Sunday, 24 July 2016

Recalling past wars: reflection or recrimination?

Stuart and I set off for our usual holiday in south west Crete almost a week after the UK's disastrous vote for Brexit. Two or three days before we returned, we watched reactions to the Chilcot report on the Iraq war on BBC World. So, we might have got away from Britain's miserable weather, but we didn't really manage to get away from its equally miserable politics. We usually enjoy discussing - and laughing about - the vagaries of the Greek economy with our good friends and hosts at Monachus Monachus, the apartments in Frankocastello where we stay. This year, however, it was they who gently commiserated with us about the mess we British are making of our own internal and external affairs.

Nevertheless, the disturbing political backdrop did not succeed in spoiling our enjoyment of this beautiful area of Greece.  While I'm in Crete, I try to read at least one book that tells me a little bit more about its fascinating, and often sobering, history. This time it was Anthony Beevor's book on Crete's role in the Second World War. Last year, it was The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis, which describes the same events from a Cretan perspective. In earlier years I have read novels by Nikos Kazantzakis, most recently Freedom and Death, about Crete's bloody struggle during the nineteenth century to free itself from the Ottoman Empire. Rather grim reading, you might think, for a summer holiday, but all of them books which are un-put-downable, especially when you are living in the midst of the landscape where such notable events took place. Suffering under waves of colonisers and invaders, Crete has succeeded in resisting and surviving them all: Romans, Venetians, Turks and Germans. This year, as usual, we had been visiting Sfakia, in the west, which has Chania as its 'capital'.

Seventy-odd years ago, Chania was carpet-bombed by the Germans, an event similar in intensity to the bombing of Guernica. More than a dozen Venetian palaces were destroyed and hundreds of lives lost. You would scarcely know it now.

Following the fall of Crete in 1941, its people drew upon centuries of resistance to foreign forces. Unlike the allies, they could not retreat. They did, however, play an invaluable role in helping in the evacuation of defeated allied troops - British, New Zealanders and Australians. A memorial overlooking the small harbour at Hora Sfakion commemorates the role Sfakians in particular, played in leading allied soldiers through the Imbros Gorge down to the waiting ships. After they'd left, local guerilla bands provided support to any remaining stragglers, launched raids themselves and carried out joint actions with undercover agents sent over from Egypt.

Members of these bands often paid a very high price for their resistance. Like many other villages across the island, Kallikratis, the isolated mountain community behind Frankocastello, lost scores of villagers following German reprisals. These days there is a metalled road to Kallikratis, though it still zigzags up precipitous slopes before disappearing into a cleft between the peaks. Up in Crete's spine of craggy mountains, caves  and gorges sheltered both British and Cretan fighters, fed and protected by local people - and occasionally also betrayed by them, when loyalties crumbled under intolerable pressure.

The story of Crete has often been one of ruthlessness and cruelty not just on the part of the aggressors. It has also, however, been one of heroism and compassion, not exclusively on the part of the defenders. A serendipitous discovery this year was Adam Nicolson's book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters which investigates the role played by oral poetry in developing our concept of the 'hero'. In the Iliad, heroes are not necessarily glorious; they are often arrogant, selfish and sadistically violent. A wonderful production at Edinburgh's Lyceum of Chris Hannan's version of the story of Achilles demonstrated both viciousness and  mercy.

However, Nicolson's wide-ranging account of oral epic poetry is not restricted to the work of 'Homer', whoever he was. He has also studied the performances of modern Balkan ballad singers, the traditional tales of Gaelic machars or bards and, astonishingly, post-war Sfakian narrative verse. These Sfakian songs are still performed to this day and recall wartime events, such as the kidnapping of General Kreipe. They commemorate real incidents, embroidering them and weaving them into a new heroic narratives just as poets and singers did three thousand years ago.

Given this age-old heroic context, it was quite shocking,  therefore, to read Anthony Beevor's historical account of the wartime activities of the British government and its army in Crete. Yes, the book records the genuine heroism demonstrated by individual allied soldiers and local freedom fighters. However, it also points to the sheer incompetence, superciliousness, bullying and poor decision-making of some of the key allied officers, particularly those operating at the highest levels within Crete itself and within the Cairo office which was in overall charge. The strategic judgement of Winston Churchill is also called into question. As a result of terrible errors, many many people were killed unnecessarily, both allied troops and local Cretan non-combatants and irregular fighters. Indeed, Beevor claims that Crete should never have been successfully invaded by the Germans in 1941 and was only over-run because of catastrophic mistakes by Major General Freyberg, the commandant, a first world war hero and a personal friend of Churchill's.

Towards the end of the book, when writing about the final period of the Cretan conflict and the British response to the developing political and military situation in mainland Greece, Beevor states, 'British policy towards Greece was less a Machiavellian conspiracy than a sequence of blunders resulting from ignorance, arrogance, muddled thinking, lack of imagination and refusal to listen.'

Nevertheless, despite all the horrors, futile gestures and, yes, genuine heroism of the German Occupation, the Cretan people have moved beyond recrimination, bitterness and grievance. In the area we visit, Germans have been among the most frequent visitors for decades now and many have married into local families and been welcomed in local communities.

In Britain, by contrast, we have continued to relive the wartime period again and again, rerunning the old films, making anti-German jokes, priding ourselves on past victories. 'Who won the war?' we protest. We call mainland Europe 'the continent', as if we were not part of it. I wonder to what extent that continual harping on old enmities and triumphs is behind our ambivalence about the European Union, exacerbated by Cold War suspicions and resentments of eastern European countries. We are, by name and geography, a very insular nation.

These thoughts of past conflicts were the backdrop to our viewing and reading of commentaries on the Chilcot report about Britain's involvement in the Iraq War.  I opposed the war at the time, signed petitions and marched through the streets carrying a banner. I have always been appalled by the way our government, and Tony Blair in particular, clung to  America's gung ho military policy. I am ashamed that our country bypassed the United Nations. I admired at the time, and continue to admire, the stand made by Robin Cook, Charles Kennedy and others. However, I was also aware, even at the time, that the issue was not clear cut. There were many good reasons for taking action against Saddam Hussein though, perhaps, not the reasons which triggered the eventual decision to go to war. Furthermore, there are a number of aspects of current coverage of the Chilcot report and Tony Blair's responsibility for the eventual outcomes of the war which worry me.

I am appalled by the baying of  the mob. I am appalled by the glib use of expressions such as 'war criminal', 'warmonger', 'traitor' and so on. I am appalled by the self-righteousness of armchair commentators who have never been, and never will be, in the position where they have to make decisions with the potential to change the world and destroy lives.

I despair of the limited memories and understanding of those who talk about Iraq having been a 'stable' country before the British and American intervention. If living in a 'stable' country means living in a country in which every state institution was infiltrated by the secret service, where thousands languished in jail, were tortured and subsequently disappeared, then Iraq was 'stable'. Many of its professionals, its lawyers, doctors and academics had already had to take refuge abroad. When Saddam Hussein ordered the use of chemical weapons within his own country, in the Kurdish town of Halabja, up to 5,000 of its inhabitants, of all ages and both sexes, were killed and up to 10,000 were permanently maimed. Thousands more died of the effects of the gas over subsequent years, were born with defects or suffered terrible pain. It was the worst chemical attack ever on a civilian population, though very similar to President Assad's gassing of his own people in Ghouta three years ago.

I wonder how much longer the international community could have tolerated the impact on ordinary Iraqis of the gross injustices perpetrated by their government. Not to act is not action, it is the avoidance of action. Not acting does not of itself solve problems. It was true of Iraq and it is true of Syria. That does not mean that I support our own government's manipulation of information or believe that my original opposition to the war was misguided. I would take that position again but with the same concerns about unseen 'costs' such as the effect on the Iraqi population of the ongoing cruelty of the regime. I hated the triumphalism of the early months of the Iraq War and, like most people, think that the failure to manage the aftermath was catastrophic.

However, I do not believe that Tony Blair is or was a 'war criminal'. When people bandy such words around they often have very little understanding of what 'real' war criminals are like. Kony has been and continues to be a war criminal. Hitler and senior Nazi officers were war criminals, For a start, war criminals act through intention; they knowingly and deliberately attack weak targets and bring about multiple deaths. I do not believe that Blair 'intended' to bring about the deaths of thousands of Iraqi non-combatants. I worry when the deaths many British people seem to regret are only those of our own troops. Military deaths are very sad, but that possibility is what a volunteer army signs up to. When you choose to join the army you put the decision making about when, why or where you fight in the hands of other people. Soldiers cannot pick and choose their conflicts. However, it does mean that those who make decisions which may bring about military casualties have a solemn responsibility. We should also not forget that some of the actions in the field of some of our military personnel flouted international law. There was heroism as well. That is war.

When we look back to previous wars, even those in which we feel most proud of our own role - like the Second World War - we have to remember that they too were marked by incompetence, poor judgement and unnecessary loss of life, as the Cretan experience demonstrates. That is also war. We could say the same of many other modern wars, in South East Asia, for instance, or Afghanistan. Our sense of moral righteousness about the Second World War is only justifiable if we take 1939 as its starting date. If, however, we track its origins back to the impact of our vindictiveness towards Germany after the First World War, our stance of moral superiority is not quite so unassailable.

It is right that there should be inquiries into the initiation, conduct and outcomes of military conflict. It is right that those who bore most responsibility should have to answer to the victims and to those who voted them into office. However, it seems to me that Beevor's words about Greece apply equally well to Iraq. 'British policy towards Greece was less a Machiavellian conspiracy than a sequence of blunders resulting from ignorance, arrogance, muddled thinking, lack of imagination and refusal to listen.'

I believe Alistair Campbell when he said that Tony Blair would be haunted by Iraq until the end of his life. Anyone looking at the latter's drawn expression could see that. (I am not so cynical as to believe that every word or action of Tony Blair is the product of artifice.) Is that not punishment enough? Do we really believe in the kind of justice devised by internet trolls or posturing politicians with an appetite for self-publicity?

You may also find the following posts of interest:

Politicians, leading or following public opinion on Syria?

The struggle for independence in south west Crete

Books about Crete during World War II

The Cretan Runner: His Story of the German Occupation, by George Psychoundakis, translated by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Crete, the Battle and the Resistance, by Anthony Beevor


The Almighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson.