Monday January 22, 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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Why should we talk about Race?

Dr Kumar Mahabir, an anthropologist, brings out the topic of discrimination

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Race has always been a big deal whenever its been spoken about around the globe.
Race has always been a big deal whenever its been spoken about around the globe. Pic by Dr. Munish Raizada taken at the Race exhibition at Chicago History Museum. November 2017
-By Dr Kumar Mahabir
Even academics like me who often view certain topics through the lens of race sometimes
receive negative attention and judgement. Some people feel that speaking or writing
rationally about race is counter-productive and even racist.
Indo-Caribbean people (Indians), in particular, tend to receive condemnation when they
examine topics on the basis of race. Indian victims are often criticised for reporting
discrimination.
On the other hand, Afro-Caribbeans (Africans) receive either indifference or praise when they discuss race. For example, the following comment by a black calypsonian, published in a Trinidad national newspaper, drew praises: “In the midst of black consciousness in the 1970s, Bro Superior told black people ‘No matter where yuh born, Yuh still African’” (Guardian Nov 12, 2017).
Discussing race objectively with empirical data and statistical evidence is not racist. Racism
is the belief that another race of people is inferior. This attitude results in discrimination,
antagonism and domination individually, politically, economically and otherwise.
Race, ethnicity, class, sex, religion, nationality, geography, etc. are valid, legitimate and
appropriate social categories of difference in examining historical and contemporary issues.
Why should someone who talks objectively about race be criticised as a racist? Should we
also condemn someone who uses sex as a mode of inquiry as being sexist? To do so would be ignorant, biased and unfair.
In a recent public broadcast, the Prime Minister of multi-racial Trinidad and Tobago (T&T)
advised some citizens “not to see race in everything we do” (Express Sept 22, 2017). This ill- informed statement was made in relation to the mixed responses he received when he
appealed to citizens to open their homes to displaced Dominican refugees who were devastated by Hurricane Maria.
On the contrary, people should be encouraged to “see race” as well as sex (gender), class, nationality, geography and types of social identity. Studying race can reveal differences in the form of disparities, disadvantages, inequalities, power and privilege which have structured human life in the past and present. To overlook race would be to ignore the elephant in the room.
Criminologist and social psychologist Dr Ramesh Deosaran wrote a book entitled Inequality,
Crime & Education in Trinidad and Tobago: Removing the Masks (2016). He found that there was a toxic relationship among race, class, gender, family and geography, resulting in African students performing the worst in the education system.
Deosaran wrote: “Wittingly or unwittingly, the education system, to a large extent, becomes a racially segregated system. And with academic achievement also stratified by race” (page 163). His data showed that while 47% of African students went to university three years after secondary school, as much as 72% of Indians did so, and 49% of the Mixed group also attended.
Prospective students of Whitman College in the USA are encouraged to enrol in its Race and Ethnic Studies programme. They are told that “ideas about race and ethnicity have been central at many points in world history and remain salient today, whether we talk about ethnic pride or ethnic cleansing, about multicultural diversity or racial discrimination.”
Race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably. However, race refers to biological features (bone structure, facial features, hair texture, skin colour, etc.) and ethnicity denotes cultural traits (history, customs, religion, family-type, values, music, food, etc.).
In the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) CSEC Social Studies syllabus, Section A
(Individual, Family and Society) comprises of a content section that explains characteristics
of the population. These characteristics include age, sex, occupation, religion and ethnicity. In the CXC CAPE Sociology syllabus under Unit 1, Module 3, Social Stratification is
conceptualised according to status mobility, gender, class, colour, caste, race and ethnicity.
The topic of race and ethnicity is studied not only in sociology but also in history,
anthropology, cultural studies, visual culture, media, literature, communication, law, health,
human rights, gender, political science, economics, geography, public policy, international
relations, social psychology, etc.
In a research paper entitled “Understanding race and crime in Trinidad and Tobago,”
criminologist Dr Randy Seepersad (2017) found that most of the murderers, victims, accused and prisoners are Africans. His disaggregated data demonstrated that most of the violent crimes are committed by blacks against blacks.
In 2011, former National Security Minister John Sandy said, “We must recognise that it is
people looking like me who are being murdered, mothers like my mother, God rest her soul, who are out there weeping more than any other race” (Express Sep 3, 2011).
Race has always been a major factor in voting in all general elections in T&T. This form of
ethnic polarisation has been well documented by pollsters such as SARA, NACTA, ANSA
McAl and H.H.B. & Associates Ltd. Most Africans and Mixed persons support the PNM
while most Indians vote for the PP/UNC.
 
Dr. Kumar Mahabir is an anthropologist who has published 11 books. He lives in Trinidad.