1980s >> 1985 >> no-971-july-1985

Between the Lines: Simon’s war

Most of us experience war only through the medium of television. Too often it is presented as a ninety-minute, small-screen fiction — an appealing and heroic adventure which depicts “Our Boys” kicking hell out of those who dared to affront the Nation. War films glorify killing and condition innocent viewers to imitate the violence they see — but only when the state requires them to. Needless to say, moralising Mary Whitehouse and her crowd of repressed would-be censors are more concerned to ban explicit acts of love from the screen than the filthy portrayal of war. Copulation is regarded as an obscenity, which affects impressionable minds, but legally sanctioned guns and bombs seem not to offend.

All of this comes to mind after watching a repeated QED documentary called Simon’s War. In an unpretentious way, it showed the horrors of legalised violence better than many a more politically-motivated documentary might have done. It was the moving story of Simon Weston, a Welsh Guardsman on board the Sir Galahad when it was hit. Forty-six men died, but Simon lived — in a sense. He was not one of the forty-six whom the government (and the loyal Opposition) need have on their consciences. He survived with 46 per cent burns to his body — mainly on his face and hands injuries described as “minor” by the Ministry of Defence when breaking the news to his parents.

The opening-shots showed the patriotic parade of whipped-up lunacy which preceded the pain — flags waving, wives crying, children bewildered. and bands playing. And then off they went to perform their violent duty to the tune of the national anthem. Next scene: the dead and dying being airlifted from the area of slaughter. Cameras beside a stretcher in the military hospital showed the anguish and recorded the screams of pain of the soldier whose injuries they had decided to make a documentary about. The film then followed Simon’s struggle to come to terms with the severe physical and emotional injuries which had been inflicted on him. Physically, he has been transformed from a robust, able lad who used to be a good rugby player. Emotionally, he has been stripped of his independence and turned into a hideously deformed person who is frightened of scaring his own nephew. He returns home to Nelson in Wales for a birthday celebration, but is too weak to spend the evening in the social club where he used to be “one of the lads”. An old mate comments, after seeing Simon: ‘I couldn’t say nothing to him. I just felt like throwing up and crying.” During the period covered by the programme Simon’s girlfriend, who was going to marry him. ceases to be his girlfriend. These are the consequences of war — good old conventional war, remember — which don’t always make the columns of the Sun. Towards the end of the programme Simon is seen at a medal-giving parade, standing to attention before the arch-parasites, the Princes Philip and Charles. As they inspect the damage to their subjects there is a voice-over, with Simon summing up his predicament: “It’s all part of war really . . . I’m just a working guy who tried to do his job and got injured.”

Simon’s War should be compulsory viewing for every young worker who is thinking of joining the army. Let them see what it means to survive in a war: let them know what they will be asked to sacrifice in order that a minority may grow richer and stronger; let them hear the cries of pain, which are but echoes of strident nationalist rhetoric. After the Falklands war they called Margaret Thatcher the Iron Lady. But iron doesn’t burn; skin does.

Terrace war
In the South Atlantic workers were paid and given medals for behaving like thugs. In Brussels, where the actions of certain so-called football supporters led to thirty-eight deaths, the violence was not ordered by the government and we are therefore expected to be full of condemnation.

Turning on the football only to watch a two-hour riot was a miserable experience. Here were workers wasting their energies in a fool’s war between one set of wage slaves and another. The sport experts in the studio, led by Jimmy Hill, became more and more like propagandists for state violence. Hill proposed bringing back national service; the studio team agreed. Terry Venables suggested giving all football hooligans a minimum prison sentence of five years; there was no dissent from his fellow pundits. From the stadium in Brussels, the Ayatollah Bobby Charlton proposed a revival of good old corporal punishment. This is what happens when sports commentators panic and become so frightened by the ugly symptoms of the present system that they have no concern for the cause. The crescendo of repressive propositions coming from the TV set that night showed just how easy it is for fear to give rise to totalitarian solutions. And television allows the cultivation of such collective hysteria to be even more controlled by the state than it was in Europe in the 1930s.

Millions of people have been trained to think about what they buy through advertising slogans. They go into the grocer for a packet of “exceedingly good cakes” and some “prolongs active life” for the dog; in the sweet shop they pick up a “helps you work, rest and play” bar and perhaps “Just one Cornetto” — to the approved tune, of course; then on to the travel agent to book two weeks in Benidorm with “Well take more care of you”; down to the garage to pick up the “Vorsprung durch Technik” and fill it up with a few gallons of the petrol which “you can be sure of”. It is hardly surprising that a buying and selling society has taught the consumers to go in for commodity-talk. Think of all the language we’ll lose in a world of free access: no more mindless slogans and jolly tunes to persuade us to buy shoddy brand A rather than bargain brand B. In a moneyless society I suppose we will have to learn to survive without the ad-men telling us what we want.

Steve Coleman