Peace Matters index




passing the torch


ONLINE contents

- passing the torch
- war by february
- counting the dead
- conflict map
- remembering

Anti war demonstration London
Anti-war demonstration in London

SUBSCRIBE to Peace Matters

- more about MacRae's poem

- tell a friend about this article


‘Passing the Torch’ is the title of a magazine article about young teenagers at work in a cemetery clearing weeds and cleaning headstones. Civic or wildlife groups can usually be found doing this kind of thing somewhere most fine weekends. But these 14-year olds were wearing air cadet uniforms, the headstones belonged to the graves of former soldiers, and the magazine was ‘Air Cadet’. This journal has been distributed at numerous events and places, including a ‘Fun Day’ in central London, where we picked up our copy.

The contents of ‘Air Cadet’ emphasise the gentle and fun-loving aspects of the military life and display ‘innocent’ enthusiasm about fighter planes. The contrast between this sort of material and reality – this is a time when the British government is seriously thinking about bombing Iraq to bring about ‘regime change’ – is striking. Worrying, too.

‘Passing the torch’ is also an iconic image. It appears notably in John MacRae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, and so is locked forever into the imagery of remembrance.
‘Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch...’

The torch being passed here burns bright with military values and aspirations. They include killing on an industrial scale if necessary. As defence minister Geoff Hoon said recently: ‘in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.’

As it happens, the army is having increasing difficulty in recruiting military personnel. Not unreasonably, most people prefer a more socially useful job. Top of the list of jobs that young people aspire to is (the surprise discovery of a recent survey) working for a charitable organisation. So the military have to attract the young in any way they can. Magazines such as ‘Air Cadet’, and the cadet forces around the country, are only part of what is in effect a unique recruitment drive. No other industry has such a nationwide network, largely paid for by the taxpayer, aimed at persuading young people to consider a career in it.

But it’s not only the military that have problems with numbers. The RAF Museum in Hendon is also suffering. ‘We have not met our own expectations in terms of the number of people through the doors,’ Michael Fopp, its director, has admitted. They appear anxious to achieve this by any possible means. When we were there we saw groups of neatly-uniformed children as young as seven or eight, being taken round the Museum by their teachers. These small innocents were dwarfed by the mere wheels of planes displayed in that vast hangar-like space. What were they were making of it all? What were they being told? Was their visit part of a project preparing them for TV news images of targets hit by laser-guided weapons, or of the resulting ‘collateral damage’? Was it meant to help them understand bombing strategy? Or was it simply a chance for teachers and children to enjoy a day away from the classroom, under the official heading of ‘History’?

The RAF Museum ‘graphically depicts the 100-year contribution made by the Royal Air Force to this exciting period of history’, says its promotional material. In fact the Museum is stunningly boring. Of course, it’s hard – and not good for publicity – for an institution devoted to destruction to ‘graphically depict’ just that. A demolition firm might be proud of how it safely brought down a tall chimney or a tower block; but area bombing and large-scale killing of civil populations is difficult, these days, to boast about.

In the huge Bomber Command Hall, however, there is a pathetic gesture towards such a depiction. An installation, about the size of an average living-room, is meant to show ‘a weapons factory partially destroyed by bombs’. Interestingly, this mock-up is in the American section. The reason for this is unlikely to be noticed by most visitors, or explained to children on educational tours. It was, of course, the US who insisted on the bombing of ‘military’ targets. The RAF’s Bomber Command preferred to bomb the hell out of cities. The Museum does make some acknowledgement that people were killed, but in the (very few) photographs of bombed cities here you won’t see a single dead person.

Perhaps none of this is surprising. On Remembrance Day it will be the dead British military that are the focus of attention – dead civilians were only an incidental, albeit ‘regrettable’, by-product of the heroic struggle and sacrifice of soldiers.

Like all military forces, the RAF don’t like to dwell on the most significant results of their activity. Some of these are laid bare in a timely translation into English of Sven Lindqvist’s ‘A History of Bombing’. Lindqvist examines in detail the weapon which had such a profound effect on the 20th century; and in the process he exposes the layers of lies with which military activity is so often shrouded. Here is just one example:

Two days after Hiroshima and the day before Nagasaki, the US, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France signed the so-called London Agreement, which made war crimes and crimes against humanity actions punishable in an international court.

But there was a catch. How could they prevent the condemnation of their own systematic bombing of civilian residential areas in Germany and Japan, according to the rules that had been accepted before the war as valid international law, even by the Allies themselves? What would they say when German generals, brought to court for destroying entire villages in actions against partisans, responded that they had done precisely what the Allied bombers had done to German cities and villages?

In his concluding report, prosecutor Telford Taylor declared both German and Allied bombing innocent, since ‘the air bombardment of cities and factories has become a recognised part of modern warfare, as practised by all nations’. The bombing of civilians had, according to the court, become customary law. The fourth Hague Convention of 1907, which forbids air bombardment of civilians, was not applied during the Second World War and thereby, according to the court, had lost its validity.

So rather than establishing that the Allies, too – in fact, especially the Allies – had committed this kind of war crime, the American prosecutor declared that the law had been rendered invalid by the actions of the Allies.

No torches worth passing on here.

Jan Melichar




 PEACE PLEDGE UNION 41B Brecknock Road London N7 0BT Britain phone +44 (0)20 7424 9444 fax +44 (0)20 7482 6390 CONTACT US