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I picked up a book – Equality and Partiality – which I bought some time ago and which had been sitting unopened by my bedside. I found myself hooked by the ideas, and their application to several things I have been thinking about recently. More particularly, I understood that the perspective of equality is dead in the water if it fails to take account of the arguments from partiality. This, then, is a sort of mea culpa since I have been guilty of ignoring those arguments from partiality.
Thomas Nagel is Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. He has also written a short essay entitled intriguingly ‘What’s it like to be a bat?’ which argues that it is impossible to know what it is like to be a bat, without actually being a bat, because the subjective experience of being a bat is so much part of being a bat, and that, therefore, there is a limit to what can usefully be said about someone else’s subjective experience. This would seem to leave a gulf between individuals with different subjective experiences that cannot be overcome – or at least Nagel leaves the gulf there. Perhaps it would be impossible to cross the gulf between the life experience of a bat, and human experience, but our intuition tells us (and investigations into mirror neurons seem to confirm) that we can identify with some else’s subjective experience especially when it is similar, though obviously not identical, to our own.
Equality and Partiality is derived from a series of lectures Nagel gave in 1990 and develops the idea of the subjective viewpoint (partiality) and the objective viewpoint (equality) and applies it to political theory.
Nagel believes that there is a division in each of us between two standpoints, often competing standpoints. There is the personal standpoint, and the impersonal standpoint, or the subjective and the objective standpoint. The impersonal standpoint involves removing ourselves in thought from our particular position in the world, free of our own concerns, desires, and interests, so that we can single out – or block out – the “I” that we happen to be, and stop seeing things “from here”.
If any political system is to have legitimacy then it must reconcile these two standpoints:
“The hardest problem of political theory are conflicts within the individual, and no external solution will be adequate which does not deal with them at their source. The impersonal standpoint in each of us produces, I shall claim, a powerful demand for universal impartiality and equality, while the personal standpoint gives rise to individualistic motives and requirements which present obstacles to the pursuit and realization of such ideals. The recognition that this is true of everyone then presents the impersonal standpoint with further questions about what is required to treat such persons with equal regard, and this in turn presents the individual with further conflict.” (p4)
Political institutions generally tend to externalise the demands of the impartial standpoint, but are staffed by individuals for whom the personal standpoint remains very important. If political institutions fail it is because the problem of reconciling the impartial standpoint with the personal standpoint has not been solved.
At one extreme, utopianism is a danger that pervades the impersonal standpoint. If the impersonal standpoint advocates a form of collective life that – however ideal – would be impossible for most people with their personal standpoints to follow, then it will fail. It will not be possible to motivate people to support such a system. Equally, we shouldn’t be too tied down with inappropriate pessimism that gives undue weight to baseness or an undue lack of optimism about the possibility of human improvement.
Unanimity of support for a political institution should be our goal. The use of state power to coerce people to do things should be capable of being authorised by each citizen through the acceptance of principles upon which the institutions are founded. If an ethical or political solution is to work, it must work with the juxtaposition of the impersonal and personal standpoints, and it must try to give an answer which is generally valid and which everyone can acknowledge to be so.
Nagel proposes that we adopt a four-stage approach to the construction of a political theory that attempts to reconcile the personal and the impersonal standpoint.
The first stage is from the impersonal standpoint. It is the basic insight that everyone’s life matters and no one is more important than anyone else.
The second stage is to generate an ethical code from this basic insight. If it is true that everyone’s life matters, how should we live? Nagel says that this code should give preferential weight to improvements in the lives of those who are worse off as against adding advantage to those who are better off. He adopts the Rawlsian concept of justice.
The third stage takes into account the personal standpoint, and develops an ethics which is Kantian in form, (Kantian because it resembles the categorical imperative which most simply stated means the imperative to do something because it is right even though you really do not want to do it). At this stage the question is “What, if anything, can we all agree that we should do, given that our motives are not merely impersonal?” The “Kantian development of the impersonal standpoint” involves trying to see how we can put our impersonal and our personal selves back together again. “It is what I can affirm that anyone ought to do in my place, and what therefore everyone ought to agree that it is right for me to do as things are”.
The fourth stage involves the creation of political institutions in response to the ethical demand generated at stage three.
“However powerful the impartial, egalitarian values of the impersonal standpoint may be, they have to be realised by institutions and systems of conduct that face up to the irreducibility of the individual point of view which is always present alongside the impersonal standpoint, however highly developed the latter may be.”
“The ideal, then, is a set of institutions within which persons can live a collective life that meets the impartial requirements of the impersonal standpoint while at the same time having to conduct themselves only in ways that it is reasonable to require of individuals with strong personal motives. But to state this ideal is to see how hard it will be to realise. Its two conditions pull in contrary directions.”
Nagel says that the conflict will be particularly conspicuous for those who are relatively fortunate (because the equality standpoint will require them to give up something), but particularly painful for those who are less well off, since not only will these less well off have to deal with the certain knowledge that they do not really count in the eyes of the world (from a partial viewpoint) but that they must come to terms with the recognition that legitimate claims of a personal viewpoint and life exist even for those who are not in need.
This may lead us to question whether the impersonal viewpoint really matters. In Nagel’s view it is exactly because we are all aware that from an impersonal viewpoint the equality of every single person is a pressing concern that we all – to some extent – engage in some degree of suppression of this impersonal viewpoint in order to avoid facing our pathetic failure to meet its claims. Any political theory which allows us to remain in this psychological denial of our more generous aspects will be a loss, according to Nagel, and any theory which merits respect must reconcile the impersonal with the partial.
But the reconciliation of equality and partiality is more challenging when it involves political institutions than when it simply involves personal morality. This is because of the element of coercion that comes into being when the institutions are established. Subjecting oneself to the external force of political coercion is different from committing oneself to the principle of personal conduct when one can opt out of personal conduct if the costs get too high. We may happily practise equality when it comes to choosing the best cake on the plate, but our personal motive will be overwhelming when we are fighting for the last life jacket for our child on a sinking ship. Yet if equality is enshrined in the political system, we may not have the choice of opting out of our impersonal standpoint whatever the personal cost to us, since there will be penalties on those who do so.
A utopian ideal which views everything from an impersonal standpoint may, therefore, be unworkable since it will not be supported by the majority and will be illegitimate. However, the tendency to capitulate to simple human badness is also something that must be avoided, and we will be justified in taking steps which a substantial number of people are unable to accept if it abolishes a fundamental injustice. He gives the example of slavery, serf-dom, the caste system, or the subjugation of women, the abolition of which all involved large losses of those who regard themselves as entitled to its benefits. But, he hopes, after a generation or two, the result of the imposition of equality will be a viable and superior form of life.
Nevertheless, if the personal motivation is missing, it will be difficult to achieve equality. Nagel takes the attempts to create a classless society:
“This is a particularly conspicuous illustration of the way in which a polital theory is hostage to human nature. It is no use to assert that we all ought to be working for the common good and this requires the abolition of private property in the means of production. If the personal element of most people’s motivation cannot be shrunk enough or the impersonal element expanded enough, a system of comprehensive public ownership seems doomed to degenerate …”
The change in people’s character that would be necessary to enable them to support a more equal society seems hard to imagine. Whilst individuals may realise, adopting an impersonal standpoint, that the goal of eliminating inherited economic inequality is attractive, they lack a sufficient motivation to play a part in the creation of a more equal society.
Check this out!
When my elder daughter was born, my mother gave me a pamphlet that she had handed out to families when she worked as a health visitor. It is called “The Position of the Child in the Family and its Significance”. I still have it. It was written by the Principal Medical Officer of the Ministry of Health and published first in October and November 1956.
The pamphlet sets out the likely character of children in various positions in the family – the only child, the eldest child, the second child, and the youngest child – and is supposedly based on the writings of Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychologist whose reach extends far beyond his research into sibling positions.
My mother had one older brother whom she had resented as a child for storing up his war-time sweet ration and then eating it in front of her. Her parents were servants in a big country house: her mother was the housekeeper and her father the chauffeur – the most responsible positions, but still servants. When the war came, such large mansions could no longer be kept up, nor the staff retained to look after them. The lead was stripped from the rooves and the servants had to find jobs elsewhere. After the war the family moved to Wolverhampton where they bought a small guest house.
Both my mother and her brother passed the 11-plus exam and so went to grammar school. But my mother was made to leave school at sixteen by her parents, and watched as her no-more-intelligent-brother went to Cambridge University and left with a PhD in Chemistry and several patents to his name. He married a biologist and lived in the same town as us when we grew up, except they had a beautiful house on the most expensive and desirable road, with five acres of garden, a stream, chickens and geese and a swimming pool, an aristocratic dog, and Bang & Olufsen hi-fi and vermouth before lunch. My uncle finished his career as the Warden of the most prestigious livery hall in London. And he still reads the Guardian. I like him a great deal.
I am the elder of two sisters. My daughter, the cause of the delivery of this pamphlet, turned out to occupy the same position.
I have often re-read the pamplet, and wondered why my mother gave it to me, for the description of the eldest or elder child is not flattering. The “dethroned child” is apparently prone to showing signs and symptoms of jealousy, is likely to be petulant, and to wet the bed. Later on he will endeavour always to assert his fancied superiority over his younger siblings.
“Deep down in his mind he looks backward to the past when he enjoyed everyone’s undivided attention. He has learnt not to like changes; to hold his own, he “bosses” and thus gradually develops into the conservative authoritarian who believes in the supremacy of the good old-days …”
The author continues that some year ago he had met a “melancholy person who moaned and bleated about these modern times, who maintained that children were not so good as he was in childhood, and who possessed a bleak outlook for the future of mankind” and, to boot, hadn’t spoken to his family for years. The author knew nothing of the man’s history but observed to him “I think I am right in saying that you are an eldest child” and then observes, triumphantly to us, the readers, “He was!”.
It gets worse as the Principal Medical Officer gets into his flow, for later on he writes:
“Whenever you meet a stupid, rigid and unbending authoritarian in the home, the school, the hospital, or anywhere else, you may be reasonably well assured that you are dealing with an eldest child. Not always, of course, but with amazing frequency… never let it be forgotten that the majority of problem children are eldest children“.
The italics are the author’s own …
Alfred Adler was somewhat more measured. He said that (because of the dethronement)
“oldest children generally show, in one way or another, an interest in the past. They like to look back and to speak of the past. They are admirers of the past and pessimistic over the future. Sometimes a child who has lost his power, the small kingdom he ruled, understands better than others the importance of power and authority. When he grows up he likes to take part in the exercise of authority and he exaggerates the importance of rules and law. Everything should be done by rule and no rule should ever be changed … We can understand that influences like these in childhood give a strong tendency towards conservatism. If such an individual establishes a good position for himself, he is always suspicious that other people are coming up behind him with the intention of taking his place from him and dethroning him.”
Adler was influenced by Nietzsche, by his determination that the “will to power” is the only real motivation that an individual has. My own experience (having thought about a great deal) is not that I lost power – how much power does a small child have – but that I lost love. When my sister was born the smiles were turned on someone else. If she wanted to fight me for power, I was not interested in the fight since power is not what I wanted. I wonder if the older child is not right to be looking over his or her shoulder. Simplistically, I think we each wanted what we felt we lacked. Love or Power.
Gender, I think, determines the particular shape of the sibling rivalry. An older brother is unlikely to be seriously challenged in the power stakes by a younger sister, and is likely to win the mother’s love stakes. An enviable position. An older sister is likely to cede any power to a younger brother and to have to watch as he is adored by his mother in a way that she never will be. It is in same-sex sibling relationships that the full horror of the battle is most commonly played out. Thus the Bible tells us the story of Cain and Able where Cain is eaten up and driven to murder by the thought that Able is loved more by God, and the story of the Prodigal Son confirms that the elder’s responsible, pleasing inclination is little match for the affection unconditionally afforded the younger child.
What power I have – my own power – I will hang onto for dear life, and I am generally resistant to others having control over me, and despise those who seek to assert themselves over others, but I have no desire to control others and, typically, respond to any attempt to control me by distancing and opting out. I can be persuaded to do things, but not made to do them. It is kindness that will win me over, not coercion. To that limited extent, I think Nietzsche was right. My own will to power over myself is everything. But all I really want is love.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
(Beareth all things.—1 Cor. xiii. 7.)
Gently I took that which ungently came,
And without scorn forgave:–Do thou the same.
A wrong done to thee think a cat’s-eye spark
Thou wouldst not see, were not thine own heart dark.
Thine own keen sense of wrong that thirsts for sin,
Fear that–the spark self-kindled from within,
Which blown upon will blind thee with its glare,
Or smother’d stifle thee with noisome air.
Clap on the extinguisher, pull up the blinds,
And soon the ventilated spirit finds
Its natural daylight. If a foe have kenn’d,
Or worse than foe, an alienated friend,
A rib of dry rot in thy ship’s stout side,
Think it God’s message, and in humble pride
With heart of oak replace it;–thine the gains–
Give him the rotten timber for his pains!
‘A couple of sessions ago you said – and I agreed with you,’ said Toad, ‘- that anger is one of our basic emotions. I recall you said that these basic emotions are like the primary colours on an artist’s palette. So my questions is, ‘if anger is a basic constituent of my behaviour, why don’t I get angry?’’
‘That really is an excellent question, Toad,’ said Heron. ‘However, like all good questions, the answer is likely to give you painful insights into yourself. Are you ready for this?’
Toad looked steadily at Heron. ‘I have gone this far,’ he said. ‘I can’t stop now.’
‘Right,’ said Heron. ‘Perhaps the best way to begin is to use our brains and our reason, even though the question is all about feelings and emotions. Let us start by imagining the following situation. You are being held captive by benevolent despots. They have complete dominion over you, yet at the same time they look after you and take care of you. How would you feel about that?’
‘I think I would have very mixed feelings about them,’ said Toad.
‘Exactly! And that’s what you experienced when you were little. How could you be angry with these kindly despots, your parents, who clearly had the upper hand and on whom you were totally dependent? And whom you loved.’
Toad sat very still, deep in thought.
‘It does seem to be a genuine dilemma,’ he said. ‘So what would have happened when the force of my anger met the apparently invincible power of my parents?’
‘It seems to me,’ said Heron, ‘that there can only be one possible answer.’
‘And what is that?’ asked Toad.
‘You had to learn how to be angry on-aggressively!’
‘But that’s impossible,’ replied Toad quickly. ‘Surely, being angry means being aggressive by definition. Isn’t it more likely that I learnt to suppress my anger totally?’ ‘I doubt that very much,’ answered Heron. ‘Anger is such an integral part of our behaviour that it can never be totally suppressed. Let’s use another metaphor, this time from science. Imagine a cylinder of gas which has started to heat up. The pressure is increasing and there is danger of an explosion. What can be done quickly to reduce the pressure?’
‘The first thing you could do,’ answered Toad, ‘and the most obvious, is to open the valve as far as possible and vent the gas to the atmosphere in a great, powerful jet.’
‘Quite so,’ said Heron. ‘And this is just how some people learn to deal with their anger. They release it like a powerful jet of gas, directed at the chosen target, and then resume their normal behaviour. What they forget, or deliberately avoid noticing, is the damage they cause and the adverse effect this behaviour has on their relationships.’
‘So anger is aggressive, like I said?’ said Toad, anxious not to lose his point.
‘Yes, it certainly is in this example and this is what I wanted to illustrate. But now, consider this. Think once again about that gas cylinder getting hot and the pressure building up inside. Is there another way to reduce the pressure, perhaps less dramatically?’
‘I suppose if you wanted to be more careful, you could simply open the valve slowly and let the gas seep out over a period of time. Is that what you are thinking?’
‘Indeed it is,’ said Heron. ‘Don’t you see, Toad? You are discovering the answer! What you and many other people have learnt, is how to be angry non-aggressively. You adopted ways of letting out your anger slowly and gently, almost imperceptibly, so as not to upset anyone.’
‘But how?’ asked Toad plaintively. ‘I can’t remember behaving like that.’
How a Child Releases Its Anger
Then he continued,
‘Of course, the point is – and I know you are beginning to realise this, Toad – that all those behavioural strategies are, in effect, defence mechanisms developed in our childhood to protect us from the dangers we perceived then, real or imaginary. When we see adults sulking and throwing tantrums and moping about and saying they are bored, we may wonder if their behaviour is appropriate or whether they are compelled, yet again, to act our their childhood.’
“I was born with an enormous need for affection, and a terrible need to give it.”
Ever given someone a gift and known, from their face, that it wasn’t what they wanted?
Sometimes it is because presents – all presents – just don’t do it for the intended recipient.
Gifts are complicated things. They may be a genuine expression of the giver’s desire, out of love, to please the recipient which – however ill-judged the present – deserves to be appreciated. They may also be a show of wealth which is provocative at worst or insecure at best, or a passive-aggressive sign of lack of affection. Neither deserves any recognition. They may be guilt-induced – a disguised apology. They may be given out of habit, not from the heart. It is not how much the gift cost but the intention behind it that matters. The hamper from Fortnum and Mason may seem shallow next to the handmade card, the homemade jam, the child’s painting, or it may be have been bought with the widow’s mite. The homemade jam from the housewife can be an improvised explosive device when given to the woman who works full-time.
And wrapping is all important (Oh, yes it is!). What does a gift still in the shop’s plastic bag say except “I couldn’t be bothered to wrap it up”?. But then again, the wrapping might say “Look how creative I am!” or “I still see you as a child” or “Aren’t you impressed that the present came from this shop?”. It is a minefield.
As present-givers we may feel upset when our gift goes unacknowledged. Apart from not knowing whether the gift has been safely received, we are missing essential information. If our gift is heartfelt, the absence of a “thank you” leaves us with a hole in our stomach, wondering whether we got it all wrong and did not please. It is not gratitude we want, unless the present was given for the wrong reason. We comfort ourselves – the post never fails, the other person is very busy – but we do crave the acknowledgement.
If our gift was an ill-intentioned assertion of power, then naturally we want to know it was felt. There is a great deal of power in gracefully acknowledging an inauthentic gift with a beautifully crafted response.
Those who are impossible to please may well be delighted if they receive a gift of a different sort – a task carried out for them, time spent with them, a hug, or praise. There is more than one way to show love or affection. It does seem to be true for all of us that we speak the language that we most want to receive.
Gary Chapman calls these demonstrations of love – gifts, acts of service, time, physical touch, words of affirmation – the Five Love Languages. I have tried and failed to think of any demonstrations of love that do not fit within his five categories. Each of the series of Five Love Languages books contain a quiz (much more involved than the 30-second Assessment on the Five Love Languages website) to help you work out which language you prefer to speak, and which you least understand. You will respond best to demonstrations of affection in your preferred language and typically will use this language to show your affection. Equally, you will find it most difficult to offer love in your least favourite language and will misunderstand love offered in this way. Some time ago I got my husband and my children to answer the questions and learnt a lot from their responses. My elder daughter, for example, responds best to quality time and acts of service, while my younger daughter loves physical touch and gifts. I need to keep reminding myself of this.
Try and work out why you like your language best. Do you like acts of service because you are really stretched at work and home and need help? Is it “need” that drives the preference? Or is it the absence of a particular language either now or in our childhood that makes it addictively attractive? Were we the younger child at home, and got more cuddles as a result? Were you the uber-reponsible older child who had to take on lots of chores at a young age? Did your parents try to buy your affection with gifts as a substitute for spending time with you? Does your partner do this now?
I recommend the books, but especially the Men’s Edition because it has practical hints at the end of each chapter about how to learn to speak a language that you can only speak badly at the moment.
And next time someone just puts your present aside, don’t be offended. Perhaps they want a hug instead, or for you to sit down and talk to them, or take the bins out, or tell them that they look wonderful.
Miss Great Britain
This is a photograph I received today of my beautiful god-daughter. I would like to be able to tell her whole story, but it is not my story to tell. Suffice to say that Tirana is decorated with the sculptures by her grandfather, a university professor, and that I am ashamed to say that she spent the first few weeks of her life in a damp wooden hut in England where mildew climbed the walls and single young marauding men made her mother a virtual prisoner.
After living in England, Tirana, and Glifada, they now live happily just outside Venice. My friend works and my beautiful god-daughter learns ballet.
Dear beautiful, clever god-daughter, I wanted to be able to say how very, very proud I am of your Mum. Not only does she look good in a bikini, make the best Greek pastries, moussaka and houmous ever, speak four languages very well, give wonderful beauty treatments, and is a loyal friend, but she has climbed mountains in her path, often with you – her most precious thing – on her back, and come down the other side, sustained by her faith in God and her love for you. Mountains that would have given me severe altitude sickness. I admire her so much.
Interesting research at Harvard confirmed what we all knew anyway, which is that men are more competitive than women. But, it seems, it is not just that they want to compete, but that they actually believe that they might win …
The research offered male and female subjects two choices for earning small amounts of money – a highly competitive tournament, or a “piecework” alternative with lower rewards. Many more men chose the tournament, and, significantly, three quarters of the men thought they had won the tournament between four participants. Most women opted for the safe but sure piecework.
The interesting question (which remains unanswered) is why this is so. Men believe they are more likely to win, but are prepared to take the chance that they will lose. Women don’t believe that they will win, so avoid the likelihood of failure. Are men just less scared of failure than women?
I wonder if it is because they were both brought up by women – who treat male children differently to female children. Other explanations are that such differences come from genetic propensities or differences in social roles and expectations.
Here’s a link to the article below which summarises the research.
Do Women Shy Away From Competition?
“There are ‘large gender differences in the propensity to choose competitive environments’ and this needs to be taken into account in understanding why women are under-represented in many fields of work.”
The proportion of women in highly paid executive positions and in the professorial ranks of academic science and engineering is low relative to the proportion of women in the labor force. A number of explanations for this difference have been advanced. If women do not enjoy the kind of work involved in high profile managerial positions or scientific careers, or if the long working hours required in these careers conflict with the ability to raise children, then women may avoid them. Because women on the whole are less likely to be in the highest scoring group on tests of mathematical achievement, they also may be less likely as a group to be successful in competitive science and engineering positions that reward mathematical talent.
Some also have argued that past discrimination has kept women from highly paid executive and academic positions, and that women subsequently avoided those careers simply to escape discrimination.In Do Women Shy Away From Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much? (NBER Working Paper No. 11474), co-authors Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund consider another possibility, that women as a group dislike competition more than men, even if they are of the same ability. If women seek to avoid competition, then they may be less successful in obtaining promotions and more lucrative jobs.
To test their hypothesis, the authors put 80 paid volunteers through a series of short tasks compensated either on a competitive winner-take-all or on a non-competitive piecework basis. In each trial, groups of four participants, always two women and two men, were given the job of finding the correct sum for as many sets of five two-digit numbers as they could in five minutes. The payment for the first task was awarded on a non-competitive basis by paying a piece rate of 50 cents for each correct answer. Payment for the second task was a competitive winner-take-all “tournament.” Losers received nothing and the person in each group with the largest number of correct answers was awarded $2 per correct answer. For the third task, participants chose either piecework payment or the tournament compensation.
Men and women answered the same number of problems correctly under both compensation systems. But when allowed to choose compensation rates for the third task, 75 percent of the men chose tournament compensation while only 35 percent of the women did so. When the authors compare men and women with the same performance in the second-task tournament, the women have about a 38 percent lower probability of entering the subsequent tournament than the men. This implies that among high performing participants — that is, participants who earn more money from the tournament than the piece rate — more men than women enter the tournament. Among low performing participants, it is the men who enter the tournament too much, and hence do not earn as much as they could.
In this experiment, large gender differences in tournament entry can be observed, even in a case where women are as good as men, where discrimination is absent, and where the time spent on each task is limited, so that time conflicts with raising children are not an issue. What can account for this gender difference?One possibility why men enter a tournament so much more than women do is that men may feel more confident about their ability (even though they are not actually better). While both men and women are overconfident about their relative performance in the second-task tournament, men are much more so. About 75 percent of the men believe that they won the second-task tournament of four participants. Naturally, most of them are wrong. However, even comparing men and women who have the same beliefs about their relative performance in the second-task tournament (for example, only comparing men and women who thought that they won), the men decide to participate in the subsequent tournament at a much higher rate than the women.
The gender difference for tournament entry remains about 30 percentage points.Other possible explanations are that women may shy away from tournaments because they dislike facing the possibility of not being paid for their performance, that is they are more risk averse, or they dislike receiving feedback about their relative performance. A final and fourth task in this study shows that these are indeed factors that can contribute to women and men behaving differently. However, they cannot explain the majority of the gender differences in deciding whether or not to enter a tournament.
The authors conclude that there are “large gender differences in the propensity to choose competitive environments” and that this needs to be taken into account in understanding why women are under-represented in many fields of work
— Linda Gorman
[This follows on from yesterday’s post]
I was driving alone, anticipating the peace of a candlelit service of chants in a very beautiful old church in the middle of nowhere, and I was thinking about yesterday’s post. I wondered whether we did not celebrate the returning soldier because we no longer believe that war is ever the answer. I thought that perhaps more women than men thought this, but that more men than before thought that diplomacy, sanctions and international pressure were preferable, that only “just” wars could be supported and that, for a war to be just, every stone must have been turned over in the search for a peaceful solution. I thought of the ridiculous cowboy film we had watched the previous night, the ridiculous fake blood, the hideous bullet wounds, the glorification of violence and prostitution. I wondered if more Americans still believed that might would win, whether more Americans espoused a jingoist, realist view of international relations. Whether it was no bad thing that we left the celebrations to personal homecomings. Whether we’d be happy with just a defensive shield of nuclear submarines. I thought of the exhortation in the Bible to turn our swords into ploughshares.
I thought my thoughts had moved on from yesterday.
It takes a while for the gentle light and peace of the church to untangle the frenetic pace of the weekend. To begin with my thoughts race around, the chants are difficult to follow, distractions are everywhere as I read the translations of the English words in the languages I can understand and those that I cannot. Gradually I calm down and my mind sinks into quietness. After several slow chants which repeat over and over again, the reading from the Old Testament begins with words which make me wonder if anyone reads the Bible any more – all this talk of Zion and going up mountains, whether it is truly relevant to our life today. I only began to come back from my reverie when the words sound vaguely legal.
Here is the Old Testament extract – from Isaiah. Chapter 2, verses 3-4:
3 Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.”
Well, fancy that.
[The pictures shows a statue which stands outside the UN Headquarters in New York, and was donated by the Soviet Union in 1959]
HMS Hermes returning to Portsmouth
General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, in a speech yesterday asked us to embrace our troops when they return from Afghanistan and Iraq, and he contrasted the welcome they receive with the much more marked appreciation that soldiers in the US and Canada get when they come home.
Since this was something that struck me when we went to America recently, I’ve been thinking about why there is the difference.
General Dannatt thinks our indifference is because we do not, as a nation, support the policy of our government in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to fete the troops when we do not believe in what they are doing.
Contrast this with the Falklands War in 1982. On the 19th March the Argentinian flag was hoisted on South Georgia. On 21st July 1982 the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes sailed back into Portsmouth to a rapturous welcome. She was carrying 1700 crew, Royal Marines, and survivors of the destroyed HMS Belfast. Margaret Thatcher joined the ship by helicopter prior to the ship’s arrival in port. One side of the ship has been decorated with a scoreboard showing the 46 enemy aircraft shot down by the Sea Harrier fighters launched from its deck.
This is what one returning soldier, who served with the Royal Marines on SS Canberra, said:
“We left Southampton Docks to the sound of ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’ played by a large contingent of the Band. Up until this point I had become cocooned, withdrawn, by myself; did I really join the Royal Marines? Do they really expect me (a seventeen year old kid, who joined the Corps to make his parents proud and make his mates sit up and listen) to go to War? I listened to the tunes, I watched Band, I saw the send off and thought to myself “Yes Pess, they are proud of me, time to be proud of myself!”…
The homecoming was special, my parents travelled to Southampton to meet the ship. The band did a Procedure Alpha on the flight deck and then we grounded instruments and hung over the side to see our families. That feeling has only ever been repeated when my children were born.”
Apart from a lack of belief in the cause that our forces are fighting for, it is also the case that there are whole swathes of the country that have no direct connection with the armed forces. The officers – particulary in the army – are still largely recruited from the small band of upper middle class families who have supplied officers for generations. We know several former officers from the three services, all now living civilian lives. We have one close friend serving in the Navy. We know only one young “squaddie”, the boyfriend of our daughter’s babysitter. He is waiting to make his very first tour – to Iraq. I am touched by his enthusiasm, by his politeness (to me), by his desire to make something of himself, and by the huge price he may have to pay for not wanting to stay put – in a war that few of us believe we should have started in the first place.
National Service ended in the UK on 31st December 1960. Since 1939 most men between the age of 18 and 26 had been required to sign up, but during most of this time the UK had been at peace. Relatively few men other than career soldiers have memories of active service. Relatively few families have been touched by military conflict. In the US memories of the draft and the Vietnam War are much more recent, and, as we learnt, still define the life experience of many, many Americans.
Sadly, here, the most obvious welcomes are those given to the bodies of young soldiers killed on duty. Private Aaron McClure died in Afghanistan on August 27th 2007, aged 19. He died in a suspected friendly fire incident involving a US jet. More than 500 people attended his funeral in his home town two weeks later, and a cortege of hundreds led by a bagpiper walked the mile or so through the town centre from the church where his funeral was conducted to the greenfield cemetery on the outskirts on the otherside of the town. During his time in Afghanistan he wrote:
“I’ve had 14-hour fire fights with the Taliban, been shot at, had rockets going over my head, missing by mere metres, but the only thing I’m scared of is snakes.”
Private McClure’s 18-year old brother was about to join the Royal Anglian Regiment but his training has been put on hold.
It’s nice to think that 500 people would have turned out to welcome Pte McClure home if he was still alive, but somehow I doubt it.