Saturday, January 31, 2009

Quartered Safe Out Here

This past fall I read an excellent memoir by George MacDonald Fraser about his time with Britain's Fourteenth Army ("the Forgotten Army") in Burma during World War II. I figured I might share a few of my favorite passages from Quartered Safe out Here with you. On the lighter side of things:

I wondered then, as I wonder now, what the Church of England's policy was about padres who put themselves in harm's way; giving comfort to the wounded and dying, fine, but ethical problems must surely arise if Jap came raging out of a bunker into his reverence's path; the purple pips on the chaplain's shoulder wouldn't mean a thing to the enemy, so... [sic]. And if padre shot a Jap, what would the harvest be - apart from three ringing cheers from the whole battalion? In my own Church, the highly practical Scottish one, it would doubtless be classed as a work of necessity and mercy, but I wasn't sure about the Anglicans. (110)

Having fought against the Japanese, Fraser was a proponent of the atomic bombing of Japan. Turnaround was fair play, he argued, and the Japanese had it coming. Besides, as a man who had seen Japanese soldiers fight to the death in combat, Fraser had little patience for theories that Japan was on the verge of collapse. All that makes the following passage even more powerful:

If, on that sunny August morning, Nine Section had known all that we know now of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and could have been shown the effect of that bombing, and if some voice from on high had said: 'There - that can end the war for you, if you want. But it doesn't have to happen; the alternative is that the war, as you've known it, goes on to a normal victorious conclusion, which may take some time, and if the past is anything to go by, some of you won't reach the end of the road. Anyway, Malaya's down that way... it's up to you', I think I know what would have happened. They would have cried 'Aw, fook that!' with one voice, and then they would have sat about, snarling, and lapsed into silence, and then someone would have said heavily, 'Aye, weel,' and then got to his feet, and been asked, 'W'eer th' 'ell are gan, then?' and given no reply, and at last the rest would have got up too, gathering their gear with moaning and foul language and ill-tempered harking back to the long dirty bloody miles from the Imphal boxes to the Sittang Bend and the iniquity of having to go again, slinging their rifles and bickering about who was to go on point, and 'Ah's aboot 'ed it, me!' and 'You, ye bugger, ye're knackered afower ye start, you!' and 'We'll a' get killed!', and then they would have been moving south [toward the new front in Malaya]. Because that is the kind of men they were. And that is why I have written this book. (221)

So who were these men of Nine Section, in one little corner of the 17th Division of the 14th Army?

With the exception of Parker, who I suspect voted Tory if he voted at all (free lances are a conservative lot), and one or two of the rustics, who may have voted Liberal, [the men of the Border Regiment] were Labour to a man, but not necessarily socialists as the term is understood now. Their socialism was of a simple kind: they had known of the 'thirties, and they didn't want it again: the dole queue, the street corner, the true poverty of that time. They wanted jobs, and security, and a better future for their children than they had had - and they got that, and they were thankful for it. It was what they had fought for, over and beyond the pressing need of ensuring that Britain did not become a Nazi slave state.

Still, the Britain they see in their old age is hardly 'the land fit for heroes' that they envisaged - if that land existed in their imaginations, it was probably a place where the pre-war values co-existed with decent wages and housing. It was a reasonable, perfectly possible dream, and for a time it existed, more or less. And then it changed, in the name of progress and improvement and enlightenment, which meant the destruction of much that they had fought for and held dear, and the betrayal of familiar things that they loved. Some of them, to superficial minds, will seem terribly trivial, even ludicrously so - things like county names, and shillings and pence, and the King James Version, and yards and feet and inches - yet they matter to a nation.

They did not fight for a Britain which would be dishonestly railroaded into Europe against the people's will; they did not fight for a Britain where successive governments, by their weakness and folly, would encourage crime and violence on an unprecedented scale; they did not fight for a Britain where thugs and psychopaths could murder and maim and torture and never have a finger laid on them for it; they did not fight for a Britain whose leaders would be too cowardly to declare war on terrorism; they did not fight for a Britain whose Parliament would, time and again, betray its trust by legislating against the wishes of the country; they did not fight for a Britain where children could be snatched from their homes and parents by night on nothing more than the good old Inquisition principle of secret information; they did not fight for a Britain whose Churches and schools would be undermined by fashionable reformers; they did not fight for a Britain where free choice could be anathematised as 'discrimination'; they did not fight for a Britain where to hold by truths and values which have been thought good and worthy for a thousand years would be to run the risk of being called 'fascist' - that, really, is the greatest and most pitiful irony of all.

No, it is not what they fought for - but being realists they accept what they cannot alter, and reserve their protests for the noise pollution of modern music in their pubs. (177-8)
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