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29 October 2017

Was Donald Trump right when he said soldiers “know what they sign up for”?

Military recruitment literature presents service careers as opportunities for adventure.

By Peter Wilby

Donald Trump’s comment to the widow of a US soldier killed by an Islamist ambush in Niger that her husband “must have known what he signed up for” was not only crass. It was also quite possibly inaccurate. The main purpose of armed forces is to fight. Those who enlist should expect to risk death and injury, as well as to kill other human beings. Yet military recruitment literature seldom emphasises these things. It presents service careers as opportunities for travel, adventure and self-discovery.

On the US department of defence website Today’s Military, potential recruits are immediately directed to a page that highlights “caring for others”, “helping others”, and “protecting others”, as though it were inviting people to consider careers in social work. Bizarrely, it also highlights “performing” and features a woman who “travels the world” singing and playing musical instruments. It would be wrong to say the website has no references to soldiers being killed but they are not easily found. Even the section on the special operations forces, which the soldiers killed in Niger “signed up for”, has little more than a reference to “difficult and dangerous missions”.

La David T Johnson, whose widow was treated to Trump’s attempts at condolence, was a 25-year-old black man from Miami who lost his mother in early childhood. Before he enlisted, he worked in a Walmart produce department where, almost certainly, he earned under $10 an hour with scant prospects of improvement. One can imagine why he joined the military, but whether the risks of doing so were spelled out to him is anyone’s guess. Perhaps, like many recruits, he felt he had no choice.

Millennial mistakes

Jared O’Mara, the MP for Sheffield Hallam who has cerebral palsy, was barely out of his teens in 2002-04 when he made, on music websites, insulting references to women, gays and overweight people that have led to his resignation from the Commons women and equalities committee.

We older folk can bury youthful idiocies but that is not possible for millennials such as O’Mara who grew up in the digital age. Perhaps it should now be standard practice for prospective MPs to list in their election manifestos “the worst things I have ever said, written or done”. Many will put down something innocuous – such as running through a field of wheat – but at least they will have a chance to make a full and frank confession before entering parliament.

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Killing jihadists

Nobody, it seems, wants Rory Stewart to resign. He, a Foreign Office minister, says that “unfortunately” the only way of dealing with British jihadists in Syria “will be, in almost every case, to kill them”. The world has taken this comment calmly. I haven’t. I accept that if Britons fight with what are in effect enemy forces, they risk being targets of British military action. But is Stewart saying that they, as individuals, should be specifically targeted? Or that, if they surrender, they will be instantly executed? The last time I looked, we had abolished capital punishment and, even when we had it, it followed due legal process.

History’s lessons

As I was enjoying Matthew Engel’s article about Estonia and its Russian minority in last week’s NS, I had a nagging sense of familiarity. Then I remembered: the Sudeten Germans in pre-Second World War Czechoslovakia. Like the Russian Estonians, they were once part of a large multi-ethnic empire in which theirs was the official language. When the Austro-Hungarian empire was dismantled after the First World War, they were stranded in a  country where a different language dominated. Like the Russian Estonians, they accounted for about a quarter of the national population and feared, with some justice, the erosion of their linguistic and cultural heritage.

Hitler used their grievances to make his case for the Sudetenland to be absorbed into Germany. At Munich in September 1938, British and French leaders acknowledged that the Führer had a point and let him have his way. This “appeasement” was followed in March 1939 by a German invasion of what was left of Czechoslovakia. No doubt Vladimir Putin has studied this sequence of events. I wonder how many western leaders have done so.

Laughing at communism

Is it OK to make a comic film about Soviet communism? Watching Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, I sometimes found the laughter dying on my lips. After all, Stalin, Beria, Malenkov, Molotov and the other leading characters of the regime were responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of millions. However, Soviet citizens, I then recalled, constantly made jokes about Stalin and the Soviet Union. Iannucci draws on that tradition of dark, surreal humour.

Even Stalin himself made jokes, or so it is said. One had the dictator losing his favourite pipe. Beria, head of the secret police, asks if he has found it. “It was under the sofa,” Stalin says. “Impossible!” replies Beria. “Three people have already confessed to this crime.” You will notice that this joke is not very funny and it is told against Beria, not Stalin. There was always a suspicion that the tyrants used supposedly subversive humour for their own ends: as a safety valve, an early warning of popular concerns, or a means of pinning the blame for bad things on to others. For telling the wrong joke about the wrong person, some 200,000 people were imprisoned under Stalin’s rule.

Yet the jokes continued and that, I think, was because there was an inherent absurdity about Soviet communism, its high ideals and extravagant claims contrasting with a mundane and incompetent (as well as murderous) reality. When the authorities also told jokes, it showed they had become as cynical about the Soviet system as their unfortunate citizens. 

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia