Monday April 23, 2018

“When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today”: The plight of World War II Soldiers

We may argue over whether Kipling (1865-1936) exhibits imperial and racial attitudes, but even the most virulent critic cannot accuse him of elitism

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Pictures of Soldiers at the time of Battle. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.
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Sept 04, 2016: The memorial at the Kohima War Cemetery, where lie dead of a World War II battle termed “Stalingrad of the East”, asks us: “When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today.” It’s no less true for soldiers now, but do we consider it in our attitudes to them in peace and to ex-servicemen? And it is an old poet, now deemed a standard-bearer of imperialism, who can draw our attention to our shortcomings.

The modern world may never be less hypocritical when it comes to war- we extol the profession of arms, we salute the practitioners’ contribution to preserving our liberty- and we ignore them when they are in need. Be it the plight of the Vietnam ‘vets’ (veterans) in America, the ‘Afgantsy’ in the Soviet Union, and for us, OROP and a few other issues, the record is not too exemplary.

But this trend is scarcely new- even for a country that was once the foremost global power on the strength of its military might, Britain was no better. And Rudyard Kipling pointed it out at least thrice.

Kohima War Cemetery Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Kohima War Cemetery: Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

We may argue over whether Kipling (1865-1936) exhibits imperial and racial attitudes, but even the most virulent critic cannot accuse him of elitism. For he also gave a voice, in all senses of the word, to those who made the Empire possible — the common British soldier.

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Apart from the likes of “The Three Musketeers” or “The Taking of Lungtungpen” about the colourful exploits of privates Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris in his first short story anthology “Plain Tales from the Hills” (1888) (continued in next anthology “Soldiers Three”, 1888), Kipling also used verse for this purpose. “Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses” (1892), doesn’t only deal with soldiers’ lives but social attitudes towards them.

Bodies of American soldiers on the beach of Tarawa. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Bodies of American soldiers on the beach of Tarawa. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Take “Tommy”, common slang for a soldier, first published March 1, 1890, which begins with an unnamed soldier, turned away from a bar with ridicule, reflecting over his plight.

” ‘O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away’;/But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play… and that: “Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep/Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap…”

The soldier stresses: “We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,/But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you..” and “You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:/We’ll wait for extra rations if you treat us rational” but warns: “For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’/But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country,” when the guns begin to shoot;/ Yes it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;/But Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!”

In “The Last of the Light Brigade”, published in April 1890, Kipling deals with the sad aftermath of a celebrated wartime action, immortalised by Lord Tennyson. “There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,/There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night./They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;/They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.”

They finally decide to approach “the man who writes/The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites'”, and in Tennyson’s presence: “‘Beggin’ your pardon,’ he (their spokesman) said,/’You wrote o’ the Light Brigade, sir. Here’s all that isn’t dead./An’ it’s all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin’ the mouth of hell;/For we’re all of us nigh to the workhouse, an’ we thought we’d call an’ tell.”

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“No, thank you, we don’t want food, sir; but couldn’t you take an’ write/A sort of ‘to be continued’ and ‘see next page’ o’ the fight?/We think that someone has blundered, an’ couldn’t you tell ’em how?/You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now.”

And in a stanza, omitted in collections, we are told in response to Tennyson’s fiery appeal (in the poem, that is), “They (the British) sent a cheque to the felon that sprang from an Irish bog;/They healed the spavined cab-horse; they housed the homeless dog;/And they sent (you may call me a liar), when felon and beast were paid,/A cheque, for enough to live on, to the last of the Light Brigade.

Strikes a chord?

Then there is “The Absent-Minded Beggar” (1899), referring to a soldier, who is “an absent-minded beggar, but he heard his country’s call”, and beginning: “When you’ve shouted “Rule Britannia”: when you’ve sung “God Save the Queen”/When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth:/Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine/For a gentleman in khaki ordered South?”

Though the first two didn’t do much, this one, part of an appeal by the Daily Mail to raise money for soldiers fighting in the Boer War and their families, helped raise more than 250,000 pounds.

Maybe we need a poet like Kipling also to make us more aware? (IANS)

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Solving a murder in a Nazi bastion, escaping the Stasi

But as there are a couple of Nazis who are not so bad, our hero also shows that anyone with some dignity and honour can keep his mooring amid the direst evil

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Prussian Blue is a must read book which offers different perspective. IANS
Prussian Blue is a must read book which offers different perspective. IANS
  • Prussian Blue is a novel by Philip Kerr
  • It is set in World War II
  • Thr book is an interesting read

Title: Prussian Blue (Bernie Gunther Series); Author: Philip Kerr; Publisher: Quercus

Some men can never outrun their past. It is not that their wrongdoings cannot be forgotten, but rather that their unique abilities which even their enemies, spanning the spectrum from Nazism to Communism, recognise and seek to utilise for their own ends. As with this outspoken, irreverent but capable German ex-policeman.

Bernie Gunther has survived over over two decades of Nazi rule, World War II’s Russian front, Soviet captivity, the Cold War’s lethal attentions — from all its sides — service to Juan Peron and the American mafia in Battista’s Cuba, and now just wants a quiet life.

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But his eccentric fate hasn’t yet finished with him, even in 1956. And in his latest appearance, Gunther learns — yet again — that the pathology of power remains the same, though the name, uniforms and even ideology may change, and today’s oppressed can easily become — and inevitably do — tomorrow’s oppressors.

Fleeing Berlin after a complex intelligence operation where he got even with those kicking him around — with the help of a dangerous figure from his pre-war past — Gunther tries to live obscurely as concierge in a small hotel on the French Riviera. But soon, his unlikely helper — Erich Mielke, the dreaded second-in-command of East Germany’s Stasi — personally appears and threatens him to undertake a mission.

This entails going over to Britain and poisoning — by thallium no less — a covert woman agent, whom Gunther had deftly outsmarted in his previous outing (“The Other Side of Silence”, 2016). And just to keep him on his toes, Mielke has his men arrange a near-fatal hanging for him.

But our hero is not one to give in tamely. While he goes along with Mielke’s assignment knowing the men wished upon him to “help” will eventually be his executioners, he escapes from the train taking them towards the English Channel. The Stasi men are soon on his trail and since their leader is someone who knows Gunther too well — a former pre-war Berlin police colleague who was his aide in investigating a crime in Adolf Hitler’s hilltop Bavarian retreat in 1939 — keeping ahead will not be too simple.

As Gunther flees across France with the French police too on his trail, his mind travels back to April 1939 when another dreaded boss sent him to solve a serious crime in Hitler’s holiday home, just before the Fuhrer visited it for his 50th birthday.

A top engineer overseeing construction and renovations has been shot dead right on the terrace of special tea house planned as a surprise for Hitler and now his close aide Martin Bormann wants the matter to be solved expeditiously without any fuss, so there is no threat to the Fuhrer’s life.

But as Gunther finds out, there is no shortage of suspects given the greed, graft, jealousy, turf fights and more going on between Nazi bigwigs in this Nazi citadel and a mass of resentful local residents, dispossessed of home or property for the Hitler retreat.

Given the high stakes involved, will he be allowed to investigate the case to its logical conclusion and identify the truly guilty or will any scapegoat do?

Flipping between the hazardous 1939 investigation and the nervous 1956 flight, Philip Kerr, in the 12th installment of his most captivating series, brings our wise-cracking, sardonic but resourceful hero back to life in all his tarnished, tired but still irrepressible form.

Also Read: Book Review: ‘Blitzed – Drugs in Nazi Germany’- Straight dope about the Fuehrer and the Nazi war machine

While it is a thriller twice over, the real worth is the uncompromising light it shows totalitarianism in — especially Nazism, which despite its much touted high ideals, could not advance from the ambition, greed and conceit of its principal leaders. Stalinist Communism, with its readiness to employ former Nazis and be as violent, doesn’t come far behind.

Kerr also scores in his vivid but unflattering portraits of top Nazis — from the boorish Bormann to the devious Heydrich and their system of violent loot or just violence. Apart from the insight into workings of Nazism, there is an unforgettable insight into normalisation of terror and casual brutality to gain and keep personal power.

But as there are a couple of Nazis who are not so bad, our hero also shows that anyone with some dignity and honour can keep his mooring amid the direst evil. That is why Bernie Gunther’s exploits are a must read. IANS