They are not all heroes

16 12 2010

I don’t wear a poppy.

I used to, but have become increasingly disturbed by the way in which the poppy, originally selected as a ‘soft’ symbol, to suggest the futility of death in conflict , has ben appropriated by organisations and politicians to further their jingoistic ambitions.

My great-grandfather fought in the first world war. Family history has it that Willie served at Ypres, Paschendale and the Somme. I haven’t checked the records to confirm this but have no reason to suspect that it is anything but true. I understand that he came home from the second battle suffering from the effects of gas only to receive three white feathers in the post. This prompted his return to the front line when he could have stayed at home in Liverpool.
On his return, the story goes, he cheated death by standing to take cigarettes from the pocket of his great coat which was hanging from a trench post just as a German shell exploded and filled the trench with earth. He was buried up to his neck and his comrades were buried alive.

Was he a hero? It was probably pride or stubbornness that made him return to the front, neither heroic characteristics.

He was certainly extraordinarily lucky – and so, therefore, am I. My grandfather had not yet been born when Willie stood up to get the cigarettes and if he hadn’t done so, I would not be here today.

My grandfather did not get the chance to be a hero. He was in a reserved occupation during the second world war and his repeated attempts to enlist saw him threatened with prison. He was a foundryman and made parts for tanks and bombs and guns during the day and as a fireman he helped extinguish the fires that engulfed Liverpool as it was bombed each night.

A hero? Possibly. My hero certainly, and I’m grateful that he wasn’t able to enlist as the male Merrifields had already cheated death in war once.

In the hall of the local public school, Morrisons Academy, where I practice yoga there is an eerie juxtaposition of celebrity and tragedy. On the right hand wall is a list of boys who were head of the school while on the left is a list of those former pupils killed in the two world wars. Every name on this latter list represents a tragedy but there is something even more poignant in seeing names which appear on both walls.

Were they heroes? I don’t know the exact circumstances in which they died or the details of their military careers to that point but what I do know, thanks to the photographs of these young men that hang in the gallery above the hall, and knowing a little of their stories, is that they were killed in a war not of their making, often thousands of miles from their homes. And they were not men – they were boys, like my great grandfather, only not so lucky.

So what of modern conflict? What of the Army’s tactic of recruiting from our inner cities, scooping up boys with limited education, limited prospects and limited expectations and shipping them out, sometimes ill prepared and often ill equipped it would seem, to fight for reasons that are, at best, difficult to understand and at worse are indefensible.
Where is the heroism in the MOD who deliberately target these vulnerable young men?

Where is the heroism within the defense department, with budgets overspent and out of control as service competes with service without, so we are led to believe, being able to provide front line troops with the equipment they need to be adequately protected in conflict zones?

Where is the heroism within our armed forces when homophobia, racism and a culture of bullying is, according to soldiers themselves, is allowed to persist?

Just as there is a difference between being drunk and being a drunk, there is a difference between a single act of courage and being a hero.

Soldiers are not all heroes and to laud every soldier as a hero devalues the true nature of heroism.

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