In the UK, we are coming up to Remembrance Sunday once again. I must admit, I’ve struggled with this in recent years.
A hundred years ago, say, for example, in World War One, the average man-in-the-street would not have known about, or would have had a limited view of, world events. They would have trusted the judgement of their “betters”, who sent them off to war.
If people had known what they now know about the reasons, would they have been so prepared to fight? Especially as the “war to end all wars” was repeated just 25 years later? Certainly, as I understand it, we were sucked into war almost accidentally, due mainly to distant alliances coming into play, and the question was far from clear-cut.
On to World War Two, and I think is an easier one to justify, in the light of Hitler’s behaviour towards minorities such as Jews, for example. Of course, we never found out about the concentration camps until late in the war, but there were signs; there’s no doubt whatsoever that, at best, we were dealing with a malevolent regime from the moment it arrived. I suspect I’d have been happy to join up and to do my bit.
So, growing up as a [post WWII] child, not something you’d spend time pondering.
But take later wars. In America, Viet Nam, for example. Here, Ireland, the Falklands, even moreso Afghanistan and Iraq. All of these wars were propagated by politicians, and all had some degree of domestic opposition. I’ve got personal memories from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the media coverage was such that every one of us was able to decide what was right and what was wrong. We had no need of politicians to inform us, because we were sufficiently informed ourselves. Indeed, politicians actively muddied the waters, for example the sexed-up dossier which falsely claimed the existence of WMD in Iraq. So there is far more ambiguity in order to determine right from wrong. At best, I think it is a case-by-case call.
So it might be OK for me, a mere civilian, to decide that a war might be wrong. But what about a serviceman or -woman? Is their duty just to do as they are told (ultimately, to obey the will of their political superiors), or do they have a responsibility to decide between right and wrong, just like me?
It’s probably worth noting at this point that the Nurenburg Trials of WW2 quite clearly stated that “obeying orders” was rejected as a defence, although this was in the context of war crimes, rather than just taking part in the war itself. And, if you look at the history of that defence, it is inconsistent at best.
So that’s the dilemma. Does a serviceman have a responsibility to take a view on the rights and wrongs of the situation they are asked to fight in?
Of course, if you say “yes” to that question, you probably then need to look at ecomonic conscription within of the armed forces. How people from certain regions or backgrounds are represented disproportionately, because otherwise there is little chance of finding a job. And the whole thing starts to get very complicated.
But, despite this, if you *do* say “yes”, Remembrace Day is essentially a money-raising event on behalf of the British Legion (a charity which supports UK veterans), so why should you support somebody financially when they’ve purposefully done something with which you disagree?
If you say “No” – they ignore everything apart from their commander’s instruction – then at what point do we apply conscience? At what point do you evaluate “this is wrong” or “this is right”?
If you don’t apply conscience at all, don’t take a view on wrong/right, then you just defer up the chain and you end up with a politician making a decision, which may or may not be on principle (there’s no guarantee either way), and everyone else just following suit. Iraq and Afghanistan are obvious examples where dodgy values have been applied, although I don’t think Blair or Campbell or Bush are particularly unique.
I don’t pretend to have an answer here, but certainly I can defend either view as principled, in its own right. And, of course, the view you take will drive your view of Remembrance.