Private Peaceful and a present day dilemna
Since completing probationers studies, I have been reading Michael Morpurgo's excellent novel Private Peaceful. It is a story set during the First World War.
A watch goiven by an injured captain to the private is used to tick away the hours of a night long vigil. This vigil is carried out by Private Thomas Peaceful who keeps himslef awake by recalling the story of his life and that of his brother Charlie. Their story has its moment of humour, its injustices and even the pains of two brothers sharing an affection for the same girl. Ultimately the two brothers end up in the trences of France in that slaughter of millions for the petty ambitions of the powerful controllers of a continent. In Charlie's case, he is there because the landowner, a retired Colonel, has threatened to evict the whole family including Charlie's pregnant wife, if he doesn't go. Thomas is there because he feels that he should be with his brother and does not wish to think of himself as a coward.
Only at the end do we realise that it is Charlie who is to face the firing squad for cowardice. This shocks us as it was Charlie who had received the watch for saving the captain and he is a thorouhly brave man. Yet he has offended an officer who is drunk on power and whose malevolence knows no bounds. His only crime is to refuse to be a party to going over the top to certain death.
This book reminds us how senseless war can be. It is as though soldiers in the First World War were as pawns to be sacrificed in a holocaust of young men. Thousands could be sacrificed so that General Haig might move his drinks cabinet a few inches nearer to Berlin. Morpurgo demonstrates clearly bothe the humanity and courage of soldiers (the book was inspired by interviews with 3 farm-boy veterans in their 80s) whilst questioning the ethics of those who conducted matters. Lions led by donkeys is a description often made of the soldiers in that war. 'Donkeys' is frankly too kind a word to use of the politicians enjoying a good war on the benches of the House of Commons. I am not sure that such a description hasn't been valid in some more recent conflicts.
Anyhow to the present. My thought are for once not on Iraq but on a case which has recently been in the news. Britain executed 306 of its soldier including some as young as 14 years old. Successive British Governments and the army have resisted pardoning these men, many of who were shell shocked. An example is the case of Henry Farr. This man suffered appallingly as a result of shell shock yet not only did he go on to be executed but his wife was denied a widow's pension and the family lived with great stigma. Currently his family are seeking to persuade the Defence Secretary John Reid or failing him the courts to grant Private Farr a posthumous pardon. I hope they succeed.
France and Germany pardoned their soldiers who were shot for cowardice or desertion. It is time we did the same and that these men are remembered on Remembrance Day with honour. After all many of these men had a decency that the butchers of humanity such as Earl Haig lacked. And perhaps, the pardon could be accompanied with the gesture of an apology for this cavalier disregard of human life.