To die for one’s country?

January 13, 2022 09:23
Photo: Reuters

It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.

This is a lie – rammed down our clogged throats from a young age, inculcated in us through the most pious means of indoctrination. To serve one’s country is noble; to die for it, nobler. Such thoughts are conjured by the likes of impetuous imperialists and raging nationalists, only for them to be planted into the minds of unsuspecting, cherubic youth, the pallbearers of their country’s fortunes as it heads into Armageddon.

The search is always ever-so-elusive. Many have died clamouring for this Shangri-La: this entity that exists at the front of the minds of conquistadors and dictators, generalissimos and tyrants alike. That is, the search for respect – for status, for standing, and for allegedly restoring the country to what it had once looked like. Irridentist claims, territorial assertions, nationalistic chants, all packaged and branded through hollowed-out promises and non-existent normative principles.

Those who rule over their dominions, could do so with impunity. With a wave of their wands, a snap of their fingers, the machines charge – assailants moving at night, victims vanquished at day. Millions of innocent souls, crushed and drenched and dredged and torn apart by gunfire; thousands flounder and languish in the trenches of the 21st century – “Modern Warfare”, or so we’re told. War is unforgiving. War is loving. War is sympathy is callousness is wanton aberration is a wasteland is peace is nothing. Such is war.

Conscription often prioritises – inadvertently or otherwise – those who are most feeble, who cannot but take up their state on their offers, partially due to the coercion entailed, partially out of a sense of solidarity and pride, founded on the whimsiest of grounds. I have always pondered – what was going on in the minds of those who perished in World War One, behind the horrified, metallic masks enshrouding their gasping faces; or, indeed, in the minds of those 16-year-olds sent to fend for an empire built upon genocidal lies in World War Two, armed with little more than the haste and frenetic zeal demanded by their ruthless dictator, Leader, as he curtsies in his Faustian symphony. Vulgar, despicable, and yet – somehow – respected, by those who trudged along in unquestioning, unbegrudging compliance.

We’re in the 21st century now, and you’d think war is a relic of the past. After all, what better movies are there to watch, between Duffy’s pricked eyes and the Warholian canned beers, than movies about war? You’ve got to be All Quiet on the Western Front, all quiet in the box office. War Horse, charging along 1917, grimly plodding along the narrow road to the Deep North. A railway built in Burma. The remains of the day collected by the Undertaker as he sweeps the skeletons in the closet under the carpet. All these lush stories, told to children through their yearning eyes and jutting ears, as if they had never happened. And indeed, where they did happen – not once, not twice – it would be in accordance with a regular routine, till they dissipate into nothingness.

These are dangerous times to be alive. Ultranationalism, revanchist militarism, and bellicose imperialism masquerading as promotion of “universal values” and “governance” have swept our world in a storm. These tides, in turn, are fueled by and steer many an innocent youth as their captive soldiers. Youth who would be much better off working away at tackling the actual problems that matter – e.g. climate change, the ongoing pandemic, and the dangers of mechanisation and digitalisation of labour. Youth who deserve to have their childhoods back, as opposed to starved of vivacity and vigour by the iron-fisted grip of manipulative adults. Youth who should not be, and yet clearly are the collateral damage of great power politics.

I have gone back to re-read Wilfred Owen’s lament – many, many times. War, with its crushing winds, sonorous cacophony, is devastating. War is not great. And yet war would only recur, and recur most frequently it will, unless we take heed of the rights and interests of those who are most vulnerable – those often forgotten and left behind as ostensibly mighty players jostle for moronic power, engaged in the petty catfights that have long undergirded human civilisation, since yore.

It is never sweet and fitting to be treated as cattle in the slaughterhouse. Let’s be very clear here.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review