Me and the Telegraph Pole

8 Apr

It was about thirty years ago that I was given rather a lot to think about one reasonably sunny afternoon.

Most of us in the United Kingdom had just become acquainted with the fact that we were in possession of a small group of islands in the South Atlantic called the Falkland Islands. Unfortunately, before we’d had much of a chance to assimilate this information, we then learned that in Argentina they already knew all about the Falkland Islands. Except that they called them the Malvinas, and there was a general consensus that the Malvinas were actually the rightful property of Argentina and that the UK really ought to do the decent thing and give them back. Apparently there had been negotiations going on between the UK and Argentina over the Falklands/Malvinas for years, but virtually no one in the UK knew anything about it and the Argentinians were fed up because they were pretty sure that the negotiations were going nowhere and as far as the UK was concerned, they never would go anywhere.

Having just become aware of these facts, we in the UK, then became aware of some scrap metal merchants who had landed on South Georgia, with dubious legality and probably no real interest in salvaging any of the scrap metal on the island.

Shortly after that we had Argentinean troops landing on the Falklands/Malvinas and all sorts of diplomacy was going on in the hope of trying to resolve the situation. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of the diplomacy. Obviously it failed and we had a war.

Even at the time, I wasn’t desperately hopeful that diplomacy had much chance of success, in this situation, given the nature of the governments in both the UK and Argentina.

(They had a military Junta with dwindling popularity and a hideous record of human rights abuses and we had the Thatcher régime, whose popularity was also waning at the time. Neither of these governments ever showed much interest in negotiation or compromise).

So it looked as though we were heading for war and, whatever anyone might want to claim now, people in the UK were not, as far as I could see at the time, particularly cheerful or united at the prospect. As a matter of fact, most of the people I was talking to at the time seemed to veer, as I did, between disbelief and nausea at the prospect of a war over a distant group of islands that most of had never even heard of only a matter of a week or two before.

(At the time the more vainglorious warmongers in the media and politics tended to confabulate this reluctance to go to war with a lack of patriotism, or a failure to support ‘our boys’. This was, and still is strictly bullshit. You do not undermine the men and women in our armed forces by hating the idea of putting them in harm’s way without a compelling reason. As a matter of fact, I think the alternative is to insult service men and women by treating them as an expandable commodity).

I don’t recall that this reluctance had much to do with any fear that the UK would lose the war. I think we all more or less took it for granted that we would win.

(This turned out to be sheer prejudice. It became apparent during the conflict that the UK was heavily dependent on the United States for logistical support. Some time after the conclusion of hostilities it became apparent that the UK armed forces actually came very close to running out of ammunition and that the whole war was far more of a gamble than most of us knew at the time).

Of course I had a certain interest in these events from the moment that the crisis first arose, but I would have said that, just at first, it wasn’t a terribly personal concern for me. It was current affairs. Not personal.

Then, for about twenty minutes, it became personal. Very personal. And I don’t think my view of current affairs has ever been quite so impersonal ever since.

Every now and then when the UK gets itself into trouble, rumours start to fly around about the reintroduction of National Service (Conscription).

At this point in my life I was aged 18 and I hadn’t come across this phenomenon before. I have come across it a number of times since, however.

So when I came across this rumour for the first time, I was also acutely aware that I was about the same age as a lot of the soldiers who had been conscripted from the United States into the Vietnam War. More to the point, I was also aware that many of the men and women who were being mobilised to serve in the South Atlantic, were also about the same age.

Of course common sense set in after a relatively short time. Whichever way things were going to go in the Falklands/Malvinas, it was all going to be over before anyone could even enact the legislation for conscription in the UK and long before anyone could be selected, drafted, trained etc.

There was also the fact that the British military have never liked conscription and would have fought against it tooth and nail. (For good reason, except in a national emergency, conscripts tend to be poorly motivated and therefore hard to discipline and train. For most purposes you’re much better off with a relatively small military establishment staffed by highly trained and motivated professionals).

And then again, I was also a university student at the time and would quite possibly have been exempt on those grounds alone. (Students very often are exempt from conscription. I frame no hypothesis as to why this is the case. You can draw your own conclusions if you want to).

So my concern was irrational and short-lived. But then again, it was also quite real, if rather selfish, and in the end rather instructive.

You see, quite far from being gripped by patriotic fervour, my immediate reaction to the prospect of conscription was to suggest that if anyone wanted to put me in the army then they’d need to find a bus with doors wide enough to take me and the fucking telegraph pole.

Rank cowardice, you may say.

Well, I won’t deny that.

I was certainly concerned about my immediate welfare and I wasn’t at all convinced that, what I saw as the diplomatic stupidity of Thatcher’s government in failing to avoid the conflict was a cause worth the loss of my life, or indeed anyone else’s. As a matter of fact I didn’t even think it was worth the loss of a finger, let alone an arm or a leg.

(It was apparent even at that point that the warning signs had been quite apparent for some time before the landing on South Georgia and that previous UK Governments had responded to similar warning signs and headed off armed conflict at various times in the past. These facts were known at the time although the subsequent enquiry seemed to have remarkably little to say about any of this and Thatcher’s eulogists, or should I say hagiographers, have never wanted to know anything about this aspect of the story).

I suppose if my country had been in real danger, I might have knuckled down to the business of military service, stopped whining about saving my own skin and got on with whatever had to be done.

I have sometimes wondered how many young men felt pretty much as I did when they were called to fight in World War II, but then went on to serve their countries with courage and resilience.

Maybe I would have done the same.

Maybe not.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever know, and I certainly don’t have any examples of heroic activity in my life to offer in support of any claim I might want to make on my own behalf.

What I would say is that I’m not sure I was as afraid of being killed or injured as I was afraid of having the person I had spent my time trying to become, and hoped to go on shaping through my ongoing education, shaped by other forces and for other purposes than my own.

I had an idea of what I wanted to be. I haven’t become that person, maybe I never could have, but I really didn’t want the project of my life to be taken out of my hands as a result of the stupidity and arrogance of a bunch of politicians. (And Generals usurping the position of politicians).

So you can say I wasn’t exactly heroic, and I was a little short on selfless devotion to duty. (Or at least some people’s ideas of what my duty might have been).

But one thing I’d say in my own defence is that at the very least I’ve always made my reaction to the prospect of conscription (however illusory) inform my attitude and behaviour in the years that have followed.

As a consequence I have the greatest respect for anyone who’s willing to serve in the military.

After all, they’re doing something I wouldn’t (probably couldn’t) do, so they deserve my respect.

They also deserve my support, which is why I make a point of contributing to the Earl Haig fund. I don’t see it as supporting militarism. I see it as making a small contribution to filling the gap left by the long-standing tradition of neglect and parsimony that has been followed by governments of all persuasions when it comes to looking after the people who are harmed as a result of war’s they choose to fight. (And, whatever they may say in public, governments generally choose which wars they fight. There are exceptions, but not many).

I am also consistently opposed to sending our armed forces to fight (meaning to kill, maim, get killed and maimed and generally participate in a localised form of hell on Earth) unless the alternative really is worse. (And very often it isn’t really when you look behind the political rhetoric).

I also favour a very simple expedient that might curb the willingness of politicians to send other people out to kill and die for them.

I think that as a matter of law, no politician should be entitled to vote in favour of armed intervention until they’ve been to one of the trouble spots of the world, not for a photo opportunity, but in order to fill a body bag. Preferably with the corpse of some civilian casualty who has been left out in the open for a few days.

Maybe that would make them a little bit less heroic when it comes to sacrificing other people’s lives.

Unlike some, I give Thatcher no credit at all for courage in sending the Task Force down to the Falklands.

In fact, I blame her for not preventing the war.

But once Argentinean troops had landed on the Islands I think war was unavoidable. I think Thatcher only did what any other UK Prime Minister would have done under the circumstances.

I also think that whatever the rights and wrongs of Britain’s possession of the Falklands (And even the Duke of Wellington thought our claim was shaky to say the least). It would have been wrong in principle to allow the Argentinean Junta to profit from armed aggression. (I’m well aware that many other countries have been allowed to profit from their aggression before and since, but the fact that we sometimes allow the wrong thing to happen is no excuse for not even trying to stop it when we can).

As a curious footnote to the above, I learned some time after the fighting had ended in the Falklands that one of the guys I’d known at school had been involved in the fighting.

I was horrified at the thought.

He was such a nice guy; I could never picture him with a gun in his hand.

He wasn’t a lifelong buddy of mine and as a matter of fact I never really knew him all that well, but I used to play football with him from time to time. These weren’t organised matches; they were silly ad hoc games with improvised facilities and pretty fluid rules.

Generally speaking we would use a tennis ball, because it was easier to carry around than a proper football, but if we didn’t have a tennis ball we’d use a bottle top.

(You have to stamp on the bottle top to flatten it then you don’t exactly kick it, you put your foot on it and sort of flick it).

On one (brief) occasion we tried using a golf ball.

(Don’t try it, unless you’ve got a really high tolerance of pain).

Anyway, this guy came back from the South Atlantic without a scratch on him, as I later found out, and he used some of his back pay to buy a bicycle. The first time he took his bike out on the road, some idiot in a truck ran him off the road.

He survived this too, with only minor injuries, but the point remains that riding a bike in any major city in the UK can be more hazardous to your health than fighting in a small war.

Maybe I’m being facetious.

I could pretend to be more serious by quoting statistics about the casualties of the war, 649 Argentinians killed, 1068 wounded, 258 British killed, 775 wounded, but what does that tell you?

If you don’t know any of those people it’s hard to see these figures as anything more than statistics. Maybe that’s why I was so upset about my old school chum going to war and why I wanted to mention him here. The fact is that I lost track of this guy almost as soon as I left school and only learned that he’d joined the army by pure fluke, but that isn’t the point.

If he had been killed or suffered life changing physical or mental injuries in the Falklands War that would have been more than a statistic for me.

In that one instance the casualty would have had a name and a face for me. He would have been a human being and not a number and I would have had to remember his jokes, his agility, the times I got in his way and we scuffled around a bit and swapped a few insults. (This was always an integral part of the game as we played it).

So maybe that’s the real lesson to take from all this.

Maybe when we read the statistics about so many people killed and injured in some incident or accident we should try to picture some of the people we know. Not heroes. Just people.

After all, every one of those statistics was a human being before history dropped feet first all over them.

Of course another casualty of the war was the slight, faint hope of a negotiated settlement to the dispute over the Falklands/Malvinas.

Sean Penn can fulminate as much as he likes (and who knows? On some level he may even be right). But the point remains that after shedding so much blood, it will be many years, (decades? generations?) before any government in the United Kingdom will ever be able to even consider any kind of deal that the Argentinians might find close to being acceptable. (And that’s before you even try to factor in considerations about possible oil reserves and claims to Antarctic territory).

So did the war do any good for anyone?

It virtually guaranteed Thatcher’s re election. (Which was looking unlikely before the war).

It brought down the military Junta in Argentina and opened the way for democracy.

It has been credited with restoring the UK’s battered confidence and wiping out the ignominy of the Suez Crises. (Does any of that even mean anything to anyone younger than me?)

It made a negotiated settlement over the disputed islands virtually impossible. (And it will remain virtually impossible for the foreseeable future).

It gave my motorcycle instructor a useful terminology for one of the hazards faced by bikers (The Exocet Dog).

It totally failed to resolve the dispute between the UK and Argentina (Which at the time of writing is still causing friction).

It was a major, formative step on my path to becoming the seditious, obnoxious, iconoclastic, not quite pacifist that I have become.




2 Responses to “Me and the Telegraph Pole”

  1. Edward Fraser 13/04/2012 at 2:57 pm #

    Great post. Tons of interesting stuff.

    In terms of whether people in WW2 thought as you did about the Falklands, I don’t know if many of them did. Certainly they didn’t in WW1. I don’t think that the whole concept that (for what we might call a lower class man) somebody might do something other than what they were told to do wasn’t that pronounced. Also, it wouldn’t have been difficult to persuade people that if they didn’t fight their country would have been taken over by a Facist regime.

    In terms of the ridiculous nature of the Falkland’s conflict, I think that Dean Acheson sums up Post-World War 2 Britain perfectly when he said that ‘Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.’ Simply we had no idea what to do with ourselves when our threats no longer sufficed to maintain global order.

    In terms of your ‘cowardice’ for not wanting to fight for your country, this is something that has also bothered me. I don’t think I am a coward, but if you tried to get me to fight for something I didn’t believe in, then I would have to be dragged, kicking and screaming. I have no interest in dying for the cause, unless it is something I agree with. Problem is, I’m such a pessimistic old man that I can’t think of anything I would fight for!

    • fekesh 14/04/2012 at 9:55 am #

      I suppose one of the things that’s troubled me a little since my uncomfortable 20 minutes or so thinking about being conscription is the question of what I might have done in a previous war. I suppose I would have gone with the flow. From reading accounts of soldiers wh fought in Vietnam I found it curious how many of them were ambivalent about the war, had all the resources they needed to dodge the draft, but somehow ended up going to war anyway.
      With hindsight, WWI seems to have been a war almost without a cause, but it didn’t seem that way to most people at the time,and you’re right ‘the lower orders’ (to which I definitely belong) were far more deferential and less likely to rebel. (Although I’m sure from reading some of your earlier posts that you’re aware of the mutiny that occured in the British Army during WWI).
      I suppose in WWII the issues were much clearer and I’d like to think I would have been willing (if not necessaily eager) to do my part. Having said that, I don’t really know.
      It’s always so tempting to fantasise about being a hero eg Mark Wahlberg and his toe curling comments about what he would have done if he’d only been on one of the highjacked flights on 911. I suppose the plain fact is that we don’t really know as long as we have the good luck to avoid the kind of situation that calls for real courage.
      In general I don’t reproach myself too much about cowardice. I’m not sure the word means very much and in general I tend to value the quiet, and generally unrecognised, courage that has to do with being a decent human being in difficult circumstances, rather than the kind that features in Hollywood blockbusters.
      I often wonder if you can ever really make things better by running around in a sweaty vest shooting at people.
      Anyway, thanks for your comments. Thought provoking as always.

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