Want a fight? You must be very brave….mustn’t you?
Posted on January 8, 2020
Steve Earle: Singer/songwriter – Rich Man’s War
The living rooms of the older generation of my family were adorned with wedding photographs. These photographs are notable for an immediately interesting detail: in many cases, at least one person is in military uniform. They were taken in the early 1940s.
The people – my aunts, uncles and other assorted relatives, friends and acquaintances – weren’t doing harmless, tedious national service. They were armed-forces personnel serving during a time of war. Even those of their family who were not engaged in war work of some sort were acutely aware of what war meant. My family lived in a city that was systematically bombed by the Luftwaffe and the damage inflicted killed people and destroyed property and livelihoods.
Almost all the people in the photographs are second generation immigrants, largely from Eastern Europe. By the time war broke, most of them were still working in tailoring and associated drapery trades, but a few had made their first, tentative steps toward running their own businesses. Amazingly, all of them survived and went on to build their lives in the country that had taken in their parents. The same could not be said of the innumerable relatives who had failed to find places of safety.
I offer this unremarkable insight into lives mirrored by hundreds of thousands of families because for most of us, living our comfortable existences in one of the richest countries in the world, war is unknown. I’m not ignoring those still serving in the armed forces and their families and I’m certainly not blind to the fact that are many people living here who have been witness to, and victim of, acts and episodes of true horror and suffering. But for most of us, war is a notional experience.
What’s more, for many of us it is an experience that is disappearing from our collective consciousness. There are now no known survivors from the first world war and combatants in the second become rarer with each passing year: even if you were a young person of 18 serving in 1945, you’d be in your 90s by now. Your nan’s boring stories of rationing and drawing a pencil line up her leg for want of stockings now truly do belong to a lost age.
From time to time, an atrocity on our streets gives us an unwanted taste of how much damage can be wreaked with modern weaponry and technology and we are, quite rightly, outraged. Try as we might, we feel greater grief for the victims of a gig in Manchester than we do for a family wedding in Baghdad or shoppers in some unheard-of marketplace in Pakistan. These are rumours of war that unnerve us but have only passing impact.
This lack of first-hand experience of combat, and the fear and terror that goes with it, is now shared by a generation of politicians for whom active service is either unknown or has been dodged. There are one or two exceptions, but, by and large, those who sanction the bombs, drones and missile attacks are soft-palmed office dwellers for whom blood, shattered bone and carnage are filtered through high-definition computer screens. Their only memory of dragging your bleeding buddy out of the line of fire is prompted by sentimental film makers or, perhaps more alarmingly, the craftsmen of the games’ industry.
On yesterday evening’s news we saw images of US troops from the state of Georgia being sent to either quell or aggravate – it’s always difficult to tell these days – the latest uproar started by Trump. At such times I can only think of the admirable Steve Earle (pictured) and his song Rich Man’s War. We hear the truth in its refrain in all its obvious vileness: just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war. Earle’s song, although infused like many of his works, with contempt for blowhard politicians, makes it clear that the West has no monopoly of this notion.
None of what Trump is doing is new and neither is he alone in going forth with his desktop bravery: the UK has sins of its own from the Falklands to Iraq when it comes to starting diversionary wars. But I don’t think there’s any marriage photos on his sideboard that might just make him – or so many of these fat white boys ruling the roost round the world – a little less brave than he feels himself to be. That’s a shame for all of us.
There should only be one, implacable test to be put to any politician, anywhere, who wants to go to war. Is the cause so important that your own child must sign up and go to fight? No, you say?
Then there’s your answer, brave boy.