What anniversary, you might be asking yourselves? Well, the anniversary is all I can say, the 70th anniversary of D Day which took place on June 6, 1944. I suspect that you have to get to my age (112 in six months time) to wholly appreciate what took place then, although I like to think that younger folk – that is folk of exactly the age of those who took part, which was around 21 – in their hearts also appreciate the sacrifice of those who took part.
In TV coverage, there was, as is usually the case, total overkill (‘The seagulls are swirling and diving and ducking and weaving over the beaches casting about for some fish or other to swoop down on and devour as surely they did on that momentous day 70 years ago’), but that is, in this case, completely understandable.
The people I felt for were those who took part, who are now – the ones who are still alive – in their late eighties and early nineties. My father took part as young – he was just 21-year-old – company commander, and I remember he once told me that he was supremely conscious that the lives of 30 other men depended upon him making the right decision at the right time. So burden of responsibility for what at my age I still think of as a youth. He never otherwise spoke of the war or what he saw and did, except once when he was dying of the cancer which eventually killed him 22 years ago and told me that after surviving the war in which he saw so many good friends die, every day since then had been a bonus.
I can quite vividly remember that when I was 21 with little on my brain except growing my hair, getting laid as often as possible and finding a little more dope (cannabis, not heroin), even then I was rather jacked off with those of my peers who used to laugh about – ‘sneer at’ wouldn’t be to harsh a description – our father’s generation. Even then I felt it was just a tad unfair. And you can perhaps understand how they, who never had the time, in their salad days, to grow their hair, get laid as often as
A quiet day at the office
possible and try to find as more dope, but were instead engaged on a purpose rather more serious, got rather irritated with us young ones, especially those who wore a military uniform as a fashion item. But then that’s just what it is to be young: silly, thoughtless, self-absorbed and self-important (I am almost inclined to write that that is the very purpose of being young, just as I get very worried indeed if I come across a child of seven who is not noisy). But rather than condemn my and other generations for being just that, I would prefer simply to wish my father’s generation had been able to avail themselves of the same luxury. But they weren’t.
For them it was quite simple: kill or be killed. And that, I’m sure, tends to focus the mind a little. I shall leave it at that except to ask all of you who are reading this and are of that age simply to do one thing: don’t make a big song and dance about the sacrifice of those men, a great many of them who gave their lives (and a great many of whom might well have died a virgin), just, quietly, in your heart, ask
Crying? At his age? Maybe he’s thinking of all is friends and comrades who didn’t make it to 91 but died 70 years ago
yourselves whether you could - or possibly even would - have made the same sacrifice. I believe that almost all of you could have done, but I sincerely none of you is ever obliged to prove it.
. . .
Just as I got, even at 21, a little annoyed with those unthinking sorts who made a joke of their fathers (for example, on joke going the roungs in the Sixties was ‘old soldiers never die, they simply smell that way’), I still get bloody annoyed by those who have the gall to criticise soldiers, airmen and sailors for the wars they take part in. No, don’t criticise them, save your anger for the smug, sanctimonious politicians who send them off to war from the safety of their expense account. As it happens, the World War II and the invasion of Europe was a necessary war. A great many others, almost all of them, in fact, aren’t at all necessary. For example World War I.
. . .
Several years ago I came across the admission by a very brave man, and I can’t rememer who, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery. ‘Weren’t you afraid?’ he was asked. ‘Of course I was bloody afraid,’ he replied, ‘I was scared shitless.’ And that seems to me the essence of real bravery: men and women don’t do something brave because they are not afraid, they are remarkable because they do something despite being afraid. I rather think when push came to shove I would prove to be not quite as brave.
. . .
Fighting and being a soldier does throw up some horrible situations. A few months ago here in Britain a Royal Marine sergeant, Alexander Blackman, was sentenced to life in prison and must serve a minimum ten years, for ‘executing’ an injured Afghani. He shot him at point-blank range, though at his court martial he claimed he thought the man was already dead. You might think that is a clear case of murder, and you might well be right. Yet Blackman’s action can, perhaps, be explained if not justified. You can read more about Blackman and the case and hearing here, here and for a useful take on life as a soldier here.
You and I, as we sit in our cosy and comfortable homes, with tea, coffee and booze readily to hand, with a flushing loo just a minutes walk away, with a clean bed just a walk away in which to lay our heads when it is time to sleep; you and I whose major dilemma of the day might be whether to meet one set of friends for a drink in the Kings Head or another set in the Prince of Wales; you and I who can switch off the TV if we are getting bored or switch on the TV if we are getting bored; you and I who take for granted the safeties and comforts of modern life might find it difficult to imagine the daily life of someone serving in Afghanistan such as Sgt Blackman.
This was a man who would be chatting inconsequentially to a friend one day and be told the next that his friend had been killed. This is a man who was daily subjected to pressures most of you reading this – although most certainly not all – will never know anything about. This was a man who might well have gone to sleep to the sound of gunfire and woken up to the sound of gunfire. I am not condoning or excusing Sgt Blackman’s actions or even trying to excuse them, I am just trying to give context to what happened and the decision he made to take another man’s life. The dilemma the judges at the court martial faced was: find Sgt Alexander guilty and perhaps do an injustice; or acquit him and perhaps do an injustice. Reflect: what was the last dilemma of that kind you faced?
If I were a christian I might be inclined to quote Jesus Christ. I happen not to be a christian, but I shall still quote Jesus: ‘You who is without sin cast the first stone.’
Good night and God bless. And although I have no idea who that ‘God’ might be and nor, perhaps, do you, I think you might still appreciate the spirit in which I say it.