Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery

Fier Martyrs' Cemetery

Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery

Many of the Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout Albania are situated on hills, sometimes quite high hills, in the vicinity of the cities and towns. This is the case with the Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery which, when it was constructed, would have been clearly seen from the centre of the town, the area around Sheshi Pavarësia (Independence Square) and the Bashkia (Town Hall). Up to the 1990s the buildings weren’t that tall but subsequent construction of high-rise flats has meant that you don’t really see the cemetery until you’re almost upon it.

As you come to the cemetery from the northern side a residential road brings you to a small, now abandoned, white building – all fittings having been removed. This is too small to have been a museum that were normally situated near a cemetery (and anyway, there’s a proper Historical Museum in the centre of town, in a good condition, looking as if it has only recently been refurbished and with many fine exhibits from the Socialist period). The building must have some connection to the cemetery (perhaps a place selling flowers on special occasions, but that’s only speculation) as it wouldn’t have served many other purposes.

From this building there are a series of steps taking you to the lapidar and statue at the highest point of the hill. The graves are laid out to the right of the steps, with the tombs on two levels. The whole area is relatively clean, the tombs are undamaged, and although the grass is growing between the stone tiles and a little untidy around the graves it is obviously cared for, at least on an occasional basis.

Probably when the cemetery was originally laid out there would just have been a lapidar, although not the one there now. If we go back to the late 1940s and early 50s the lapidar would have been a simple affair, sitting on the highest point, with a star somehow attached to the highest point facing the approach steps or perhaps surmounting the pillar.

The present lapidar sits on a large, raised plinth and must be, at least, the second reincarnation with the area being improved at the same time the statue was added. But what you see today is not what would have been seen at that time in the early seventies.

I’m almost certain the plinth and lapidar are from the 1970s but they have recently been restored following years of neglect and vandalism. The people and the Bashkia (local government) of Fier made a decision, anything up to ten years ago, to recover and recognise the past sacrifices of local people in the National Liberation War. It was in 2010 that the new (and awful) Liri Gero statue was unveiled and the monument to the 68 Girls was given a new plinth. It would make sense to think that the cemetery was restored at the same time.

The top face of the plinth is covered with marble tiles, is in a very good condition and are in three colours – red, white and brown – with a simple geometric pattern all the way around. The concrete below is unadorned, but clean and undamaged, and raises the plinth about a half a metre above the surrounding area.

The lapidar itself is a simple tall, rectangular pillar, wider at the bottom couple of metres or so, and then soaring vertically upwards. Whether the original marble facing was stolen or just fell off due to neglect I’m unsure. Now it is covered in white and greyish marble slabs from the top to the bottom. The highest limit of the widest part is indicated by a frieze of narrow, red tiles. However, there’s been a bit of cost cutting as the tiles on the topmost part of the lapidar are only on the side facing the steps and half way on the right and left face giving the impression that the decoration is ‘functional’, that is, on those parts most people will see as they come up the steps.

Fier Martyrs' Cemetery

Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery

There’s also been a bit of cost cutting on the metal decoration on the main face. At the bottom there’s a large laurel branch with nine leaves. This looks to be treated sheet steel but there are signs of rust appearing at the joins of the leaves and the branch. Higher up the words ‘Lavdi Deshmoreve’ (‘Glory to the Martyrs) runs in large, golden letters vertically from the top down. From a distance this looks quite smart but once close up you can see that the letters have been made out of sheet steel, boxed, in three dimensions and then painted with gold paint. The elements are starting to take their toll and the paint is fading and rust is starting to show. At the top of the column, a few centimetres from the top, is a large, red, metal star – the symbol of Communism.

This is the first time, so far, that I’ve seen sheet steel used in the renovation of a lapidar. Whether the laurel branch would have been on the original I don’t know but the words ‘Lavdi Deshmoreve’ almost certainly would have, it’s universal on Albanian lapidars. But almost invariably the letters would have been made out of the more expensive bronze and it’s possible the originals had been looted and melted down for scrap.

The other component of the Fier Cemetery lapidar is a large (about twice life-size) statue of a female partisan. Being Fier, which still celebrates the bravery and heroism of Liri Gero and the 68 Partisan Girls, it’s not a surprise a female statue was chosen.

Fier Cemetery - Female Partisan

Fier Cemetery – Female Partisan

The figure stands on a solid block of concrete a couple of metres to the right of the monolith. Unusually, this statue has a name, ‘Liria fitohet dhe mbrohet me pushke’ meaning ‘Freedom won and defended by the rifle’. This is the implied meaning of most of the statues in such circumstances, taking its lead from a the revolutionary slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania, ‘To build Socialism holding a pickaxe in one hand and the rifle in the other’ – what has been gained by the workers is never guaranteed unless they are prepared to fight to defend them from all attacks, whether internal or external.

The statue is made of concrete and is the work of Gjergji J Toska and Qiraku Dano and was inaugurated in 1972 (or perhaps 1973). Toska was from the region of Myzeqeja, which is just to the north of Fier, between Divjake and Lushnje. In an interview he has said that where he grew up had an influence on his sculptural works. The sculpture took about 18 months to create and it was one of a number that had been commissioned for other cemeteries in the country. During the period when these type of sculptures were being installed in Albania it was normal for final approval to be granted by a local approval commission, in the early 1970s none such existed in Fier so photos of his work were sent to Tirana, where the work was well received.

Again there are elements that appear as a recurring motif. The woman is striding out as if she were climbing in the mountains, representing Albania and the fact that the Partisans used the hills as their base to attack the invaders and soon controlling the countryside, leaving the occupation forces surrounded in the towns.

In her right hand she holds the top of the barrel of her rifle, the butt of which is resting on the hillside next to her right foot. Although her weapon is a good representation of a bolt-action rifle it is much bigger than it would have been in reality. It would have taken, indeed, a true Amazon to fire such a weapon. But a weapon of such a size was necessary to allow the pose the sculptors have chosen to represent.

Her legs are as far apart as possible and she is stretching up to hold the top of the gun. Her left hand is stretched out behind, and above, her head to hold the right, top edge of partisan flag (and later to be the national flag of the country) with its symbol of the double-headed eagle with the Communist star above the heads. The top left corner of the flag is being held taut by having a fixed bayonet used as a short and temporary flagpole and the material is scrunched up in her hand so we don’t see the normal rectangle of the banner but more of a trapezoidal shape. The bottom right of the flag hangs down and partially covers her long hair, resting on her shoulder, a small triangle fluttering free. She has a determined look on her face and looks into the distance, to the left of her rifle.

Her limbs almost form an X, the right arm and left leg in a straight line, the other two limbs not doing so as her right leg is higher up the hill she is climbing. This gives the figure a sense of dynamism. She is moving forward as well as going up, going higher. Stretching she is pushing herself to achieve more. As a Partisan this is first and foremost victory in the National Liberation War against Fascism but in that war Communists were fighting to rid their country of the invaders but also in order to build a new society. And once the revolution is won it’s not possible to rest on your laurels. It’s difficult to make a revolution but it’s even more difficult to build a new sort of society – which will be constantly under attack from the capitalists, both in the country and from without, and more the powerful imperialist nations. So the task of a Partisan changes after liberation but it doesn’t get any easier – hence the title of the statue.

The Partisan is dressed in full uniform and has the red star on her cap and (what would have been) a red bandana around her neck. Around her waist she wears an ammunition belt.

Although it’s not immediately obvious from the front on looking at the back of the statue we see that her long hair is being blown over her left shoulder, indicating that a strong wind is blowing into her face. Another indication of being in the high mountains and suggests more movement as the flag would be fluttering.

Freedom won and defended by the rifle, GJ Toska and Q Dono, Fier (Martyrs' Cemetery) 1972

Freedom won and defended by the rifle

The statue looks to be in very good condition and has recently been painted, the paint showing few signs of wear but then I don’t think that Fier gets particularly harsh weather conditions at any time of year. As with most of these concrete statues they would not have been originally painted at all, just the unadorned concrete, but this is a general approach to the cleaning and renovation of monuments now in different parts of the country.

The grave of Liri Gero will be in this cemetery, but I was amiss on my last visit and didn’t identify exactly where it is. I will remedy that on my next visit.

Fier Martyrs' Wall of Honour

Fier Martyrs’ Wall of Honour

In some of the Martyrs’ cemeteries there’s a list of all those from the area who died in the war. However, this is not the case in Fier. On the first floor (which documents the period from pre-war years to 1990) of the Fier Historical Museum there’s a wall of remembrance, listing those from the Fier district who gave their lives for National Liberation. Although a recent creation it has all the aspects you’d expect from the Socialist period. The background is the Communist red and in the centre there’s a large black, double-headed eagle. Over the two heads is a golden star. At the very top are the words ‘Deshmoret e luftes antifashiste nacionalçlirimtare’ (Martyrs of the National Liberation War) in gold letters. And then, also in gold letters, are the names of 443 men and women from the Fier district – many more than are commemorated with a tomb in the cemetery.

Location of the Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery.

It’s best to arrive at the cemetery from the north, going up Rruga Skender Muskaj, from Rruga Jani Bakalli, and taking the first left along Rruga Koli Stamo – this brings you to the derelict building at the bottom of the steps.

GPS:

40.719541

19.56362402

DMS:

40° 43′ 10.3476” N

19° 33′ 49.0465” E

Altitude:

36.4m

Other lapidars in Fier.

So far I have been concentrating on the more elaborate monuments that come under the heading of ‘lapidars’ and which have been identified by the Albanian Lapidar Survey. To me that makes sense as the more ornate and complicated works of art have a story to tell and, although sometimes it has been difficult to find the information, it has been a pleasure trying to unravel what is before us. However, the vast majority of lapidars are more modest, but in their own way as important and significant a part of Albania’s history as the grand works of sculpture. More importantly all these small lapidars commemorate men or women who died fighting Fascism. Sometimes only two or three but even though they may not have been honoured as ‘Heroes of the People’ they were fundamental in the victory of November 1944.

In a sense the condition and evolution of the three other lapidars in the centre of Fier encapsulate the problem that Albania has in dealing with its past. Revolutionary Socialism never has been, and never will be, a State of all the people. For many reasons, class background, ideological and religious convictions, simple greed and selfishness there will always be those who will resist and use every opportunity to sabotage or undermine any achievements in a Socialist society. To all these negative factors have to be added the mistakes that the revolutionaries make, either out of ignorance, excessive zeal or even those who have infiltrated the Party in order to undermine its work, that exacerbate an already difficult task. And that’s before you have to take into account efforts by economically more powerful external forces to destroy a socialist society by whatever means possible.

This means that symbols of a past period are bound to be targets once the revolution loses support amongst a significant proportion of the population. In Albania the easiest target was the General Secretary of the Party of Labour for the majority of the time of Socialist construction, Enver Hoxha. As do all revolutionary Marxist-Leninists he believed in the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, a concept that developed from the concrete experience of workers in different parts of Europe seeking to build a society which was not based on exploitation and oppression. By presenting and arguing this ideological stance Hoxha was branded ‘Dictator’ by his enemies and detractors. It was to their advantage to try to make the concept, that has to involve the vast majority of a society to be successful, into a personal, individual matter.

But the idea of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ developed from the defeats that workers had undergone throughout history but especially from the late 19th century onwards. The thirty thousand men, women and children who were slaughtered in the last week of May 1871 at the end of the Paris Commune; the massacre of the Spartacists in Germany in 1919; the Civil War in Russia when the White forces were supported by 14 countries which only a few months before were sworn enemies; the interventions that Albania itself was subject to in the first years after liberation by the combined efforts of the British and the Americans all reinforced the truth that if the workers want to take real, and not just imagined, power (as is promised by Social Democracy and the ballot box) then they have to fight as much after the revolution as before it.

When we come back to the idea of the lapidars in Albania we see that Hoxha therefore become the easiest target. Public statues of him and the likes of the Memorial to the Berat Meeting of 1944, where he is a prominent figure amongst the fine sculpture where many tens of people were depicted (a sad loss), were destroyed in the early days of the counter-revolution. Now he is printed on mugs and pens in the souvenir shops of Gjirokaster or found as a small stone bust in small Albanian produce shops throughout the country – although a large bust of him is presently covered in a white tarpaulin in the ‘Sculpture Park’ behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana (or at least was in May of 2015).

The issue then becomes what to do with the other monuments, in the main commemorating those who died in the Anti-Fascist National Liberation War, in a country with such a small population that virtually every family would have had a relative amongst the country’s martyrs, within a generation or two. This meant that the majority of the monuments weren’t conscious targets of attack by reactionary forces but time, mindless and infantile vandalism and general neglect would play their part in erasing the country’s past.

There are a lot of questions which address this issue of identity, relationship to the past and how culture in general is seen in Albania today but that will take some space so I’ll return to that at a later date (or else this post will never end).

However, a part of that debate can be seen played out in the Fier lapidars.

Monument to the Three Martyrs

3 Martyrs - Fier

3 Martyrs – Fier

On the right hand side of the road, about 200m from Sheshi Europa Plaza (on the Fier ring-road) on the SH73 – the road to Berat – is a modest monument to three young men killed in the fight to liberate the city from the German Nazis. This is more typical of the lapidars around the country than those I have documented so far and if you didn’t know it was there it would be very easy to miss. Unlike War Memorials in the UK it is not common for there to be some sort of railing around the monument, not now nor in the past.

More typical but also on the modest side of typical. Some of the lapidars seek to impress as they soar skywards, although there may not be a great deal of ornament or decoration, but this one is minimalist and only stands about 2 metres high. So we have a simple, concrete monolith and on each side of that column there are two ‘wings’ which extend to just below half way up. It’s painted white (and fairly recently going by the condition) and the only other aspect of it is a marble plaque fixed to the top half of the facade. In most of these cases there would have been a red star but I could see no indication that something had been fixed just above the plaque (where you would expect to find one) so it’s possible that one was attached at the very top, normally a painted iron star attached by short, narrow pieces of reinforced iron. Whatever the situation in the past there’s no star there now.

Although it has been repainted there has been no attention paid to the plaque. The letters on the plaque had been cut out of the marble and then made more obvious by being painted in black. That has worn and it’s now very difficult to make out the words, especially if you aren’t good at the language and can’t make assumptions of what the words should be. In different places I’ve seen fairly badly delineated letters, perhaps more good intentions than skill, so this is something that has to be taken as it comes.

The most important point I wish to make about this lapidar is the fact that, to all intents and purposes, to most Albanians it doesn’t seem to exist. Obviously it exists as an entity but not for what it represents. On the day I visited this lapidar the area immediately around it was relatively clear. It sits at the side of a field where there is a small lay-by. When the ALS team visited it was holding up a moped and breeze blocks for some construction project were being stored right beside it.

3 Martyrs - Fier

3 Martyrs – Fier – photo by Marco Mazzi

Now, was this done consciously – that the people who were treating a war memorial as just a convenient post against which to lean their bike and therefore making apolitical statement – or unconsciously, not realising what it was and the bike and the breeze blocks had to go somewhere? Or are these small and unobtrusive lapidars just victims of their own simplicity, people don’t see them unless they really look?

Carved into the marble plaque are the words:

Më 27-VII-1944 ranë në luftën për çlirimin e qytetit të Fierit dëshmorët e Luftës Nacional Çlirimtare Tomor Dizdari, Orman Zaloshnja, Vangjel Gjini.

This translates as:

On 27-VII-1944, in the fight to liberate the city of Fier during the National Liberation War, the martyrs Tomor Dizdar, Orman Zaloshnja, Gender Vangeli fell.

At that time this area would have been considered well out of the town centre so, this is presumably the location where they actually died. So far I’ve been unable to find any more information about the three martyrs.

Location:

GPS:

40.71874003

19.56974097

DMS:

40° 43′ 7.4641” N

19° 34′ 11.0675” E

Monument to the 11th Brigade

11th Brigade - Fier

11th Brigade – Fier

This monument is right in the centre of town, not far from the Bashkia and at the junction of the street in which the Historical Museum can be found. This is a step up from the previous lapidar, displaying more architectural elements but without involving any sculptural elements. This particular lapidar also demonstrates the process, stated long ago and now again becoming a trend in parts of the country, of updating/upgrading/restoring/renovating the lapidars. Here the old has been demolished and a new created in the same location – and it’s almost a replica. But not quite.

Both consist of a platform, which has three steps on the right hand side of the long edge which continue on the right hand narrow edge. On this platform a monolith rises up to a height of about eight. On the left hand side of this monolith there’s a curved buttress at the bottom. It’s here where there’s a slight difference between the old and the new. On the old this right hand structure is joined by another rectangular slab of concrete which extends upwards about a metre over the first. On the new there is a space between these two components and the concrete in between is painted a deep red, which continues from under the curved buttress. On both the versions a concrete slab about 2 x 4 metres is placed at 90º to the lapidar.

Although there’s a possibility that the old has been renovated I don’t think this is possible, at least not for all of the structure. The platform has been faced on the lower part by false brick tiles, as have the steps. The top of the platform has also been covered with marble tiles. This would cover all the wear and tear of over 40 years on the concrete so that part might be part of the original. I don’t think this is the case with the rest of the lapidar.

11th Brigade - Fier

11th Brigade – Fier – photos by Marco Mazzi

Apart from the separation of the two slabs of concrete it all looks a lot smarter, the edges are sharper and I don’t think that can be achieved with a repair job (and would you put new, modern concrete on a crumbling forty-year old base? Also the slab that contains the letters appears wider than the original. Another difference is the red star on the facade that faces to the left. On the old this is larger and has greater depth whereas on the new it’s smaller and flatter.

The wording on the two versions is also slightly different. On the old the letters are just stencilled, in red paint, onto a white background – these were probably not the original but a later ‘restoration’. They are:

1 Nentor 1944 Brigada E XI-S

This translates to:

1 November 1944 S Brigade XI

S is for Sulmuese. This can be translated as assault, shock or guerrilla group. Units of the Albanian Partisan Army were not designed for mass, set battles. They could move fast and therefore weren’t as heavily armed as the Fascist opposition which ultimately secured them victory. It is one of those contradictions of war that the better equipped force can actually find that what appears an advantage on paper, in crucial circumstances, becomes a hindrance and bogs them down in a way that makes them vulnerable. The E? This is a grammatical device which seems somewhat redundant.

There are indications that there might have been more text or an image of some kind (on the edge close to the column) but there’s no way to work out what might have been.

The letters are almost the same, but not exactly, on the new. They are inlaid on a large rectangle of marble (a much more sophisticated presentation than the previous version) and read:

1 Nentor 1944 U formua brigada XI Sulmuese

This translates as:

1 November 1944 – the XIth Assault Brigade was formed

This is confusing to me. I believe that the 1st November 1944 is the date when Fier was liberated from the Nazis. The 11th Brigade would have been formed long before that as the whole of the country was liberated on 29th November of that year.

Location:

GPS:

40.72572702

19.55575199

DMS:

40° 43′ 32.6173” N

19° 33′ 20.7072” E

Monument to Petro Sota and the 1943 Nazi Massacre

Petro Sota and 1943 Massacre - Fier

Petro Sota and 1943 Massacre – Fier

The third lapidar in Fier is different again. It’s a simple monolith, which is made grander by being placed on a plinth, and is in the public park in the centre of the town. On the side facing the centre of the park there’s a marble plaque with an inscription. The park is now considerably smaller than it would have been when the lapidar was first installed as a huge chunk of it has been taken up by a large mosque. Considering that all the other lapidars in the town have been cleaned recently this one is showing signs of wear, although structurally sound, and the inscription – black paint in the carved marble – is showing signs of wear it’s still quite easy to read the words.

What makes this lapidar unusual is that it actually commemorates a person and an event. So far I haven’t come across monuments where the space is shared.

The first is recognition of another of Fier’s sons in the National Liberation War, Petro Sota. He became a Communist before the Italian Fascists invaded the country in 1939 and once the town was occupied he worked as a courier of information, news and materials for the liberation cause. He was a driver and had a certain amount of freedom to move around and with different ruses got around the roadblocks and checkpoints the Fascists imposed or order to maintain control of the town.

On one occasion he used a child sized coffin to bring in the Party newspaper and on another caused the Italian soldiers to follow him, allowing free passage for those who were bringing in contraband. He is remembered as when, in July 1943, things went wrong on a mission he was able to destroy sensitive Resistance material before being killed.

He is recognised in the top half of the inscription:

Petro Sota, vrarë më 13 korrik 1943 nga fashistët italianë duke kryer detyrën e ngarkuar nga njësiti gueril.

Which translates as:

Petro Sota, killed on 13 July 1943 by the Italian Fascists, carrying out tasks entrusted to him by the guerrilla unit.

The second half of the inscription asks more questions than it answers. This is:

Po këtu më 10 shtator 1943 nazistët gjermanë masakruan 45 qytetarë të pafajshëm

In English:

But here on September 10, 1943 the German Nazis massacred 45 innocent civilians

So far I don’t have the information that explains exactly what happened and why. This was just after the Nazis replaced the Italian Fascists, who had by this time effectively withdrawn from the war on all fronts. It’s possible the Germans wanted to stamp their mark on the country, knowing already the sort of fierce opposition they would face from the Communist Partisans. Also, exactly at this time the German forces were being defeated outside the village of Drashovice (in the Selenice valley close to Vlora) so it could have been a massacre caused by the Nazis’ frustration.

Whatever the reason 45 is a lot of people at one time and what surprises me the most is there wasn’t a more substantial monument to the event, as there is in Borovë and Uznovë. The names are not even listed, the event only meriting a couple of lines on a very modest memorial – and shared at that. Something to investigate.

The tally of Nazi five atrocities, in effect war crimes, in Albania that I have identified, so far, make the decision to establish a memorial to the German dead during their invasion of the country even more of a mystery, apart from establishing the fascist credentials (or at least forelock-tugging attitude) of past, post-1990 governments in Albania.

Petro Sota

Petro Sota

The reason for the lack of a memorial to those 45 people becomes even more confounding when we look at a statue of Petro Sota that was unveiled in 2014. I have the utmost respect for what Petro might have done during the Liberation War and I have no problem with the placing a bust of him in the town of his birth – but aren’t we forgetting priorities here? Another question for which there is, as yet, no answer.

This new stature is the work of Fatos Shuli (a sculptor I have not come across before and about who I know nothing) seems to capture the individual that was Petro Sota. His picture in Flasin Heronj të Luftës Nacional Çlirimtare (Heroes of the National Liberation War Speak for themselves) gives the impression that he was a dapper dresser before the serious work of ridding his country of the invaders got in the way. This idea of style is captured in the new bust but, I must admit, I question the priorities of the Fier Bashkia.

Location:

GPS:

40.72619397

19.55685496

DMS:

40° 43′ 34.2983” N

19° 33′ 24.6779” E

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The Black Panthers – Vanguard of the Revolution

Black Panther Party

Black Panther Party

Considering it’s almost 50 years since they were formed (and almost 40 years since they all but disappeared off the scene) it was about time that someone made a documentary of an organisation, and the mass mobilisation it encouraged, that was such a dominant force in national politics in the United States for the latter half of the 60s. Whether the Black Panthers were actually the vanguard of the revolution is another matter but, at least, for a short time it shock the American establishment (and a lot of white people) to the core for a short time. This mobilisation of significant numbers of young black men and women coming at the same time as the anti-Vietnam War movement would have caused some to think that the revolution was just around the corner.

In some ways the two struggles had close connections. American imperialism was attempting to maintain oppression of the poor in South East Asia whilst in the home of the beast the black population were suffering an oppression little different from antebellum days and violence against black citizens was an everyday occurrence and deeply ‘institutionalised’ – to use a term that became current in the 21st century.

Watching (after so many years) the images of indiscriminate beatings by the police against black people, of all ages but predominantly of the young – beat them whilst young to frighten them for the rest of their lives – it’s no wonder that the beginnings of what became the Black Panther Party was predicated upon self-defence. A loophole in local ordinances in Oakland, California, meant that – as long as the weapons were carried openly – young black men could attend and ‘observe’ those incidences when their brothers and sisters were being abused by the police. One of the pertinent comments in the film here was how the whites felt intimidated (even thought the forces of the state were on ‘their’ side) – how much more must the black population must have felt when this was a situation they lived through everyday, everywhere, all of their lives.

It was no surprise that such a movement attracted many who had previously considered themselves marginalised. And the movement grew, fast, perhaps too fast. And this was accepted by those in the ‘leadership’ at the time and still around today. There was no control, no selection process, no vetting, no monitoring of those who wanted to join the movement, so no one really knew what their motives were. (As I write this I’m reminded of another, recent documentary, this time about efforts to fight against the drug cartels in Mexico (‘Cartel Land’) which also had a problem of being able to identify ‘which side were some of the members really on’?)

But if the honest people in the Black Panther Party (BPP) didn’t know what they were doing the state, especially in the form of J Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), knew exactly what was on the cards. This new, mass movement potentially had the ability to shake the racist state to its foundations.

Hoover sent out instructions that this organisation had to be destroyed and that any tactics could be employed. Infiltration and the use of informers and traitors (easily recruited when false charges – or even real but minor charges – could incur long, long times inside) was considered to be the best means to achieve this and the tactic became so successful that at times the BPP members didn’t know who to trust. A (white) defence lawyer in the case of the New York 21 – framed for dozens of charges, all of which were thrown out after months of incarceration and a trail lasting weeks – even asked, in court, if the FBI hadn’t actually created the BPP in the first place.

And no one should be surprised about that. If movements against the capitalist state don’t have a clear view of where they are going the capitalist state always does – it will do anything whatsoever to maintain that social system, and in the process will lie, misinform, create confusion, use intimidation, spend whatever it might cost (the money of the people being used against the people!), kill if needs be.

The problem is that social movements such as the Black Panthers have never realised and accepted this truth, a truth established centuries ago, and thus continue to make the same mistakes of those in the past, never seeming to learn from past mistakes and ending up either being ground down or totally destroyed. If this film has anything to offer, other than a reminder to those of us around at the time and as an educational tool for the young, it’s the reinforcement of the idea that we must learn from, and understand, history.

Hoover did the job he was paid to do. Contemptible as he was as a human being he knew where his interests lay. There’s no point in arguing that it wasn’t fair, that the FBI was doing something illegal, it’s the winners of the war who decide on the justice or legality of actions taken during that war.

The lack of a real programme (as opposed to a list of ‘demands’) from the start meant that the BPP moved from self-defence to social welfare (in the provision of breakfast clubs for school children, free health clinics, food banks, etc., those basic welfare measures that any decent state would provide for its least well off) to eventually getting involved in the electoral system that perpetuates the system of oppression in the first place – the argument being if you can’t challenge the state then try to ‘reform’ it from within. How many have been bought off by that idea in the past and how many to be bought off in the future?

The foremost representatives of the BPP in the early years were Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. These became the public voice of the organisation and the black jacketed, black beret wearing, pump-shotgun toting young black men, wearing dark glasses, became the poster boys of the ‘revolution’ – images that anyone old enough at the time will remember. However, one of the surprising pieces of information (for me) that came out in the film was that by the end of the 1970s the majority of its membership were young women. A few spoke for the party but the majority, if in the media at all, were depicted due to their hair and dress choices rather than for anything they might have to say. It seems to have been accepted that if the BPP wanted to change certain aspects of the society in which they lived misogyny was not one of them – the Black Panthers were not in the forefront of female liberation.

Black Panther Women

Black Panther Women

As one of the survivors said in the documentary they were young, idealist and enthusiastic. Those attributes were at the same time positive and negative and had an impact on what they did and how the organisation developed – or not.

Having no uniting idea of what to do the party went from dealing with one crisis to another, surviving one attack to the next one, going from setback to setback. For most of its existence it appeared to be like a rudderless ship, just going where the forces of nature took it, without direction, without destination, without a goal. It’s all very well for people to stand up against the oppression and exploitation under which they live but unless they know what they are fighting for (rather than merely knowing what they are fighting against) any movement will eventually run out of steam.

(We have seen examples of this in recent years, e.g., the anti-City of London/Wall Street, anti-austerity movements throughout the capitalist countries and the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in many of the countries of Northern Africa. If you have no viable alternative to offer to the people then the old state will re-take the positions of power that might have been under threat for a very short period of time – is austerity less austere in countries such as the UK? In which Arab country are the vast majority of people better off now than they were prior to the mass mobilisations of 2011?)

Because the party had no organisation what developed was a cult of leadership. As the state stepped up its efforts to destroy the party first Newton and then Seale were imprisoned. Cleaver ran away to Algeria where he set up the international section of the party. Although the arrests of the leaders, and the campaigns for their release were beneficial in gaining publicity for the BPP, and also an increase in its membership, this only exacerbated the lack of unity rather than strengthening the group. People joined but they didn’t really know what they were joining.

Before Newton was imprisoned he posed as some modern-day African tribal leader, an image which appeared everywhere at the time, and the campaign to release him almost certainly had the effect of reinforcing his own individual importance in the movement on his release. He later expelled all and sundry, seemingly on a personal whim and basing his decision on nothing other than his own criteria and without reference to any others still in the dwindling organisation. Drugs fuelled his paranoia and megalomania and to those around him just before his death he was considered clinically insane.

Huey Newton

Huey Newton

Cleaver took the opportunity to get out of the country when a warrant for his arrest was issued and subsequently led the international section of the party, first in Cuba and then, on a more permanent basis in Algeria. He was then invited to countries that were attempting to construct socialism (such as China, North Vietnam and North Korea) giving him a lot of personal credibility but it’s uncertain what he really had to offer. When the existence of the People’s Republic of China wasn’t officially recognised and whilst B52s were blanket bombing Hanoi from miles up in the sky there was a PR reason for those two countries to align themselves with a movement that could possibly destabilise the United States – but surely they must have known that they were dealing with dilettantes? (Cleaver was to become a born again Christian in the 1980s and even supported Ronald Reagan for President – when Reagan had been governor of California when the BPP was started there in reaction to the violence of the state’s law enforcement against the black population.)

Seale seemed less of a loose cannon but wasn’t able to take the organisation any further despite this. In 1969 he came to world-wide fame when, because he refused to stop interrupting proceedings in the trial of the Chicago 8 (following massive demonstrations around the Democratic Party Convention of the previous year) he was ordered to be tied to his chair and gagged by Judge Julius Hoffman. He was later sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for 16 charges of contempt of court (3 months each) after the same judge ordered that he be ‘severed’ (i.e., no further proceedings to be taken against him on the charge of conspiracy) from the original charge – so he was found in contempt of a court where he shouldn’t have been in the first place. The American judicial system not considering that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way it was being used against the people of the country. On release from prison Seale ran for mayor of Oakland (really the home base and place of origin of the Black Panthers). He got close to victory, but not close enough, and demonstrated the basic flaw within the organisation. You can use the word ‘revolution’ but if you don’t know what it means, and what it entails, you will become nothing more than a reformist.

Bobby Seale in court

Bobby Seale in court

Those involved at the time state the lack of proper leadership that could hold the organisation together as being a problem but none of them, in the film, were able to come up with a solution or even, in the 1970s, give any indication what the party was doing to overcome these perceived weaknesses. All they could see as a solution was the slotting into the vacant space left by the previous leadership of Fred Hampton. However, instead of looking at past failings and trying to follow a more ideological and structured development of the party he just carried on with what had become a culture of the ‘cult of the personality’. Hoover feared the rise of a ‘messiah’, a charismatic leader that could overcome the schisms within the BPP, for many at the time Hampton was that ‘messiah’ – but only for a short period of time, the state were going to see to that.

Hampton is shown where he got an audience to repeat, time and time again, the phrase, ‘I am …. a revolutionary’. That’s all very well and good and it must have created a good atmosphere in meetings of people who considered themselves alienated and disenfranchised within the general society of the United States – but it did nothing other than that. Through all the problems the BPP had gone through in its relatively short existence there was never a consideration that, perhaps, what they had been doing had faults and instead of looking at those mistakes and trying not to repeat them they just went on along the same road.

They also, despite innumerable lessons to the contrary, never understood to what extent the State would go to ensure that they wouldn’t even achieve a modicum of success. In the early hours of the 4th December, 1969, in a flat in Chicago, the US State carried out what can only be described as an assassination of Fred Hampton.

William O’Neal, a FBI stooge and informer, had achieved the position of being Hampton’s bodyguard. He was so close to the leadership and had such freedom to move around that he was able to gather information so accurate that the FBI were able to recreate a life-size mock-up of the flat so they were as familiar with the layout of the apartment as those staying there. O’Neal also spiked a drink that Hampton took late the night before so that when the place was raided in a pre-dawn raid he wasn’t aware of anything.

As is not unusual in these circumstances the FBI stated they were only defending themselves but all indicators are that only one shot was fired by any of the Black Panthers – and that was an impulse shot by the Panther on security duty in his death throes. The apartment was riddled with bullet holes and two bullets were put into Hampton’s head at close range. Arresting all the others that survived the attack under spurious charges (later dropped) meant that the FBI was in total control of the situation.

Lie, stonewall and generally create a confused situation was the tactic. What the truth was, and whether it came out or not is not important as long as it happens at some time in the indeterminate future. It wasn’t until 1982 that compensation was paid out by the state, an implied admission of guilt, but by that time the heyday of the Black Panther Movement was long a thing of the past.

Soon after this there was a shoot out in the Oakland, where the Panthers started and always had their largest support. One of the best parts of the film was when one of those Panthers trapped in the building, running out of ammunition and totally surrounded with no way of escape, felt for the first time in his life, totally free, ‘truly alive’. All those that had survived the shoot out were convinced they would be summarily executed if they went outside (they weren’t, almost certainly due to the large media presence and with everything being broadcast live throughout the country). So they had nothing to lose, they had arrived at a time when they had nothing to lose but their chains, a situation which took all the years of oppression off their shoulders.

The BPP existed after this but everything was to go downhill from then on. Those who joined drifted away, either because of fear or the realisation that as they were organised at that time the BPP couldn’t really offer any alternative to the traditional, system orientated parties and organisations.

The Black Panthers as an organisation never accepted, or even realised, the importance of Lenin’s statement in ‘What is to be Done?‘, possible his most important work on party building that ‘Without revolutionary ideology there is no revolutionary movement’. Many wore Mao badges on their berets but didn’t take on board any of Mao’s thinking, any of Mao’s philosophy, strategy and tactics, any of Mao’s experiences of fighting a revolutionary war.

The spur that caused the formation of the Black Panthers was the treatment of black people at the hands of the state, the beatings and the killings, is still endemic within American society to this day. Together with any sense of justice. The list gets bigger all the time, whatever a (black) President promises. From the killing of Taryvon Martin by a so-called security guard, to the recent killings and the resultant demonstrations and mini-riots in Ferguson, St Louis, following the shooting of Michael Brown, to the murder of Oscar Grant (later made into a feature film, ‘Fruitvale Station‘), and other abuses by police officers throughout the United States – often captured on video at the time – all these incidents all go to show that nothing has really changed in the last 50 years.

Not a time for the revival of the Black Panthers but perhaps a time to reassess both the positive and negative experience of those heady days of the 60s and this film can be part of that discussion.

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November 11th – Armistice Day

Liverpool Cenotaph

Liverpool Cenotaph

The first commemoration of Armistice Day in Britain took place on November 11th 1919. In order to get men to fight in the new style of warfare brought about by the start of hostilities in 1914 what was euphemistically called ‘the Great War’ by the British was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’. With that as a background it made some sense to remember those who had died fighting for the interests of their respective imperialist countries. However, since the 20 million estimated to have been killed between 1914 and 1918 paled into insignificance in the century following that conflict the whole ethos of the day has changed.

Once the ink was dry on the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 29th June 1919, cities, towns and villages in Britain, France and Belgium (but not in Germany who had other matters – like starvation, an attempt at revolution and the rise of fascism – to concentrate the minds of the people following the draconian conditions of the ‘treaty’) made efforts to raise money so that those who died could be remembered in those places they lived before being shipped off to the trenches of the Western Front or other theatres of war. (The discrepancy about the dates you’ll see on such memorials stems from whether 1918 – which was the year of the end of the shooting – or 1919 – the year of the final treaty – had been chosen as the time when the war ended.)

Even the latter date might not have been totally accurate as the so-called ‘allied intervention’ in the Russian Civil War following the October Revolution – where 14 nations that had been trying to destroy each others’ armies and navies got together in an attempt to destroy the first workers state – continued until 1920. British fatalities in that conflict were, no doubt, listed on the local memorials to appear throughout the twenties although they were fighting in a completely different theatre of war and for completely different reasons.

So even before discussions on the treaty to end the war ‘to end all wars’ had even begun British forces were following the old imperialist road of killing all those who might challenge the right of capitalism to rule the world for the benefit of a few.

Added to that far off conflict the echoes of the guns on the Western Front had barely faded before those psychopaths from the British Army, who hadn’t had their fill of blood, volunteered to join the Black and Tans (the British equivalent of the proto-fascist Freikorps of Germany) who murdered with impunity in Ireland, when the Republican movement was a bit more principled than it is today.

When Nazi forces murdered without discretion, in various countries, during the Second World War the perpetrators were branded as war criminals. When the Black and Tans did the very same in Ireland between 1920 and 1922 they were commended as heroes fighting for the British State. Presumably those that were killed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the Irish War of Independence are also commemorated on the World War One memorials, if not by having their names recorded at least by association with the recently concluded war.

As time went on, and not too many years at that, the emphasis of ending wars as they were too destructive, in terms of personal suffering as well as the destruction of what a society had already created, was being pushed into the background.

My point here is that the idea behind Armistice Day, November 11th had become a lie, even before it could be first commemorated.

People in Britain seem to have an unhealthy appetite for celebrating war anniversaries. It was in just such a climate that the decision was made to make a big issue out of the centenary of the First World War – I could accept (just) commemorating the centenary of the end of the war in 2018 but the beginning in 2014? That’s just bizarre. But here the politicians are being clever. They know that there’s a deep-seated jingoism in a sizeable proportion of the British electorate that they can tap into. They also know that those very same people aren’t prepared to be critical of what has happened in the past – especially if the British ‘won’.

We have already seen a lot being made of the 1914 ‘Christmas Truce’ and no doubt tours to the battlefields of the Western Front and the likes of the Menin Gate in Ypres have been selling like hotcakes but are we really dealing with the real issues at hand?

Although this particular ‘celebration’ was initiated by the Tories and the ersatz Tories of the liberal Party such pandering to the lowest political level is also a forte of the Labour Party. Through the centuries when the British armed forces had been killing, raping and looting throughout the world (of the 196 countries in the world today the British have NOT invaded only 22 of them) there had been no proposal of a day where those forces were celebrated – this was probably because even those in power at the time realised that making these killers out to be heroes would be tantamount to making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

So, if after so many years without a special day devoted to those who had fought and/or died in past conflicts, why did the Labour Party introduce Veteran’s Day in 2006 (3 years later to be called Armed Forces Day)? Because British forces were becoming even more deeply involved in a continuous series of futile, un-winnable, unpopular and more than probably illegal (on their own terms of reference) conflicts which are likely to go on for ‘a generation’. What better to throw in a parade every year and people can forget reality. It also makes it difficult for those who oppose such imperialistic shows of military might as they will be branded as being un-supportive of ‘our boys – and now girls – who are fighting for ‘us’.

Whenever I hear this type of ‘argument’ I always wonder how it would be received if it came from the mouths of the parents of German Waffren SS soldiers whose idea of fighting for ‘us’ was murdering all the villagers and burning every building, as they did in Borove in Albania, or corralling every villager they could into a large building and then setting it on fire, burning all of them alive, as happened in hundreds of villages in the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

There was a sound moral reason why ordinary people (not the ruling class) of Britain adopted the idea of a day to remember those who had died in the First World War. Of course, many had died in previous wars but, in numerous senses, the war that began in 1914 was different. Although for the first year or so the war was conducted by ‘professionals’ they were soon joined by ‘volunteers’ and when that wasn’t enough to feed Death’s insatiable appetite mass conscription was introduced for the first time in 1916. These were children in many ways. Whether from the factories or the farms the vast majority of them hadn’t gone much more than a few miles from the place of their birth before being shipped off to some ‘exotic’ location. They took much of the propaganda fed to them uncritically and therefore were like lambs to the slaughter.

Any leadership was denied them when the traitorous Labour Party (yes, it’s been betraying the workers from the earliest days of its existence) decided to go back on the decisions made at gatherings, in the years leading up to the war, in such declarations as the Stuttgart Resolution (1907) and the Basel Manifesto (1912) – which called upon workers not to fight in a bosses war – of the Second International.

Although there had been many casualties in previous wars the overwhelming majority of those from the ‘Great War’ were young men in their late teens and early twenties. This had a not before experienced effect on women who never got closer to the war than those living on the south coast hearing gun fire from across the Channel. For, more or less, each soldier who didn’t return there was a young woman who had little or no prospect of marriage (at a time when this was the norm in society) or experienced widowhood . And this doesn’t take into account the many more who did return but with severe physical disabilities and even more who fought the war every day for the rest of their lives due to the trauma suffered in the trenches.

In Britain the civilian population didn’t suffer in the same way as they did in France and Belgium during the actual fighting. The real suffering followed 1918 and that made Armistice Day commemorations much more meaningful for many more people in the 1920s. This was unprecedented and hasn’t really been repeated in any way close in Britain since (although other countries had to face a similar situation subsequently, most notably the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War).

This should have been a wake up call to British workers. It wasn’t, even with all the suffering caused, both economically and socially, in the 20s and 30s. Even though the conditions showed that the capitalist system offered nothing to the majority of the population the British working class weren’t prepared to go that step further and confine it to the dustbin of history. The working class were responsible for this but then they weren’t able to create in their midst a revolutionary party that would be able to lead such a struggle – not then, nor since.

Although the Treaty of Versailles officially ended the 1914-19 war that was only really a declaration that called for a time out. The war might have ‘ended’ but the same issues that caused the war in the first place remained. Those issues could have been resolved if the workers of Europe had stood firm with the young socialist state in the Soviet Union and changed their own countries but, for various reasons, they didn’t. The rise of fascism generally, the victorious coup carried out by Mussolini in Italy, the defeat of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and, especially, the rise of Hitlerite Nazism in Germany made the World War, Part 2, inevitable.

The war in which British forces fought between 1939 and 1945 can safely be said to have been the only ‘just war’ in the history of the country. It was an ideological war for many of the soldiers involved (despite the overarching agenda of the politicians and those capitalists they really represented) with the defeat of fascism being the prime aim. For those who fought the gaining of land, resources and materials for the capitalist class was never an issue, unlike the majority of previous incursions abroad. (This is excepting, as it was fought solely on British soil, the English Civil War of the 17th century where the people rose up in a national liberation war against the God-crazed despot and dictator Charles Stuart.)

When that war officially ended in August 1945 that should have been the point when the world could have said that it had gone through the war to end all wars. But again it wasn’t. The enemy of the war that had been won, in great part, by the unimaginable sacrifice of the Soviet people, changed. Expansionist German had finally been defeated but that didn’t mean that the new kid on the block, the United States of America – together with its already tethered and dependent poodles, the United Kingdom and the other western European nations – hadn’t picked up the baton for world domination. The country which had fought fascism, as one of the ‘allies’, was now the enemy and communists seeking to make a world without war had to be defeated at all costs.

The British Armed Forces were to played, and play to this day, an important and crucial role is this battle against national liberation, progress and freedom.

Lest we forget:

Vietnam

From August to November 1945 Japanese soldiers in Vietnam were re-armed, by the British, to be used as a force against the Vietnamese Viet Minh, the national independence force led by Ho Chin Minh, in order to allow the French time to organise their forces to regain their colonialist control of the region. The Viet Minh had consistently fought against the Japanese invaders, the French had surrendered to the Nazis quite quickly and half the country was under a collaborationist government.

Indonesia

The British were involved in one battle during October and November 1945 against pro-independence Indonesian fighters in the battle for the city of Surabaya. British troops came with tanks, naval support – in the form of 2 cruisers and 3 destroyers – and air support from the RAF. The British ‘won’ but the battle became a clarion call for independence fighters in the future. Thousands of local people lost their lives.

Palestine

British forces had been in Palestine since the end of the First World War and became increasingly in conflict with the Palestinian population as more and more Jewish immigrants arrived in the country following the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – which promised ‘a national home for the Jewish people’. This decision didn’t take into account that there were already people living on the land and to make the declaration a reality some of these people would have to move. This led to increasingly violent conflicts between the British and the Palestinian Arabs before 1939 and once the war in Europe had been won and the Holocaust became widely known it was only a matter of time before the State of Israel would come into existence. A UN decision at the end of November 1947 came up with a ‘solution’ of the partition of Palestine. This wasn’t accepted by the Palestinians – it was their country and who were European powers to say otherwise – nor the Israeli settlers – who wanted it all.

Although the British were attacked by various Jewish terrorist groups (the leaders of which were later to hold high political office in the state of Israel) they stood aside as the date for the Declaration of the State of Israel (May 15th 1948) approached and the Jewish settlers carried out massacres such as the one of the village of Deir Yassin. This is a sore in that part of the world which has been festering ever since, with the suffering of the Palestinian people become greater day by day.

Greece

In March 1946 British forces continued its support of the Monarchist government in Greece. This had been ‘a government-in-exile’, i.e., the King ran away when the Fascists invaded. The Communist guerrillas who didn’t have that luxury stayed and fought against the invaders. Once the Nazis were thrown out at the end of 1944 the British were there to help reinstate the monarchy and gave support to a ‘White Terror’ against left-wing movements within the country. This ultimately led to the ‘Generals Coup’ of 1967 and then seven years of military, fascist rule.

Albania

In May 1946 a small convoy of the British Navy sailed through the narrow Corfu straights between the Greek island and Albania. This intimidation of a country with a tiny population who had liberated itself from the Nazi invaders in November 1944 was all part of the British plan, with the aid of its far superior armed forces, to undermine the Albanian Communist Government. As in Greece, Britain favoured the cowardly monarchy that had run away when the Italians had invaded in 1939, this time the self-proclaimed King Zog, and subsequently tried to infiltrate spies and saboteurs faithful to British interests, this all failed miserably.

China

In April 1949 the British Royal Navy ship, The Amethyst, was sent up the Yangtze River in China. This seems to have been more of an example of latter-day colonial arrogance on behalf of the British government and a similar attitude in the Admiralty. They seemed to be totally oblivious of the fact that tens of millions of Chinese men , women and children had died at the hands of the Japanese invaders; that the Communist Red Army under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung had played the major role in the defeat of that invading force of fascists; and that for four years they had been fighting, and were close to defeating, the capitalist favoured nationalist forces of the Kuomintang – who Britain subsequently recognised as ‘China’ (although limited to the island of Taiwan) in the United Nations until 1971. As in all these situations there’s a huge dose of hypocrisy. What would be the reaction of the British state if a Chinese warship were to start going up the Thames to ‘protect’ the Chinese Embassy, the excuse used in 1949?

Malaya

The British anti-guerrilla campaign in Malaya, starting in 1948, was euphemistically called ‘The Malayan Emergency’ – it’s interesting that after 6 years of war the use of the term was avoided so as to con the British populace that they hadn’t come out of one war to go into another. This was a dirty war fought in a manner that was to become the norm in Africa, Asia and Latin America for the next 50 years. Here the people were fighting for control of their own country opposed by a colonial power. As many of the guerrillas were of an ethnic Chinese background one of the tactics of the British was to use a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, pitting ethnic groups against each other.

The British troops in Malaya were also the first to use the tactics that the Americans were to perfect in Vietnam in the 1960s. Torture of captives was common, the tactic known as ‘search and destroy’ was widespread and the burning of villages was a matter of course, a shoot to kill policy was in place – meaning that if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time (even if where you lived) you could die, whole villages were ‘resettled’ (read imprisoned in controlled areas) so they could not aid the guerrillas, the use of defoliating chemicals was used to clear the jungle of shelter for the insurgents, and massacres of entire villages were part of the British tactics. One of those villages was a place called Batang Kali, the story of which is very similar to the case of My Lai in Vietnam in 1967, and like the later example of murder by imperialist troops not one British soldier was held to account.

Korea

The Korean War took place between June 1950 and July 1953, when an armistice was agreed but not a long-lasting solution. The division of the country was as a consequence of conferences between the Allies in the final months of the war and shows that matters were not always thought through by the Soviet Union – it seems they didn’t fully recognise the antagonism they would have to face from the capitalist nations, who were planning the ‘Cold War’ before the gunfire of WWII had ended. Using the Soviet Union’s boycott of the United Nations Security Council (in support of the People’s Republic of China’s rightful representation in the international body and hence unable to exercise the right of veto) with the US and the UK in the forefront of rhetoric and actual ‘boots on the ground’, an international force was sent in an anti-Communist crusade – a situation similar to which we can all recognise to date. A total of 87,000 British troops (including conscripts) were sent to Korea, resulting in a 1,000 fatalities. The country is divided to this day with occasional flare-ups, either militarily or in a war of words.

Kenya

As the British armed forces became involved in an increasing number of anti-colonial struggles on moving into the 1950s it’s possible to see how ‘tactics’ used in one place were repeated, and often refined, in others. The Mau Mau Uprising (again a loaded word that indicates the actions of the local populace was somehow illegitimate) was the name given to a liberation movement that fought the British from 1952 until 1956, when the struggle was all but lost by the Kikuyu fighters. In all these actions what are described as ‘war crimes’ can be attributed to the British forces, whether they be actual British soldiers or militias, auxiliaries recruited locally.

In Kenya concentration camps were established, often in very remote areas to keep the activities secret from the rest of the population. (Here it should be remembered that concentration camps were not the invention of the Hitlerite Nazis from the 1930s. No, the Nazis took their lead from the tactics used by the British at the end of the 19th century in their wars against the Boers in South Africa.) Torture was common and recent attempts by those who suffered at the hands of the British to get some sort of redress have been told, surprise, surprise, that the relevant documents have gone missing. There are a number of examples were captured insurgents were clubbed to death and a number of massacres of the local population are also documented.

Cyprus

A move by the British to move their Middle East Head Quarters from the Suez area of Egypt (presumably due to the hostility of the nationalist government of Nasser) to the island of Cyprus in 1955 was the spark to ignite both the Greek and Turkish populations desire to separate from the British and unite with their respective mainland countries. A total of 371 British soldiers died in the 4 year period but figures of Cypriot casualties are unclear – though they would have been much higher. Documents released in 2012 seem to show that, as in other places where the British fought to defend a dying colonialism, they were able to act with impunity in the way they dealt with the locals. To give an idea of the situation I’ll quote from an article in The Guardian newspaper just after the release of the documents: “A young British army officer recorded seeing 150 soldiers indiscriminately “kicking Cypriots as they lay on the ground and beating them in the head, face, and body with rifle butts”.”

Suez

In 1956, in response to the Egyptian President Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal the British, together with the Israelis and the French, concocted a scheme to invade the country. Although this was a short-lived occupation and really a debacle for the British and the French before they left there was a tally of 4 to 5 thousand dead Egyptians.

Oman

Oman in the 1950s was somewhere between slavery and feudalism. All power and resources where in the hands of the Sultan, who lived in a palace, which he rarely left, and was serviced by hundreds of slaves. There was no development, no schools, no health care and disease was endemic. As a result there was an inevitable rebellion. But, to paraphrase Franklin D Roosevelt when he was referring to the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, ‘He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s Britain’s son of a bitch’. He was also anti-Arab nationalist, something the British liked after the disaster of the Suez Crisis, and he allowed the British to build a couple of air bases in a strategically important part of the world.

This was a ‘war’, which began in the middle of 1957, fought almost exclusively, at least initially, by the Royal Air Force. In supporting the Sultan they followed the tactic of making it so dangerous and unpleasant for anyone to support any opposition to the staus quo that they would think twice to do so. They also attacked water supplies, crucial for survival in such a desert country. These were war crimes in anyone’s definition but the pilots seem to, literally, get away with murder as they are so far from the actual killing zone – just like drone pilots today. If force needed to be used on the ground the British were happy to provide the weapons. Once the RAF had bombed the rebel strongholds to dust the SAS were sent in to finish the job, in the process gaining a reputation for being the hard men of the British Army but really just carrying out mopping up operations. By July 1959, the Sultan, with the military might of the British behind him, seemed to have won.

Brunei

An anti-colonial rebellion broke out in December 1962. Intelligence of the intention of an insurrection got to the British about a month before it was due to begin, thus allowing themselves time to organise a response. It seems that overwhelming force, with infantry regiments, including a couple of Gurkha regiments, on the ground as well as Royal Navy and RAF support was able to stop the rebellion before it gained any momentum.

Indonesia

Although British troops weren’t directly involved in the October 1965 military coup which put the pro-Western Suharto in control of the country and led to the murder, over the next couple of years, of millions of Communist and trade unionists, the Royal Navy did play the role of protectors of a boat load of Indonesian soldiers on one of their killing sprees. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The Labour Government of Harold Wilson knew what was going to happen before the event, virtually giving Suharto the green light. Communist led attempts at insurrection in Sarawak and the anti-colonial (British) failed insurrection in Brunei had both been supported by Sukarno and his removal suited Britain’s political and economic interests in the region. As was, and still is, the case the question of oil came high on the agenda.

Aden

Aden, which is now part of Yemen, had been under the control of the British since 1839 but at the end of 1963 (I know that’s a long time before getting fed up with foreign domination) the local people had had enough of colonial rule. The British response to this was to declare another ’emergency’ and send in the Army’s 24th Infantry Brigade and nine squadrons, helicopters as well as aircraft, of the RAF. This was a short but very intense conflict, with the balance of power changing after each battle. The commander of the 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was nicknamed ‘Mad Mitch’ so that will give you an idea of how the battle was fought on the British side. The British left, earlier than originally planned, in November 1967. Around 60 British soldiers lost their lives but the number of local fighters who were killed is unknown.

(As we were nominally supposed to be in ‘Peace Time’, it’s interesting to note that 1968 was the first year since the end of the Second World War when British troops were not in a combat role somewhere in the world. I think it’s true to say the only year from 1945 till now.)

Ireland

British troops were sent into Ireland, in the most recent version of ‘The Troubles’, on 14th August 1969. Although it could be true to say, initially, they were welcomed by the Catholic community that soon melted away. With Ireland it’s difficult to know where to start. It would depend where you stand on Ireland whether this was a national, civil conflict or the perpetuation of colonial rule. Whatever interpretation you choose it brings up difficult questions. If you think that Northern Ireland is part of the UK then British troops were mistreating, torturing and generally terrorising British citizens. If you believe in an All Ireland Republic this was a matter of the colonial conflict getting closer to home.

British troops in Ireland: kicked in people’s doors in the middle of the night; soon had their backs to the Unionist attackers and faced the Republicans trying to defend themselves; killed children by firing ‘battery enhanced’ rubber bullets into their faces; killed civilians in a virtual ‘shoot to kill’ policy; the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre in Derry – in recent days a soldier has been arrested for this, but, as always happens in these circumstances, a lowly soldier becomes the scapegoat for overall Army policy; the Springfield Massacre in Belfast where British snipers shot 5 people, including a 13-year-old girl and a priest; the Ballymurphy Massacre when eleven civilians were killed; introduced Internment; and generally made life miserable for the people of Northern Ireland and despite the Good Friday Agreement the underlying issues remain.

(When it comes to Army recruitment the worsening situation in Ireland changed the way the Armed Forces presented themselves. Into the early years of the 70s the call was for young people to ‘Join The Professionals’. When that was seen as joining a bunch of thugs who kicked in people’s doors in the middle of the night advertising for the army virtually disappeared from the scene.

Ireland has now been all but forgotten in the public consciousness – in the mainland if not on the island itself. Despite the disastrous wars that the UK has been involved in since 2002 there is a new level of confidence in the state. However many soldiers might die or return with psychological issues there seems to be no shortage of volunteers to join up. Whether the advertising campaigns are really necessary is another matter, it does shovel money into the pockets of companies who support the State but more importantly keeps the idea of an internationally capable armed force in the public thinking.)

Muscat and Oman

The issues that caused the people to rise up against the Sultan in the 1950s didn’t go away, although the revolutionary forces were severely weakened by British military action. By 1970 oil was a much bigger player in the country and the rebellions continued to break out. Instead of making efforts to ameliorate the condition of the people the British government (Labour) instituted a coup against the old Sultan (who was past his sell by date), brought the more compliant son to the throne, and then used the RAF to again bomb the poor peasants out of existence.

Malvinas

The war with Argentina over the Malvinas was a nasty, tacky war encompassing all those reactionary and archaic aspects of wars fought when Britain was dominant in the world and ‘the sun never set on the British Empire’ and the short campaign brought out the worst in the British population. Those aspects of racism and jingoism latent in the country were given free rein by the Thatcher government, who revelled in the opportunity to distract people’s attention away from their inability to deal with the economy. ‘Victory’ in the South Atlantic also allowed those war-mongers within society to attain a level of influence that was still palpable more than twenty years later when the never-ending ‘war on terror’ was declared. More than a thousand men were to die in that short war, a quarter of them British.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and ……

Perhaps it’s unjust to lump all these countries together but circumstances in the last 13 years make it difficult to separate what happens in one country from the effects on another. There is no perceivable end to this war, even politicians saying (in a perverse way to gain support for their policies) that this was is a generational war, one that will go on for years. ‘Victory’ in one place only means the fighting break outs in another. So far 465 military personnel have died in Afghanistan, 179 in Iraq. When it comes to wounded the situation is not so clear, in Iraq almost 6,000 but the figures for Afghanistan are obscured, presumably to keep as many people as possible in the dark about the true human cost.

But the figures become another matter when we consider casualties amongst those opposing the invasion of their country and civilians who get caught up in the fighting. Those figures are probably well over 200,000 but we’ll probably never know the exact figures as numbers are a political game. And from experience of the past the numbers of enemy combatants will always be exaggerated, and those of civilians played down, to demonstrate that the ‘good guys’, i.e., us, are winning.

Industrial Disputes in Britain

Another matter which is never considered is the role that the Armed Forces have played in industrial disputes in this country. Up to the mid-1980s, when trade union activity dropped considerably with the success of the Thatcher government’s anti-union policies, especially with the defeat of the miners in 1984/5, the British Armed Forces were called out almost 50 times to basically scab (strike break) on behalf of the employers. This was at a time when trade union membership was close to 12 million, so hardly a minority group within society – although lack of solidarity amongst trade unionists often meant that groups could be picked off one by one – the tactic learnt long ago by capitalism but still not by those who oppose the rotten system.

When it comes to party politics in Britain it should be pointed out that the colour of the government at any time in the last 70 years has played no part whatsoever in whether British Armed Forces were sent to other parts of the world or not. The Labour Party has been as willing to send troops to maintain British imperialism’s control of various countries, considered by capitalism to be of such importance that force was necessary, as the ‘traditional’ representative of the ruling class, the Conservative Party. Even in opposition these parties play a game and might make noises around the execution of the deployment but never, ever challenging the morality of the issue.

My reasons for this long list (longer than even I remembered) of occasions where British Armed Forces have been in action since 1945 is to argue that it is impossible – if you have any moral compass whatsoever – to consider those who have been killed or wounded as having done so in order to make the world a better place to live, the sort of statements that have been bandied around in the last week or so leading up to November 11th – a phrase which I can’t remember being used in such the same way in previous years.

It seems that the longer the ‘war against terror’ goes on the more the British population in general are prepared to accept the cost that will have to be paid in men, women and materials – those at the receiving end of this mayhem not really being considered at all. There are crocodile tears for the refugees but the bombs continue to drop, drones get used more and more (becoming more terrifying to the people of the ground with the use of the ‘double tap’ tactic – where the drone will stay for hours if need be just to ready to send another missile on anyone who tries to help the injured.

One of the stated aims of even an imperialist army is to defend the people from the country which they originate but do the people of Britain actually feel any safer as a consequence of all these wars against diverse people’s throughout the world?

If wars against poor peasants in the past didn’t affect the civilian population of Britain that is starting to change. In my travels throughout the world I was always amazed that it was very rare to come across hostility from local people who had suffered under the British Armed Forces over the decades. That has changed now. The combined efforts of Bush and Blair have created a genie which will be very difficult (if not impossible) to push back into the bottle.

So have British troops, in the last 100 years, made ‘the world a better place’? I would suggest not. A better pace for the rich and powerful but not for ordinary working people, in whatever country and at whatever level of economic development.

Why do young men and women still volunteer to join such an organisation when it has such a history? I don’t know. There will always be the psychopaths who, if they did what they do in the armed forces in civilian life they would be pariahs of society. Put them in a uniform and they become ‘heroes’. But they, I would like to think, are in the minority – although I find it disturbing when a parent of a dead serviceman/woman will say that their son/daughter died ‘doing something they loved’, when the job of a member of an infantry regiment is to kill people’.

Way back in the 70s and 80s it was suggested that those who join (especially the Army) do so because they come from poor working class backgrounds and there’s nothing else for them to do. Even if that argument is correct the poverty of their origin does not give them license to go to other parts of the world and terrorise the local population.

And where does anyone think the foot soldiers to defend capitalism are to come from anyway? The highest casualty rate in the First World War was among the lowest ranks of the officer corp. Either because they were in the first ranks of those going ‘over the top’ or because they were shot so that the rest of the soldiers didn’t have to go ‘over the top’ at least they were fighting for a society that had benefited them.

Even in the 21st century troops after coming back from the wars in the east are complaining about the lack of support in civilian life. Don’t they have any idea of history? In the 1914-19 war they were promised ‘homes fit for heroes’, they didn’t get them. Why should the State act any differently now, especially when we are in a time of austerity where we are ‘all in this together’ and everyone must play their part?

I don’t want this country to keep sending its young people to fight wars for whom the ruling class are the only beneficiaries. I don’t want that we have to keep adding different campaigns to the list on the First World War memorials. But unless the people of this country stand up against these wars that is what will continue to happen, and now in a climate where people are so full of hate (and why is that surprising?) that they are prepared to bring the war back to the country which had sent the bombs to kill families on the other side of the world. These are very dangerous chickens that are coming home to roost.

For a time leading up to and in the immediate aftermath of the war against Iraq many people wore badges with the slogan ‘Not in my name’. That should be the slogan all the time, a slogan which shouldn’t be forgotten once the fighting has started and the bodies of those young people start to arrive back home. If the country is not prepared to see the processions through ‘Royal’ Wootton Bassett (something which the General Staff of the Army hated and which will never be repeated however height the casualties) then it shouldn’t allow those young people to be sent out in the first place.

That would be in a world without war – but there are far too many vested interests to allow such a situation to arise without a fight. To attain that would be definitely worth fighting for – a war to end all wars.

 

 

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