The Wolf and I were very fond of Old Jack, our neighbour at Blackwood. Jack had flown more than forty missions over Europe in Mosquitoes. His worst fear was coming down and being lynched. There would be no control over those doing the lynching. Jack told me, more than once, that those in Vietnam did it a lot harder. They never knew who might try to kill them. The laws governing soldiers were simply irrelevant when women and children were engaged in the killing. That is why, Old Jack said, those coming back from Vietnam were much worse off than the Rats of Tobruk.
This lawless killing is common when people defend their land against foreign soldiers. A typical instance was what the Americans call their War of Independence. In a book written years ago about revolutions, I said the following.
Although the Americans like to see themselves as having been the underdogs, they won the War of Independence, as they call it, and it is not hard to isolate some of the reasons why their position was eventually so much stronger than that of the English. You can apply the following criteria to the American War of Independence – or to the Vietnam War, the Russian war in Afghanistan, the second Iraq war, or the present military operations in Afghanistan. The phrases ‘home team’ and ‘away team’ are used for convenience and not to detract from the significance of the wars, or the valour shown and losses taken by those who actually fought them and are fighting the present one.
- The away team is the biggest in the world, or as the case may be, the only empire in the world, or the second biggest.
- The away team is a regular professional army while the home team consists of amateur irregulars.
- The professional soldiers in the away team have no advantage over the amateurs in the other team because they have not been trained for this kind of war and people who fight for the cause are more reliable than those who do it for money.
- People defending their own soil are far more motivated than those who cross the world to try to bring them into line.
- The away team has massive resources and advantages in population and war matériel (such as the navy) and technology, but the home team has local knowledge.
- The home team can move more quickly, avoid pitched battles, and use guerrilla tactics, which are sometimes referred to as terrorism, and which, as we saw, the British objected to as not being fair play.
- The away team has problems with morale and supplies that just get worse as time goes on.
- The away team finds that winning requires more than just winning battles – they may beat the army of the other side, but they will not beat the country, which has widespread support among its people (even if the people are otherwise split).
- The away team has a hopeless dilemma – it has to hit hard to win, but every time it hits hard it loses more hearts and minds.
- The home team finds it is easy to generate heroes and leaders; the away team finds it is easy to sack losers.
- The home team out-breeds the others – the result is just a matter of time.
- The war becomes one of exhaustion and attrition, which in turn exaggerates the above advantage of the home team.
- Because of its felt superiority, its actual ignorance, and its sustained frustration, the away team resorts to atrocious behaviour that it would never be guilty of in a normal war, or against an enemy of its own kind.
In short, the American colonists felt that they were fighting on the moral high ground, a position that they have never surrendered. Appalling crimes were committed on both sides, especially in the civil war in the south between the Patriots and Loyalists. There were, Churchill said, ‘atrocities such as we have known in our day in Ireland.’ Professor Gordon S Wood said that the ‘war in the lower south became a series of bloody guerrilla skirmishes with atrocities on both sides’ (like Vietnam). But for the intervention of the French, this civil war – guerrilla war may have gone on for years and degenerated into what would happen in Latin America with ‘Caesarism, military rule, army mutinies and revolts, and every kind of cruelty’ (like the Roman Empire).
As I said, all that goes for Afghanistan – except that there the locals were used to living by the gun, and they were assured of Paradise if they got killed. For all those reasons, they had seen off Britain and Russia – and they would see off the U S – just about as surely as night follows day.
The word ‘guerrilla’ comes from the war between Spain and Napoleon. The atrocities there were perhaps the most appalling of all. They were depicted by Goya in Los desastres de la Guerra. Those crimes would turn any stomach. They were committed on behalf of peoples who claimed to be Christian and civilised.
The dilemma that I referred to above is shown by Cromwell in Ireland. He was utterly ruthless in putting down insurgents, but his name is linked with Drogheda and infamy. It is worth recalling the judgment – that is what it was – of Winston Churchill.
…the conscience of man must recoil from the monster of a faction-god projected from the mind of an ambitious, interested politician on whose lips the words ‘righteousness’ and ‘mercy’ were mockery. Cromwell in Ireland, disposing of overwhelming strength and using it with merciless wickedness, debased the standards of human conduct and sensibly darkened the journey of mankind….The consequences of Cromwell’s rule in Ireland have distressed and at times distracted English politics down even to the present day…Upon all of us there still lies ‘the curse of Cromwell.’
Cromwell did it for Christ. And he and Churchill are the only two leaders the English have erected statues to outside their parliament.
Then there was My Lai and a man having his brains blown out on camera and film of a girl screaming in terror from Napalm – that the U S cavalry officer just loved the smell of in the morning.
Anyone believing that crimes as bad and worse would not be committed in Afghanistan was therefore engaged in wilful blindness.
In the course of his evidence in his defamation trial, the VC winner said: ‘We were out there doing a job you cannot explain to people.’ The same goes for those soldiers who were slaughtered at the Somme or Iwo Jima – but at least they knew what they were doing there.
So, Australian soldiers will be prosecuted for crimes committed in what we call a war. That is as it should be – except that I would like to see the bastards who sent them there in the dock beside them.