Notes From the Margins…

We Could Be Heroes (Just for No Deal)

  • September 01, 2019
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We have heard a great deal of stirring talk from Brexiters about World War 2 these last few years.  It might be Boris Johnson comparing Francois Holland to a  Colditz prison guard dealing out ‘punishment beatings’ to the UK in 2017, or condemning MPs as ‘collaborators’ with the EU in his Facebook video last month.

In May Brexit Party candidate Ann Widdecombe declared that no deal Brexit wouldn’t be as bad as ‘the sacrifice of World War Two’ – a comforting thought, that it would have been useful to hear back in 2016.  In June Nigel Farage walked onto the podium for a Brexit Party rally in Birmingham to the sound of air raid sirens.

Much of this wartalk is so historically inane that it is almost beyond parody, or rather it demonstrates the extent to which the UK has become a parody of itself.  Nevertheless there are certain recurring themes in this Brexit wartalk, which tell us a great deal about the aspirations that have resulted in our ongoing political and moral collapse.

Perhaps the most significant World War 2 meme is the idea that the war was a defining episode of national heroism in which Britain (England) ‘stood alone’ and prevailed against overwhelming odds – a notion often accompanied by the idea that ‘we saved Europe yet again.’

One of the most dismal exponents of such jingoistic national remembrance is  the insufferably smug MP for Rayleigh and Wickford Mark Francois, who (in) famously tore up a letter from Tom Enders, the German head of Airbus, citing the negative impact of leaving the EU on live tv, and accused Enders of ‘Teutonic arrogance.’  Francois cited his father as a ‘D-Day veteran’ who ‘never submitted to bullying by any German.’

It’s easy – and entirely correct-  to call out Francois for his braying xenophobia, but something more is at play here.  According to his website, Francois once ‘served as an infantry officer in the Territorial Army, including with the local Royal Anglican Regiment’ during the ‘Cold War.’

We know that the Royal Anglicans saw a lot of action during the Cold War, so we are probably lucky that Francois is still with us.  Because Francois is a tough, implacable sort of guy, who once described himself as a member of the Brexit ‘Spartan Phalanx’.

Defending his rejection of one of May’s deals in the commons he once claimed ‘ I am not going to back a lose.  I was in the army, I wasn’t trained to lose.’  As Brexiters keep reminding us, this is the kind of indomitable defiance that once made our country great.   Never mind that this is an MP who once boasted to Will Self about the size of his penis and once submitted expenses claims for Trebor mints,  Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Snickers, Twiglets and Peperami snack packs.

This is a less-than-spartan diet, and King Xerxes would surely have given up at Thermopylae if he had been aware that such a greedy tub of lard like this was waiting for him.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to claim expenses for Twiglets on a £64,000 taxpayer-paid salary, but it is clear that Francois, like so many of his cohorts, wants to be the kind of hero his dad was, and that he believes he has found the opportunity to realise his own personal Commando comic fantasies through Brexit.

Other Brexiters share a similar longing to be heroes, and a similar belief that World War 2 once made us heroic.  It is clear that peace bores these Brexit warriors, and some of them positively lust after conflict, or at least the idea of it.    Last month, Rod Liddle wrote a column that was gibberingly inane even by his standards, in which he declared his longing ‘for us to have another war with someone’ and ‘not a high-tech war against impecunious Arabs, such as the Iraq war, which impinges on us all.’

Liddle, a man who was once arrested for allegedly punching his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach,  argued that war ‘reduces personal dissatisfaction’ and ‘increases social cohesion and integration’ and that ‘ a peaceful, easy life hasn’t made us happy.’

Dipping his pen – or perhaps some other part of his anatomy – in the kind of (Boris) Johnsonian prose that writers like him believe indicates cleverness and philosophical depth – he argued that ‘ We have become softened and prone to be frit at everything, perpetually discombobulated in our pacific affluence and our ease, to the extent that we would throw it all away.’

I thought of Liddle and Francois while reading A Pacifist at War, a biography of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent Francis Cammaerts.  For those who don’t know, SOE was the clandestine organisation established by  Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze’ in 1940, by assisting the various resistance movements across Europe and carrying out acts of sabotage and guerrilla attacks modelled on the IRA and Spanish guerillas during the Napoleonic Wars.

The proposal to create such an organisation was initially made by Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare who called for a new  ‘democratic international’ to ‘coordinate, inspire, control and assist the nationals of the oppressed countries who must themselves be the direct participants.’

Much of SOE’s efforts were concentrated on France, where SOE agents played a pivotal role in establishing, coordinating and equipping Résistance movements across the country.  These agents lived lives of extreme risk, stress and danger.  Those who were caught were routinely tortured and executed according to Hitler’s Night and Fog decree.   The average survival rate for SOE wireless operators in France was six weeks, and a quarter of all SOE agents infiltrated into France never returned.

One of SOE’s most effective agents was Francis Cammaerts, the uncle of the author Michael Morpugo.  The son of a Belgian poet with anarchist sympathies, Cammaerts was a committed pacifist, who joined SOE in 1942, after his brother Pieter was killed returning from a bombing mission.

Parachuted into France in 1943, Cammaerts went on to establish the Jockey network or ‘circuit’ which included some 10,000 resistance fighters.   Cammaerts, unlike most Brexit heroes, knew war at firsthand.

He survived the horrific massacre of the Maquis on the Vercors plateau and once executed a captured member of the Vichy militia himself because he was unwilling to order anyone else to do it. Promoted to lieutenant-colonel for his 15 months service in France, Cammaerts received a DSO, the Legion d’honneur, and the Croix de Guerre, but he never liked being described as a hero, and once declared:

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about this period in my life and the most extraordinary and the most valuable part of it was the housewife feeding us, lodging us, cleaning us, saying what you like to eat, we haven’t got much but…That was what made the ordinary an extraordinary experience and why I hate heroics – because it’s wrong; what was right was ordinariness.

Cammaerts rejected ‘the talk of resistance as if it was created by a few heroes and heroines’ and hailed the  Frenchmen and women who

were sacrificing everything – children, partners, elderly relations, their land.  The notion that we both owed so much to each other had nothing to do with father, mother, sister, brother…it had to with something absolutely special – like something you and I have with former students.  Who has ever defined love! That was a passionate love which was neither physical nor intellectual and yet eternal, can’t die.  Nothing can take it away.

It should be clear that Cammaerts was operating on an entirely different moral plane to the likes of Rod Liddle and Corporal Francois.   It is unlikely that he would have thought much of Liddle’s wartalk or his suggestion that ‘The obvious candidate for an act of unprovoked aggression on our part is France – but it might be over too quickly for the beneficial side effects to take root.’

Cammaerts knew war.  He fought as a European in a war against fascism, alongside other Europeans.  He did not do this in order to become heroic and he did not believe that war made people heroic.

People who have actually experienced war do not generally long for it to be repeated.

And today, on the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 2, Cammaerts’s celebration of the ‘ordinary’ heroism of the resistance movements he fought alongside is a useful antidote to Brexit war nostalgia, and a reminder that we did not ‘stand alone’ and that the  ‘ordinariness’ of peace is something to be cherished, not despised or thrown away by armchair warriors who have never fought and never will.

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1 Comment

  1. Nigel Baldwin

    1st Sep 2019 - 11:05 pm

    People like Rod Liddle make me sick. He ought to be frog marched to Verdun, where two nations, the French and the Germans, fought over a battle field no larger than the island of Manhattan for eight months in 1916. There’s a place called the Ossuary, where Liddle can see the thousands and thousands of bones, of people who used to be human beings, mostly blown to bits by incessant artillery barrages. As a French officer who was eventually killed at Verdun, Albert Joubaire, wrote: “…Humanity must be mad to do what it is doing”.

    The EU has helped to maintain the peace of Europe for 70 years. I dare to hope that seeing the total experience of what two nations went through, in the Calvary that was Verdun, might make a ‘remainer’ of Rod Liddle yet.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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