This is a re-post of a previous piece I did two years ago from my old blog (chaostheorysquared.wordpress.com). I’m pretty proud of this one, so I’m sharing it again as I feel it fits the theme of what I’m trying to do with Observations from Afar.
So this weekend was Tankfest. For those that aren’t fascinated by angry houses that are named after animals, it’s basically a weekend of re-enactments and military surplus sales at a Tank Museum in the south of England. It consists of a giant area, too many people, tons of food on sale and a huge array of military re-enactment groups.
Basically, a 20th century military history showcase that is fun for all the family.
And I’m into my 20th century military history. The last century was a chaotic time of endless, advancing change, powered and fuelled by the largest conflicts on Earth and rapidly advancing technologies. The stories that come out of the wars are simultaneously horrifying but morbidly interesting (Pavlov’s house, Mad Jack Churchill, The battle of Bastogne, the Somme…horrible but fascinating, like a train wreck)
Events like this are meant to be a history lesson into the equipment, the tools and the people that fought in these conflicts, the decisions and reasons why people built tanks, why they changed so much and how quickly that change occurred. Tank history is a damn good example of how warfare can evolve a particular idea. Tankfest not only allows those tanks from that era to be demonstrated right in front of you but also allows you to speak to “living” historians, re-enactors and hobbyists dedicating to preserving particular bits of history. All well and good really: its history.
But a stray comment from a friend during the event completely changed the way I was looking at the event, referring to a comment made by someone not from the Anglosphere. They don’t do this. They don’t re-enact war, don’t celebrate the tools and equipment, and don’t revel in the nuances of a particular battle. They have museums of course, but the fascination with it stops at that. It’s a distinctly Anglo-American (also Russian I believe) phenomenon.
Once I realised that we kind of overdo it with the living history, the re-enactment, Tankfest suddenly stopped looking so fascinating, stopped looking like a history lesson, and started looking like glorification. Suddenly the military surplus, the constant display of weapons and guns, the stores selling replicas of real rifles, all of it started to appear less like a place of history and more like a place of celebration.
Celebrating what though?
The finest hour of course. The greatest generation, that sacrificed so much in the name of freedom and democracy. The celebration of those that marched into the mouth of machine guns, under the treads of armoured beasts and beneath the barrages of winged devils. The celebration of the millions that died in industrialised slaughter; beneath the flags and the rhetoric, whatever the reasons, war is hell.
And war of the kind practised in the 20th century was one of an organised, industrial killing field. Whatever the motivations and the reasons so many died, it all boiled down to two sides being forced into a meat grinder and hoping you’d come through in one piece. God forbid you were an infantry man on the Russian front in Stalingrad; that place was death embodied as a place, a shelled out ruin where at any point you may be shot dead, bombed to pieces or executed by your own side. A place where you’d be fighting the other side in the room next to you, in a frozen hell-hole that rained artillery.
And now we look on and wear the helmets, the uniform, stand by the machines and hold the death toys in our hands and smile in the British Sun. Then we’re told the re-enactment of battle 417 is taking place, reminding us of the sacrifice of soldiers in the face of tyranny, and honour their example. The tread based tank is displayed in full view, its armour described in minute detail, the skill needed explained, the carnage the cannon can cause spoken about in graphic detail.
The toys of war being shown about, both past and present, leaves me thinking this place is the Mecca of the war fetishist. Come see the hardware, look at how people could have been destroyed by this power, and how little they could do about it.
Instead of learning of the thoughts behind an engineering challenge, my mind wonders if the drone was going to be put on display, as the ultimate in remote controlled Armageddon.
And when the battle closes and the forces have fallen, I can’t help but hear in my head “that’s what you should aspire to be – a soldier”. I can’t help but hear propaganda now, even though I hold the utmost respect for our armed forces.
I might need to clarify a position there. I support the troops, but I do not support the reasons. I support the people who do sacrifice themselves for a nation, in the name of protecting the interests of that nation. The interests themselves may be questionable, horrid or even just, but those don’t matter: the people who have to walk into a line of fire for a living deserve a level of respect.
But these events feel like recruiting stations now so that they can be sacrificed. The presence of armed forces trucks and modern war displays proves that. Tankfest is meant to be a historic day, but the presence of so many military surplus stalls and military recruiters does leave me feeling that the pride felt at our armed past is being twisted to be something to pursue in our very ambiguous armed present. We are not liberators in this day and age, not in the eyes of the world at large, not like in the largest war this planet has seen. That we wish to draw more into the meat grinder when remembering the sheer awfulness of that bloody period is a little wrong to me.
I am being overly cynical (as per usual). But I do so with a reason: we re-enact our battles, the moments of defeat and victory in a war we ultimately triumphed in. A war that was the last great conflict where we were not a conqueror but a liberator, an underdog in the face of tyranny. Where the backs were against the wall and people picked up a rifle and joined the fray. A war that (briefly) united one world with another to defeat a greater threat. We appear to re-enact in order to celebrate. It doesn’t seem to hold the same weight now. It feels like patriotism during our time of victory.
I wonder if that time is looked on fondly because that was the time of purpose, of pride and strength in our nation. I wonder if that pride is going to be used to drag us in the direction of tyranny, of ultra- nationalism. It would be a tragic twist of irony if the remembrance we hold dear every year to honour the fallen, the sacrifice, is being forgotten, and becoming a celebration of a time of glory, of ultimate victory for the nation. It would be beyond a cruel jape if that time was used as fuel for our own oppression.
I speak as someone whose family is of a mostly military background: Father a royal marine, cousin RAF and later Army, Grandfather RAF bomber command, great uncle a soldier (who died at Monte Casino), step grand father a royal engineer during the war, step uncles that are army and RAF both….
Military is definitely in the blood, and before that off-hand comment, I enjoyed the days spent gazing in awe that the things used to kill each other with, at the uniforms and ranks and stories that defined the context for those toys.
But now I have a sick taste in my mouth, and question why I enjoyed those days. Was it respect? Was it remembrance? Was it to honour the fallen or was it worse than that? Why did I wander about those fields and hold those guns and admire those soldiers?
Was it aspiration to be in that “privileged” lot, to be known as someone who could sacrifice themselves for a Greater Good?
I don’t know. But I don’t think Tankfest is going to get receiving a cynical Welshman next year as a guest. It doesn’t sit right with me any more to know the rate of fire of an MG42 and talk about its effectiveness as a weapon capable of mass murder. It doesn’t sit right to stare at tanks and admire their imposing presence and see them as tools of liberation at the end of a barrel.
War may be a necessary thing, depending on your stance. That’s not what I feel queasy about now. I feel queasy about what we’re actually remembering now, what we’re teaching ourselves now about those darkest of days.
We’re forgetting the real horror of that time, by defining it in terms of things, in terms of pride, in terms of honour. We forget as we tell ourselves we remember that time and honour the fallen.
We may honour the fallen in our hearts, but I can’t see that on display at these days. These days are not solemn, or mournful. They’re bombastic, and full of heart and pride.
A century has passed since the beginning of a pointless war that claimed millions of lives. A war that then was followed by a larger, far more devastating war that has re-defined a world. War has utterly consumed this century, gunfire the soundtrack to a time of chaos and bloodshed, of rampant ideology driving all people in the jaws of hades. War built the technology, lead to our modern lives, and exists as an economy in its own right.
It is within our society to the core, with the kids with guns and toy helmets, the youngsters head to toe in modern battle dress, the guys in historic uniform sitting on armoured behemoths.
I remember the past: I won’t forget the context, the cause, the effect, the numbers, and the scale. I don’t want to know any more about the distinct noise a tank shell makes any more. I don’t want to learn how a Stuka scores a killing blow on a Sherman in minute detail any more. I don’t want to hear about soldiers who had to face death no matter which direction they ran to any more.
They gave their tomorrow for our today. We will never be able to live up to that sacrifice. All I can ever do in response to that is bow my head and weep at that lost generation, and leave the past as a lesson to be learnt, a landmark in history for us all to look at that represents the most important loss from that time:
People. Friends. Family. Strangers. So many gone, so many potential leaders, scientists, thinkers, artists. All gone, never to grace the world with their presence, never to be heard again.