Monday, January 16, 2012

The Army That Didn't Shoot Its Deserters

There is a story brewing in the media that the Irish state was somehow negligent in its treatment of deserters from the Irish army during the Second World War. The opposite is the case; the fact that the soldiers did not suffer capital punishment, or do not now have the threat of capital punishment hanging over them, was and is an act of profound clemency.

Being in the army isn’t like another job. The risk of death is part of parcel of soldiering. So how then do ask a man to go and do something that might get him killed?

You can’t have a company of soldiers who hold discussions on what we’ll do next. George Orwell wrote eloquently in Homage to Catalonia how hard it was to run a war with an army which rejected power structures, and would only act after full democratic discussion had been carried out – by which time the Falange were five miles inside the lines and cutting the Republicans to ribbons.

When a soldier is given an order he or she has to snap to it, and think about it after, if it all. This is especially true in wartime, when the risk of death or dismemberment is only a moment away. And one of the ways that armies since Alexander have maintained the discipline necessary to hold the line, to put your duty ahead of the need to secure your own welfare, was to execute you if you didn’t.

Whatever chance you had in battle, you had no chance against a firing squad. Therefore, they went over the top at Ypres and Passchendaele and all those other hellholes. It was the only way they could.

When soldiers deserted the Irish army during the Second World War, or the Emergency if you like, they were liable for a death sentence. The current bleating about them not being given heroes’ welcomes is nonsense. To not shoot the men was an act of profound clemency, taking into account many of the different factors at play. The Government can’t let acts of desertion slide, but to have shot them would have been too much.

The reality of the situation as it was in the Ireland twenty years after Independence is not being taken into account in the current debate. The chief spin is that Ireland was somehow morally bankrupt in not fighting Hitler. Well. Hindsight is twenty-twenty vision, isn’t it?

In 1938 the British did everything in their power to appease Hitler. Time Magazine named Der Fuhrer their Man of the Year. The USA, guardians of liberty, did not declare war on Germany until Germany declared war on the USA first. There are all manner of evils taking place in the world now, in countries run by evil people.

Hands up everyone who thinks its time to send to troops to Zimbabwe, to stop Robert Mugabe slaughtering his people just as Hitler slaughtered the Jews. And hands up everyone who thinks that’s ever going to happen. Wars are always about politics first, morality a distant second.

Besides. Even if Ireland had entered the war, it’s greatest threat to its own sovereignty was from the British, as Churchill made clear in 1945. He remarked that “if it had not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr de Valera or perish for ever from this earth.” If Churchill had come to close quarters with Mr de Valera, as he wished to do, would the Irish soldiers have then re-deserted to rejoin their own army, or would they have happily invaded away, secure that they were Morally Right?

De Valera’s famous condolence visit to the German embassy on the death of Hitler is always used as a stick with which to beat him. What is not brought up as often is that De Valera’s sending of the Dublin Fire Brigade to Belfast was a breach of neutrality. It was one of many other breaches. To say that the Government of the day were morally bankrupt in their attitude to Hitler is not true. They provided as much tacit support as they could under the reality of their own time and situation.

The headline in this Irish Times story describes the deserters as the “soldiers who left to fight Hitler.” However, if you read the story, you realise, as you may have suspected all along, that they left for money. They took the King’s shilling, as generations had before them.

We should never forget our history, but we shouldn’t try to rewrite it to suit modern agendas. More luck to the museum in Boyle that commemorates the Devil’s Own Connaught Rangers. The best of people took that shilling, because they had no other choice.

Paddy and Tom Clancy, of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem fame, served with the RAF in India. A man married to your correspondent’s mother’s cousin was in the RAF during the war. Good luck to them all. Starving for a principle is no way to live.

What is problematic is the current campaign to rewrite history and pretend that things happened that didn’t happen at all, or judge historical events out of their context. We were told that it was “too soon” for Martin McGuinness to be President of Ireland seventeen years after the IRA ceasefire. Yet eighteen years was not too soon for Ireland to fight alongside the army that hanged Kevin Barry and burned Cork, in the opinion of this “pardon the deserters” movement.

The “moral argument” that Hitler had to be stopped was not apparent to Neville Chamberlain, the editors of Time magazine or the United States in the 1930s, and none of their cities looked like Cork after the British Army went playing with matches.

De Valera’s sending of the fire brigades to Belfast is a bigger deal than the empty formula of the Herr Hempel visit. To berate the Irish state for its actions during the war is nonsense, and based on spin and second-guessing. As for the deserters, they got their shilling and they didn’t get a bullet when they came back home. They’re ahead of the game.