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The International Writers Magazine
: Comment: Talking to Soldiers

Don’t Mention the War
Sam Barnes

A few months ago, I met a group of American service men and women at a campsite in Japan. My friends and I had come to the site for an outdoor party which takes place once a month during the summer. As the evening drew in, and we were consuming our pre-party drinks, we got talking to the military party goers. We were soon chatting and drinking together, around our portable picnic table.

It turned out that several of them had just begun their military service, and were naturally excited about being posted to Japan. I had already mentioned that I had relatives in the military, which seemed to lessen their initial standoffishness; (Perhaps caused by the negative reactions they get from people when revealing their line of work?) Overall we got along with them fine. We gave them wine, they invited us over to their, rather impressive, fire. We hung out together for a good few hours before making our way over to the party.
However, throughout our conversation that evening, there was a tacit understanding between us all. It was that no one should bring up the topic of the war, or prolonged military presence in Iraq. We were all out that night to enjoy ourselves, and didn’t want to spoil things by getting into a heated political debate. Perhaps they sensed that as English teachers we would have decidedly anti-war views – (OK, I admit this is true in my case.) Or was it that we, the civilians, crudely assumed that as members of the armed forces they would be pro-war? Whatever the case, the subject of Iraq remained strictly out of bounds, like a solitary mine in no-mans-land waiting to be stepped on. But no one did step on the issue. It was carefully avoided, skirted around, and in my case downright suppressed by my sense of self preservation.

Of course, most wars involving Western nations are contentious issues, provoking mixed opinions, but the second war in Iraq seems to have beaten all others when it comes to dividing public opinion. The huge scale of the protests before the impending military offensive last year was testimony to the level of opposition around the world, to an invasion which many saw as unprovoked. At the time there were also smaller counter protests in America, berating the antiwar camp for their efforts. Unlike Vietnam, this time around people had nothing to fear by protesting peacefully in the streets. Though hundreds of thousands turned out to voice discontent with their governments’ intended actions, the operation went ahead spearheaded by America’s war against terror.

In my case, I participated in a relatively small protest in Tokyo joining around 20000 others in a march around the Shibuya district. After the protest I met a man in a bar, who turned out to be in the American air force. I had already explained that I had come to Tokyo to protest before he mentioned this. We had a long discussion about feelings towards the imminent invasion, and he assured me that there were many people within the armed forces who were against it. But on that occasion, the subject of Iraq was not the touch-paper that it is today. We happily discussed our opposing views over a few beers.

A year and a half later, and the mass protests have died down, but people’s feelings have not. Those who support peace were badly let down when their efforts were ignored last year. In my view this has generated a great deal of resentment, and a feeling of powerlessness. I would guess that if a referendum had been held, Britain would not have joined the offensive. In my view, the government acted against the will of the majority, and therefore democracy failed. The result of this harboured resentment is that those who do support the war, are more secretive about expressing their opinions. The anti-war camp is no longer the fringe of students and socialists that it was thirty five years ago. As such, those who support current military actions in Iraq do not have the confidence which others did during previous conflicts.

Opinions about the war have become deeply ingrained, and certain events are thinly disguised attempts to pander to them. For example, the hasty installation of a government was, no doubt, an attempt to wallpaper over a very large hole in the wall: i.e. the image of American and British troops as occupying forces. However, the public is not easily fooled, and does not easily forget. The current resistance, and ensuing campaigns to quell it, is proof that all is far from well in this newly established democracy. As for the authenticity of the new government, and how much power the people will have to self-determination, this is difficult to judge.
It seems as if the ongoing events in Iraq, have created anger on both sides. Those that feel cheated by their leaders; and those that feel that a just war and those fighting it are being unfairly treated. It has become such an emotive topic that, in the case of my recent party episode, all present simply chose not to bring it up, in order to avoid trouble. (Though admittedly the trouble would have been mostly ours.)

In modern times, we have learned to tolerate that others have different values than ourselves. Democracy is a way of allowing diverse political thoughts to co-exist peacefully. This is a good thing, unless it entails biting one’s tongue in order to avoid argument. In my view, it would greatly help democracy if we were more willing to debate issues openly. It is perhaps because people are so divided over the recent conflict, that they often remain silent in order to be tolerant. Hopefully this situation will never escalate to the stage where people will actually fear violence whenever they state their political beliefs. In which case of course, we would no longer be living in a democracy.

Herein lies the ultimate irony: That action taken to promote democracy in other countries, puts a great strain on democracy in our own country. – (Alanis Morissette couldn’t fit that one in her song).
© Sam Barnes December 1 2004

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