Sunday, November 12, 2006

"the old lie"

posted by k

The last verse of Wilfred Owen's poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est" deals with a soldier dying painfully as the result of a poison gas attack in World War I:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

When the vicar on Radio 4's Sunday Worship talks about "the supreme sacrifice" of soldiers, as he did today, he covers the reality of war with the romantic gloss of cliche.

Many of the soldiers who died in the numerous wars of the last hundred years showed immense courage and fought from principles which I share: opposition to fascism, defence of liberty, freedom from an invading army. Others fought because being a soldier guaranteed an income or because they were conscripted into the army and saw no alternative to fighting. Most deaths in war - of soldiers and others - are slow and painful.

Being a soldier is not about being willing to make "the supreme sacrifice" or being remembered in sanitised services of remembrance. Soldiers are trained to obey orders and to kill. Throughout the twentieth century soldiers - even Wilfred Owen - have taken souvenirs and trophies from the soldiers they have killed. Soldiers have shown immense generosity and thoughtfulness for others. Soldiers have also raped and tortured. The soldiers who behave well in some circumstances may behave badly in others.

The civilians who were hurt, abused and terrified in war have responded in different ways. Some have resolved to make a better world and others have hurt, abused and terrified others in their turn.

I would like to reflect on all those who died in wars whether soldiers or civilians. I would like to think of them them unglamorously and without cliche. They were human beings who faced appalling circumstances created by their fellow human beings.

British soldiers, sent to fight by their government, kill and are killed in war. Cliches like "the supreme sacrifice" hide reality and make it easier for the army to recruit children. Recruitment starts with children. Army recruiters go into state schools and talk to children who are 13 or 14. Recruiters tell children the army is a good career, which offers training and a trade. There's no mention of homeless ex-soldiers or post-traumatic stress disorder or the effect of years of institutional life. There's no mention of killing or dying, unless the children raise this in questions.

Mourning the soldiers and others killed in war is fitting. Glamourising and softening their deaths with cliche helps the recruiters in schools. Phrases like "the supreme sacrifice" don't reflect heroism accurately. They make it just a little easier to train obedient killers. They contribute to a climate in which atrocities and war crimes can ocur.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Silencing the Untermensch

Britain is now the prison capital of Western Europe. We have the biggest prison population and the highest rate of imprisonment. We imprison 143 of every 100,000 people in England and Wales There are 76,000 people in jails in England and Wales. This excludes immigration detainees. In 2005 Amnesty International estimated that 25,000 asylum seekers were incarcerated in the UK. There are around 1,300 prisoners in Northern Ireland and 6,700 in Scotland. (All 2004/5 information). We have an unimaginative and reactionary Penal System.

When the Home Office is trailing proposals to prevent criminals profiting through the publicaton of their writing, it strikes me that the issue is rather wider than that of gaining insight into a particular crime, into the conditions of the mind which contributed to that crime. It goes beyond repressing a greater social and historical understanding of human fallibility and passion.

Any proposal to stop criminals profiting from their experience will censor the most telling source of information about life in the penal system. It will act to restrict the information which is publicly available on the way in which Governments treat those who are convicted of lawbreaking. It will restrict the reports of institutional sadism, corrupt and corrupting prison staff (surely a minority) and of inhumanly overcrowded prisons. It will limit the exposure of injustice or the consequences of bad or badly drafted law. And it will limit the ability of former inmates to relate those cases of compassion and mutual support which, despite the function of the Prison system as schooling for criminals, remain a part of the experience of imprisonment.

We have a Government which has shattered our liberties over the past near-decade. We have a Government which has the habit of misrepresentation. We have a Government which has facilitated the use of hearsay evidence, which has introduced the concept that the broad and subjective offence of causing harassment, distress or alarm exposes people to criminal sanction. We have a Government which ruthlessly suppresses dissent within its own Party and MP's and which is clearly bent on extending the suppression of protest and of criticism. The habit of imprisonment is instinctive to such people.

Writers are already exposed to the risk of prosecution for the offence of promoting or glorifying “terrorism” (again, a subjective judgement). When a sole protester in Parliament Square is subject to constant harassment, when a propaganda machine such has never before been seen in this nation is churning out co-ordinated vitriol which exploits the most base of prejudices, when Blunkett's reported panic and fury led to an instruction to call in the army and machine-gun the prisoners of Lincoln, we need each and every voice to seek to preserve the human and deny the inhumanity of those who would have us all be Subjects, those who would prefer to see all criticism or dissent silenced.

If we silence those who can speak of the experience of the British Penal System we are removing one of the diminishing number of checks and balances on the impact of the actions of Government Ministers. We are refusing the concept that there might be something to learn from the criminal, from his or her experience. We are capitulating to the definition of the lawbreaker as, forever thereafter, less-than-human. As Untermensch.


"Society ... will have no place for me"

posted by k

I was at school when I picked up the green Penguin by Peter Wildeblood with the title Against the Law. The book is probably out of print now and entirely forgotten, but it was influential in its day.

Peter Wildeblood had been jailed with others for offences termed "gross indecency" - consensual sex with adult men - and he wrote this account of his experiences, including his trial and imprisonment, with reflections on the law that criminalised male homosexuality.

Fortunately the book is dated now. Peter Wildeblood's sex life would no longer be a crime. And his book contributed to the public debate which led to the change in the law.

Under new laws being proposed by the government, Peter Wildeblood would not have been able to publish his restrained and thoughtful memoir. It is suggested that criminals should not be able to make money by publishing anything that deals with their crimes. It is sometimes suggested that criminals should be forbidden from publishing any account of their crimes, or speaking publicly about them.

It may seem like a good idea at first. Why should Jeffrey Archer make more money from his autobiography? Why should Jonathan Aitken be able to pour out his heart to us in a document of remorse and religious conversion? And, if Blair and Bush are ever tried for war crimes, we have the tanatalising possiblity that their memoirs too might be banned.

But writing about crime does have value: to politicians, historians, criminologists and others. As human beings we may wish or need to understand what drives criminals if we are ever to look for changes in our society.

Some of the books banned by this law may be deeply unpleasant. Others, like Peter Wildeblood's, are important contributions to debate.

I hope the law will be too difficult to frame. Will Waterstone's be banned from selling Nelson Mandela's A Long Walk to Freedom? Will Gandhi's Autobiography: The Story of my Experiments with Truth suddenly become a banned book? Will students be forbidden to read Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis or John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Perhaps the Bible will be left untouched since we don't know if St. Paul made a profit from the letters he wrote in prison.

I'm not too worried about the books I've listed. There will be an exemption - or it will be left to the discretion of the Home Secretary or his subordinates. But we mustn't silence a future Mandela or Gandhi or Bunyan or Wilde.

We must take great care not to stifle knowledge, debate and freedom.

see also Duncan Campbell in the Guardian