atkins” in the ranks. For a small war, a fair amount has been written on it, and here are some of my thoughts on the more useful works that I have found in my own research into this “savage war of peace”.
Report of Operations of Tubbyland Field Force, three volumes, Captain Gilbert Bryant-Norris, editor in chief, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, (1888). The official history, these three volumes go into extensive detail and are essential reading for any serious student of this conflict. Unfortunately, the various authors are at pains to save the reputations of the commanders involved, and therefore the conclusions set forth should be taken with a boulder of salt. The volumes do have excellent maps, and the texts of letters and telegrams are of great use in piecing together the somewhat convulted operations.
A Child’s History of the Tubbyland War, Winston Churchill, Longmans Green, (1899). Leave it to Winston Churchill to write a kids’ book about the conflict! He softens the rough edges of the War for his young readers, but gives a fairly accurate retelling. The book of course emphasizes British patriotism and the grandeur of the Empire, but not without some criticism of the British commanders and a fair amount of sympathy for the Tubbies. This passage is indicative of the style of the work:
“There was plenty of work here for our brave soldiers and Tubbyland was well worth the cost in blood and money. Were the gentlemen of England all out fox hunting? No! For the sake of our manhood, our devoted colonists and our dead soldiers, we perserved and won our War against a brave, albeit soft and cuddly, adversary”. Continue reading
I love history. To me it is endlessly fascinating, the never ending chronicle of the triumphs and tragedies of mankind, filled with adventure, courage, cowardice, wisdom, folly and all those elements that make great novels. I therefore find it distressing that so many people think history is dull and are indifferent or even hostile to it. Distressing but understandable. Too many historians seem to write with the unstated desire to make their subject matter as dull and dreary as they can manage. A useful corrective to this are good historical novels, which can often awake in readers a love of history. One of the great practioners of the craft was Rafael Sabatini.
Writing at the end of the Nineteenth and the first half of the Twentieth, Sabatini wrote with color and verve and his historical novels, the best known of which is Captain Blood, were historically accurate as well as being vastly entertaining. Children can often come to love history if it is demonstrated to them that it does not have to be dull, and a great historical novel can help accomplish this. Continue reading