OxBlog

Saturday, March 18, 2006

# Posted 10:27 AM by Patrick Porter  

DYING IN VAIN? FAMILIES AND BEREAVEMENT IN WARTIME: I posted this late last year on my other, less-know website. But while I was in San Diego, I kept seeing stickers about the war in Iraq. Some called for solidarity with coalition troops, while others called for President Bush to be impeached. Our cousin's car had the sticker 'Free Iraq', against a background of the Iraqi flag. Strikingly, these rival claims are being made often on family cars. It struck me that people so often invest emotive appeal in their opinions by reference to their familial relationship to the war, either as supportive patriots or betrayed dissidents, and imply a relationship between the state and the family.

In the debate over the war in Iraq and the post-Saddam transition, the issue of mothers and sons has continually featured. It is familiar as the main theme of Saving Private Ryan, the mother's sacrifice of her sons, whom she donates for the Republic, and the Republic's reciprocal obligation and gratitude to the mother. In Australia, Britain and the USA, countries where I've lived for the last few years, there is no conscription or war on the scale of Vietnam. So my contact with this theme is indirect, mainly through my thesis on the First World War.

To give their arguments greater authority in wartime, some people claim to speak for the fallen. This takes various forms. Some claim to stand for what the dead represented, some claim to know what they would have wanted. In its most ambitious form, people ventriloquise for the dead, imagining what the dead would be saying to those still fighting. This is a technique employed in both the Iraq war of today and the Great War.

One of the arguments in my thesis is that bereavement in a context where there is broad preliminary consensus in favour of war, serves to strengthen commitment to the cause. The desire to prevent a son or daughter's death being meaningless is often a strong impulse. It was also a strong impulse for combatants at the front who had lost comrades. As one British Captain wrote home during the battle of the Somme, ''it is only by more sacrifices that we can save the sacrifices of the past two years from having been made in vain." That's a pretty dark arithmetic. Bereavement made it more vital to succeed, and to insist on nothing short of outright victory. At a public meeting of women in Lancashire in 1917, one observer noted:

Although many of these women have made great sacrifice in having their sons and some of their husbands away at the front, I find they are very strongly in favour of going on till German militarism is crushed. The watchword of these Lancashire women is 'No Next Time.'
As this shows, in a war which was represented as the last war, this argument was made more compelling by the prospect that the sacrifices would purchase the ultimate objective, the end of war. Your son's sacrifice would not just achieve a limited territorial or diplomatic objective, it would expunge the world of war itself. Of course, for some bereaved parents, like Rudyard Kipling, not even this utopian promise was enough to console him. For those bereaved who doubted whether the war would transform the nation or the world positively, the deaths of loved ones made it more necessary to achieve these ambitious war aims even as they became more chimeric. So there were sometimes two vectors - as the credibility of the idea that war could end war forever went down, the obligation to the rising number of dead went up.

Once the emotional investment is made in the sacrifice of a combatant, so rises the temperature of debate. But in a more divisive war, where initial opinion was more polarised before the war even began, the opposite reading of the death of the combatant is asserted - that the sacrifice was in fact a slaughter, or even murder. Whereas one side argues that questioning the war betrays their sacrifice, the other side argues that the sacrifice itself was a betrayal of the men who died, and that the only way of doing justice to the dead is to expose the invalidity of the cause which killed them. This argument is sometimes fortified by the assertion that the soldiers themselves died alienated.

Which brings me to an incident that occurred at the big protest in Washington last year, another episode of the politics of wartime bereavement:

Tempers flared near a tent erected by supporters of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who camped outside Bush’s Texas ranch this summer. Six parents came by to cut their children’s photos from a poster showing the faces of the first 1,000 Americans to die in the Iraq conflict.

"My son wouldn’t want his face here,” said Charlotte Smette of Makoti, N.D., trembling in her husband’s arms with angry tears. Around his neck, Doug Smette wore a wooden cross and the dog tags of his son, Keith, who was killed in Iraq on Jan. 24, 2004.

A few feet away, protesters had laid out rows of empty boots embellished with small U.S. flags and white candles next to a tableau of small white crosses.

"This, to me, is disrespectful,” said John Wroblewski of Jefferson Township, N.J., whose son, John, served in the Marines and was killed in a firefight in Iraq.

The use of children's photos in this poster is revealing - done to present the dead as innocent victims, to infantilise the dead, rather than as adults with agency who volunteered to be combatants.

Putting my academic hat back on, there is no automatic progression from death to disillusionment, often the opposite is the case. Casualties in one context can fortify commitment, in another context (esp. with the draft) they can tear a country apart.
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Comments:
Err.... hang on.


It doesn't say 'childrens' photos'. It says 'their childrens' photos'.

I don't know where you got the piece from, but I very much doubt Cindy Sheehan has the wherewithal to find pictures of 1,000 dead soldiers *as children*. More likely, the pics show them as adults, and so while the argument about the poster can rage, your 'infantilisation' point doesn't really stand up.

It really helps to read these things twice or three times.
 
"It really helps to read these things twice or three times."

Apparently not in your case. That the people using these photos in this manner are implicitly claiming that they were pawns rather than brave, trained professional killers is well established. Know any Marines? I thought not.
 
notherbob, you show an inspiring ability to miss the point entirely.


Whether or not the soldiers are being portrayed as 'pawns' hasn't actually been established (at least not by you) but that had nothing to do with my previous comment. Read it again.

Incidentally, why are you assuming I am American? I don't know any US marines, but i do know members of the UK armed forces.
 
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