31st January 1968 – The Tet Offensive in Vietnam

The Tet Uprising and Offensive 1968

The Tet Uprising and Offensive 1968

In the very early hours of 31st January 1968 gunshots started to sound out in the area of the United States Embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam. As it got light many more residents were woken by gunfire in hundreds of towns and urban areas throughout the southern part of divided Vietnam. The 30th was the Eve, the 31st the actual day of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Those gunshots sounded the beginning of what was probably the most decisive single military event in the undeclared war that the US waged against a small peasant country in South East Asia and which presaged the grim future for the invaders. Those gunshots sounded the beginning of the Tet Offensive.

What was the Tet Offensive?

The Tet Offensive was the name given to the offensive and general uprising that began on the night of 30th/31st January 1968. In Vietnamese it is Sự kiện Tết Mậu Thân 1968 – literally the 1968 Tet Event.

‘For nearly two months, this campaign, like a tidal wave, attacked four out of six big cities, 37 out of 44 towns and hundreds of district capitals’.

The first attack was made in Saigon at about 02.30 on the 31st when a small group of Viet Cong, irregular guerrillas living and working in the south of the country, blew a hole in the wall of the compound of the American Embassy in Saigon and for the next few hours engaged the Marines charged with the task of defending the iconic building and symbol of American force within the southern capital. By daylight 19 attackers and seven Americans lay dead. This was probably the only time during the whole of the uprising where there is agreement on the number of fatalities.

At first the Americans, including the Commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, thought this was a one-off event, an adventurist, opportunistic, ‘terrorist’ attempt by desperate guerrillas to take a swipe at the US presence in their country.

Then reports started to come in from Saigon airport, then various areas within the city, then other cities, then other towns, then hundreds and hundreds of other locations throughout the country where American and South Vietnamese collaborationist power was under attack.

US supported South Vietnamese rule was being challenged and attacked on every level; military bases were under attack, as were administration buildings; various military and government officials who were helping in the occupation of the country were being targeted; the transport and communications infrastructure was being attacked and disabled, making response to the uprising more difficult to organise; armaments stores and other resources were destroyed and, perhaps most important of all, the Vietnamese resistance was on the streets of the urban areas carrying out all this mayhem when the general belief of the Americans was that they could only operate in the countryside and in the jungle areas.

The other shock to both the military on the ground in Vietnam and the politicos back in mainland United States was that they had been telling themselves, the world, and the Vietnamese Liberation Front that the Americans were winning.

Since the back-end of 1965 the Americans had been following a policy of ‘search and destroy’. This basically depended upon the superiority the Americans had in technology, resources and armaments. They would go out in force, either on land or in the air, destroy anything that moved and thereby win the war. Sheer power would destroy the opposition and it would be light on US casualties as there would be distance between the targets and the US technology. This was why it became normal practice for helicopter gunners to just shoot at anything that moved on the ground, more often than not poor peasant farmers, or their draft animals, trying to eke out a living from the soil. Those events, often depicted in Vietnam War films, actually happened! And, it should never, ever be forgotten that massacres such as that at My Lai (which was to occur on 16th March 1968) were taking place on a regular basis.

The Americans had been saying that they were forcing the guerrillas and regular North Vietnamese Army out of the south of the country, making it more and more difficult for them to challenge the rule of the puppet regime in Saigon and the puppet master. Apart from anything else they believed their own propaganda and intelligence sources – which might well have been feeding them what the North Vietnamese and the Viet Gong wanted them to believe.

And then the guerrillas were everywhere, organised, well armed and with a strategy of what they were doing.

And not only in the urban areas of South Vietnam.

The siege of Khe Sanh.

I said the first shots of the offensive were fired in the early hours of the 31st January. That’s not strictly true.

At dawn on the 21st January, ten days earlier, North Vietnamese long-range artillery began shelling the mountain top base and airstrip of Khe Sanh – a place very few people in the US had even heard of. On the first day more than 300 shells landed on this base, merely half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. The American Marines had been there for just under a year and before they realised it, even with all the modern technology that the US possessed at the time, the base was effectively surrounded and could only realistically be reached or provisioned by air.

The whole, relatively short story of Khe Sanh probably deserves a post in its own right but in relation to the Tet Offensive there are a number of points to stress.

In a sense the attack on the 21st can be seen as a distraction from the forthcoming uprising. Obviously the Americans would have been asking themselves why they had missed such a massive build up. Not only had the North been able to transport anything up to 20,000 fighters, with their equipment and a supply line that could keep them fed and cared for, they had also been able to transport heavy artillery (and even tanks that were used later during the siege of the base) and thousands of artillery shells. All this travelling hundreds of kilometres very often on nothing more substantial than a push bike.

That took a huge amount of forward planning and was far too much just to create a distraction. There was more behind the siege than that, although the distraction was an added bonus.

The US response to the siege was similar to their failed policy of ‘search and destroy’ – committing almost unbelievable amounts of resources into air raids on the ground where they thought the Vietnamese might be found. At one point there were 400 plus sorties A DAY. This included B52s dropping 500 pound bombs that no one knew were on the way until they landed, the planes themselves flying so high, and Phantom jets firing missiles and/or dropping napalm, effectively creating a lunar landscape. It failed. Although many of the commanders had fought in WWII they still didn’t seem to have learnt the lessons of Monte Casino in Italy or Okinawa in Japan.

At the beginning of April the Vietnamese started to leave quietly. One morning the Americans slept in as there were no shells giving them a wake up call, the base was relieved and then, within a matter of days, abandoned. They feared another Dien Bien Phu debacle of 1954, they left just in case it should happen in the future. Khe Sanh had shown them what they would have to face.

Khe Sanh had other strategic aims but the very fact that two, completely unexpected, events occurred at the exactly the same time was a shock from which the US never really recovered

Tet in Saigon, Hue and entrenchment.

I can understand, and appreciate, many of the actions of the Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive but questions come to mind when Saigon, Hue and a few other locations are concerned.

The use of heavy artillery and tanks, which were being used in the Khe Sanh siege meant a qualitative change in the tactics of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong – principally a civilian guerrilla army living amongst the population. Once an army starts to depend upon such material it is forced into a situation which is the opposite to that which a guerrilla army depends

Guerrilla warfare (and this was a theory developed by Chairman Mao Tse-tung in the war against Japanese Aggression and then the Civil War against the Kuomintang before 1949, later taken up in a masterful manner by General Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam) is where the liberation fighters use their strength – knowledge of the terrain, being part of the people, mobility, ability to strike quickly and then disappear – against a superior enemy, but superior only in that they have greater access to war materials, technology and a very deep pocket to pay for it all.

But the enemy’s strength is also its weakness. It’s totally dependent upon a sophisticated supply line which, in certain circumstances, can be isolated and then such a force basically dies of its own ‘strength’ – this was what happened at Dien Bien Phu to the French invaders in 1954, both a military and psychological defeat which saw the end of the European presence in Indochina. Such a problem doesn’t exist for a guerrilla army which can just melt away as the only equipment they have can be carried or easily hidden.

This also means that there’s no necessity for the guerrilla army to entrench itself into a fixed position – which seems to be what was planned in Saigon and even more so in the historic city of Hue.

After the initial skirmishes in Saigon a force of about 4,000 guerrillas ended up in the Chinese neighbourhood of Cholon. Soon fighting was on a block by block, house by house nature. Initially the much more heavily armed American and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) tried to take control of the area in conventional, house to house fighting. This was, after all, their major city and the capital of South Vietnam. The world press were looking on and they had to keep up appearances.

However, after a few days of fighting and mounting casualties the Americans declared the area a free fire zone and ordered all civilians out of the neighbourhood. Despite that and with all the resources at their command it wasn’t until 7th February that the US and South Vietnamese government forces could say they had ‘complete’ control of Saigon again – after a number of the Viet Cong had silently left the area.

Here I don’t know why the North Vietnamese committed so much resources into a set battle they could not possibly win in 1968. By 1975 the situation was completely different and then ‘conventional’ warfare was an option. But at the beginning of 1968 they did not have the ability, either militarily or psychologically, to defeat the Americans and their lackeys.

The same question can be asked about why Hue was considered to be so important as to devote the greatest number of combatants from the start of the uprising and was even reinforced by troops from Khe Sanh. Thousands of the bravest and patriotic sons and daughters of the country were fighting in a battle that they didn’t need to fight and they could have been withdrawn to fight another day, when the chances of victory were greater – that, surely, if nothing else is the most important lesson of guerrilla warfare? It’s when that lesson has been ignored, on too many occasions in the last 70 years or so, that things go wrong and not only battles but wars have been lost.

Well into February the NVA were able to move more fighters and material into Hue. They should have done exactly as they were later to do at Khe Sanh – just up and leave one morning. As it was by the 24th February, when the Citadel in Hue had, once again, the flag of the South Vietnamese puppet state flying from its ruined ramparts, many hundreds of Vietnamese patriots lay dead, although, as in Saigon, many had managed to leave in the heat of battle.

Whatever the reasoning of the North Vietnamese for their positional warfare over a period of five to six weeks there was no doubt about the US response to such a situation on the ground – that is to destroy all, whatever might be in the way, to, hopefully, kill the enemy. The US decided that it would use its ‘advantage’, wealth, technology and overwhelming military power, to obliterate the enemy, whatever it might cost. What was said about the total destruction of Ben Tré, a small town to the south-west of Saigon, ‘we had to destroy it to save it’, became the axiom of American response then as now, as the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya (among others) have learnt to their regret.

Also, as another indication of American hypocrisy and duplicitous thinking, in made no difference if that destruction was to concern anything that had cultural value to either the country or the world’s population in general.

The ancient and historic Citadel in Hue barely had a wall strong enough to plant the ‘victorious’ South Vietnamese flag on the 24th February. Mỹ Sơn, the longest inhabited archaeology site in Indochina, was devastated by B52 carpet bombing in a single week in August 1969. This was only to presage the irreparable damage done to the library and the looting of the museum in Baghdad in 2003 when the US, yet again, decided it had the right to invade a country to protect its interests. And now they criticise Islamic State for its deliberate destruction of the archaeological site of Palmyra in Syria.

Summary execution of the streets of Saigon.

It was in these early stages of the fighting that an incident took place in Saigon which was to define the nature of the war. On 1st February a Viet Cong officer, Nguyễn Văn Lém, was summarily executed, on camera, in the streets of Saigon by the Chief of the National Police, Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. International lawyers might waste everyone’s time in debating the ‘legality’ of this execution and excuses can be made for the murderer, i.e. he was upset at what he believed Lém guilty, but it demonstrated the nature of the conflict. The US and their puppets would do anything to make sure they maintained their power.

Murder on streets of Saigon

Murder on streets of Saigon

There’s no doubt that the Vietnam war – especially that part of it with US involvement – was a ‘no holds barred’ affair. However, it’s the hypocrisy that emanated from the Americans at the time (and still to this day in whatever conflict they might be involved) that they are the ones who maintain and hold the moral high ground. The falsity of that claim is proven by the farce of the ‘trial’, sentencing and then pardoning of those involved in the My Lai Massacre (which was to take place within a matter of days after the ‘end’ of the Tet Offensive) or more importantly the fact that many other villages suffered such a fate and those details have never been fully reported.

Who won at Tet?

What happens on the battlefield is not always the same as what has happened when there’s a review of the battle. Whatever the fine words and the emphasis on the body count of the Vietnamese patriots (which was far too high) it’s pushing things for the Americans to argue that they ‘won’ the conflict militarily. Wars don’t just end, even when there might be a significant battle towards the end of the conflict. That loss can normally be traced to some event in the past which meant that, however far down the road, defeat was inevitable. As with the battle of Stalingrad the defeat of the Hitlerite Fascists was inevitable – all that was in doubt was when. Tet played that role in Vietnam.

To start with it was a total intelligence disaster for the Americans. They knew there ‘was more activity than usual’ from the end of December but nothing that suggested a nationwide, co-ordinated and strategic attack; nothing that gave any indication of the sheer amount of movement of personnel and materials; nothing that would be so significant that, whatever the political leanings of the commentators, it would shape the future of American involvement in Vietnam and, if it hadn’t been accepted before Tet it certainly was after, that the Americans could not win.

In this intelligence disaster it is rarely stated that although the US and its lackeys didn’t know what was going to happen, a sizeable proportion of the Vietnamese population obviously did – if not the exact details they would have known something very big was in development. That’s not a real surprise. The Viet Cong were of the people and lived among them. There will, in any such situation, be collaborators, traitors and plain opportunists but it would not have been possible for the offensive to have been so extensive if it were not for the co-operation of many and the acquiescence of many more. What is particularly notable here is that many of those people who basically kept quiet would have been members of the South Vietnamese political infrastructure as well as the relations, and members, of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

To retake control of Saigon and Hue the Americans didn’t use any recognised military tactics, they depended solely upon the artillery and air power, and the force they were able to bring to bear in any location

Yes, they could spend billions of dollars, send thousands more young Americans to be killed, injured, traumatised in Vietnam. Yes, they could kill many hundreds of thousands of poor peasants, destroy what infrastructure existed in both the North and the South. Yes, they could feed the military/industrial complex money that could be better spent on projects helping those in need at home. Yes, they could eventually argue, which many still do, that they didn’t really lose the war – although crowds fighting to get on to helicopters on the roof of the embassy building in Saigon, at the end of April 1975, those helicopters then being dumped into the South China Sea afterwards as there was no space for them on the ships sent to aid the evacuation – seems to be a somewhat undignified manner to get out of a conflict they had been directly involved with for almost 25 years. And anyway, how can you lose a war that wasn’t declared in the first place?

After a post-mortem of the offensive, carried out by Clark Clifford, who was to take over as the new Defence Secretary from Robert McNamara at the same time as Tet was over, he realised that the Americans had ‘no military plan to win the war in Vietnam’. It’s astounding that such a high-ranking official in Johnson’s administration could make such a statement after the US had been meddling in Vietnamese affairs since the early 1950s. It’s even more astounding that the war was to carry on for seven more years, with all the death and destruction that went with it – on both sides.

The US Presidency.

Tet basically ended Lyndon Johnson’s political career – and probably shortened his life. At the New Year (Western style) he was anticipating a second full term at the White House, a victory in the US mirroring what they thought was greater success in the foreign war. He, and virtually all around him, had listened to and had believed their own propaganda – a dangerous thing to do. When you make statements for public consumption make sure you don’t con yourself in the same way as you seek to con them.

On 31st March 1968 he made a televised speech which began with ‘I want to speak to you of peace in Vietnam’ and ended by making the statement ‘I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President’. He did keep to his word about the Presidency but peace was to take another seven years before it knocked on the door of the Vietnamese.

The US Military.

The US commanders, especially Westmoreland, argued to his dying day that the Americans and their puppets had won Tet militarily. If the question is asked in the sense of who was it that was the most powerful force on the battlefield after Tet it might be true. But to ‘defeat’ the partisans the Americans had to create a wasteland, where everything was destroyed, where when the fighting stopped the people had nothing to return to but rubble. This was shown most clearly in Cholon (Saigon), Hue and the town of Ben Tre.

The idea of ‘if we can’t have it neither can you’ permeated US imperialist thinking then, for the rest of the Vietnam war and into the present, 21st century conflicts. In Vietnam, after Tet, the level of bombing increased – more bombs being dropped on Vietnam, in the ten years from 1965-76, than were dropped by ALL the belligerents in the Second World War; napalm and agent orange (a powerful defoliant) were used to deny the Vietnamese cover in the forests and jungles; and thousands and thousands of anti-personnel mines (especially brightly coloured ones aimed to attract children) were dropped to make daily activities a life threatening experience.

‘Destroy it to save it’, ‘better dead than Red’ was the motto then – and now.

The ‘psychological effect’ and the role of the media.

But military success, whatever that might mean, is not the only thing that’s necessary for winning a war. The psychological aspect has become even more important in the age of fast communication. The conflict in Vietnam was considered to have been, probably, the most photographed and filmed war of the 20th century. Images of dead and wounded soldiers being shown on television within hours of it happening was something that had never occurred before.

There were also a number of images that seemed to define the conflict – and in all these the Americans and their allies came out in a bad light. Apart from the summary execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém (mentioned above) there was that of Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk who burned himself to death on the streets of Saigon on 11th June 1963 (in protest at the activities of the Ngô Đình Diệm government of the US puppet regime at the time) and that of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, a nine year old girl photographed running naked along a road, with other villagers, after a US air force napalm attack on 8th June 1972.

Westmoreland constantly harped on about the media being one of the causes of the US withdrawal from the conflict and the growing opposition to the war back home in the United States. He would have preferred the world to have only heard the stories that had been produced by the US propaganda machine, copies of ‘Stars and Stripes’ – the internal army magazine – dropping through everyone’s letter box. But even if the US had been able to control the dissemination of news they couldn’t have hidden the almost 60,000 black body bags that were returned to the United States.

However, ‘freedom of the press’ has been restricted in subsequent imperialist wars, firstly in Britain’s shameful war in the Malvinas (1982). Then, as now in the increasing number of conflicts of the 21st century, journalists, photographers and film crews are ’embedded’ with the invading troops. Such a situation both restricts their movement and also creates an environment where they actually get to know the soldiers on the ground and will be more reluctant to report stories that would place them in a bad light. And, of course, anyone selected would undergo a strict vetting process, so they would be less likely to report unfavourable news in the first place.

The consequences of Tet.

In terms of casualties on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong side I know of no exact figures, but they would have very much outnumbered those of the enemy. Hà Văn Lâu, a military commander against the French and later a diplomat said, in the Canadian made documentary, ‘Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War’ (1980), that the high cost in personnel and materials ‘was the price we had to pay to win this strategic victory’. That is both true and not.

Throughout history there have been many who have been prepared to die for the liberation of their country. Mao’s theory of guerrilla warfare gave an ideology to those struggles and a way forward that offers better chances of success. However, I would be happy to see a return to the situation where it is the enemy who takes the brunt of the pain and more workers and peasants are around to see, to celebrate and to benefit from the final victory.

However, I agree that the strategic aim was achieved; the National Liberation Front had shown that it could effectively take the combat to the US and its puppets in the cities; they proved they had the organisational infrastructure to carry out such activities; they had shown the enemy something of their potential for the future; they had given hope to those having to live under the neo-Fascist regimes in Saigon and the occupation of the country by a vicious, imperialist military; they had proven that they could defeat the invader in certain circumstances; they had broken the enemy psychologically; and they had made the first moves to eventual victory.

When was Tet in 1968?

Researching this article I became confused with what seemed conflicting information. It was only when I read something about the changing of the date of Tet that light was shone on the issue. At the end of 1967 the government of North Vietnam decided that Tet in 1968 would fall on 31st January. This was an adjustment to the calendar which did not happen in the South. So when there was an order that the offensive would start on the Eve of Tet there was some confusion in certain parts of the country.

This could have been disastrous in other circumstances. In 1968, however, this confusion acted to benefit the insurgents as attacks were made in the more marginal urban areas and this had the effect of disguising the attacks that were to take place in the likes of Saigon and Hue.

Nonetheless, it seems to be a risky business to change a calendar, no matter the justification, of a particular festival when you were planning a major military event for that very day. It seems there was a slight communication problem within the government departments in Hanoi.

I have chosen the North Vietnamese day of Tet for the title of this post.

The Tet Mau Than 1968 Event in South Vietnam

The Tet Mau Than 1968 Event in South Vietnam

 

‘The Têt Mâu Thân 1968 Event in South Vietnam’ by Hô Khang, Thê Giói Publishers, Hanoi, 2001.

This is the only account of the event that I have encountered written from the Vietnamese perspective that is available in English. It should be remembered, however, that by 2001 Vietnam had turned away from the road of Socialism and was storming along towards the full embrace of capitalism.

 

 

30th January 1649 – Execution of Charles Stuart

Execution of Charles Stuart, 30th January 1649

Execution of Charles Stuart, 30th January 1649

The 30th January marks the 368th anniversary of the execution of Charles Stuart, the ‘tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy’, who had claimed to rule what later became known as the United Kingdom by ‘divine right’ – that he was chosen by the Christian God and therefore could do what he wanted. In defending his right to absolute power he caused destruction to rain on his country, causing death and suffering in an unprecedented scale on the general population.

Executions, and public ones at that, were not rare occurrences in England in the 17th century, but it wasn’t normal to decapitate those who had ‘been anointed by God’, although those individuals in previous centuries had had no reluctance to do so to others who might have displeased the Royal authority. However, Charles Stuart was the first king to face such a fate and be executed through the authority of the people.

The propaganda machine behind monarchies worked hard through the centuries to give kings – who were basically leaders of the most successful gangs of thugs, murderers, rapists and thieves at a particular time – an element of legitimacy that still exists to the present day. In Britain present day royalists loudly proclaim that the UK has the longest, unbroken line of monarchy in the world. This conveniently forgets that from the time of the first king (who might be Egbert in 827 or Alfred the Great in 871, depending upon whose authority you believe) this line is not from the same family – as it is popularly and misguidedly believed.

Gang leaders fell out and ended up killing erstwhile friends and allies; invaders from other parts of Europe came in wanting a slice of the action; wars raged across the country for decades as different pretenders to the throne slugged it out, until one of them lay dead in the mud of the battlefield; at times ‘kings’ were invited in by minor gang leaders as the only way to avoid more costly and fruitless internecine strife; one time the ‘chosen’ one was number 54 in line of succession, all the ones with a lower number being Roman Catholics – so in place of choosing someone based on merit the eventual candidate got the job merely because he wasn’t a ‘Papist’; at one time the royal family had to change its name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor as they feared the young soldiers being sent to live (and many to die) with the rats in the mud, water and noise of the trenches in France, fighting against likewise ill-fated German workers, might wonder why the King they were dying for had a German name.

Charles Stuart was the son of one of those monarchs brought in when a space had to be filled.

But Stuart had an abundance of arrogance that comes from being told you are God’s anointed. He spent most of his reign (from 1625) in opposition to Parliament as he struggled to get the finances he needed to avoid bankruptcy. Here he was not after money to improve the condition of the people but to finance wars against Spain, France and then against the Irish – kings are very keen on wars. (Unfortunately, after Stuart’s death the then republican leaders of the country continued their reactionary policy which led, first, to the needless death of many thousands of Irishmen and women but also the demise of the republic itself.)

When Stuart failed in his many attempts to get his own way he ran away from London and then, when he was able to collect around himself enough armed toadies, he instigated the First Civil War, 1642-46.

As we know from any cursory study of history civil wars are particularly pernicious and tend to be more costly in terms of casualties and last longer when inter-State wars would look for a way out, or at least a truce for a short time before starting again. That was the case, more or less, up to the 20th century when all common sense seemed to drown in the water-filled shell holes of the Western Front. Civil Wars tend to divide communities and this means that revenge comes into the equation when cities and towns change hands following the fluctuating fortunes of the two sides involved.

The Royalist had a few success but ultimately were defeated in May 1646. Stuart was imprisoned and it was suggested to him by the Parliamentarians that he accept the imposition of a Constitutional Monarchy – where he could sit on the throne but which would require him to renounce his ‘divine right’.

His arrogance meant that he would never accept such a situation and was obviously given too much freedom during his captivity and although still technically in the hands of his enemies was able to communicate with those followers who had not been eliminated and this resulted in the Second Civil War – a shorter conflict than the First not least because many Royalists refused to break their parole (an agreement not to take up arms against Parliament in return for their freedom to live a normal life). Stuart broke his parole and was therefore not trusted by many Parliamentarians and this inevitably led to his trial – a novel idea at the time.

After the fighting ended Stuart was imprisoned in Hurst Castle in Hampshire whilst his ultimate fate was decided upon in London and at the end of 1648 he was escorted by Major General Thomas Harrison, of the Parliamentarian Army, to be closer to the place of his trial.

The trial began on 20th January where he was accused of high treason and using his position to pursue self-interest rather than the good of the people. The indictment stated that he;

‘for accomplishment of such his designs, and for the protecting of himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices, to the same ends hath traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and the people therein represented”, and that the “wicked designs, wars, and evil practices of him, the said Charles Stuart, have been, and are carried on for the advancement and upholding of a personal interest of will, power, and pretended prerogative to himself and his family, against the public interest, common right, liberty, justice, and peace of the people of this nation.’

Further, the indictment held him ‘guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages and mischiefs to this nation, acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby.’

There will forever be a debate of how many people actually suffered during the two civil wars for which Stuart was being held responsible – all depending, in many senses, on which side of the Monarchist/Republican fence you place yourselves. After all, during the period in question such statistics were not considered in the same way as they are now and the disruption caused by the very nature of the conflict would have meant that even the best intentions in information collection would be thwarted.

Any figures would also vary depending on whether only military casualties are considered or whether the greater picture is taken into account. At the beginning of the 17th century a huge swathe of the population would have been living an existence barely more than subsistence. Such a condition needs very little to push that subsistence into outright starvation. And starvation leads to susceptibility to disease.

Marauding armies crisscrossing the country would play havoc with agriculture which, remember, was still based on the unproductive and wasteful feudal strip system. Any draft animals would be requisitioned by the armies and surpluses, if achieved, under threat of being stolen by hungry, armed men. Trade would have virtually ceased to exist, even in the locality, as fear of marauders and a poor transport infrastructure would keep people very much at home. As well as that many able-bodied men would be actually fighting instead of working on the land and their deaths or serious injury would have an impact on the rural communities long after the fighting stopped – and the Royalists kept on coming back with more death and destruction – even after the death of the war criminal.

And that was what Stuart was accused of being. He instigated the conflict as a significant proportion of the country wouldn’t play the game by his rules. He refused to accept reality and used the sycophancy and toadyism that always accompanies the monarchy to gather around himself a significant military force. As consequence something like 860,000 men, women and children died – of a population of seven million (in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) being about 12% of the population, more than any other conflict before or since.

When that level of death and destruction occurred in the 20th century the Fascist perpetrators in Germany and Japan were held to account and tried, convicted and sentenced. Stuart faced his Nuremberg 296 years before the Nazis.

If someone was guilty of such crimes today the international community would be branding him/her a ‘war criminal’ guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’ (as long as the individuals concerned were not citizens of the United States) and demanding that s/he face judgement at a special tribunal of the International Court of Justice located in The Hague, Netherlands. If seems strange, therefore, that some people cast aspersions upon the legitimacy of the trial that took place in London in January, 1649.

Maintaining his arrogance Stuart refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the court and constantly referred to his supposed ‘divine right’.

Charles Stuart Death Warrant

Charles Stuart Death Warrant

Faced with overwhelming evidence he was found guilt and sentenced to death on 26th January. The orders for the execution to take place on Tuesday 30th January were signed and sealed the day before.

That order reads:

At the High Co[ur]t of Justice for the tryinge and iudginge of Charles Steuart, Kinge of England, January xxixth, Anno D[omi]ni 1648

Whereas Charles Steuard, Kinge of England is and standeth convicted, attaynted, and condemned of High Treason, and other high Crymes: and sentence upon Saturday last was pronounced against him by this Co[ur]t, to be putt to death by the severing of his head from his body; of w[hi]ch sentence, execuc[i]on remayneth to be done; these are therefore to will and require you to see the said sentence executed in the open streete before Whitehall, uppon the morrowe, being the Thirtieth day of this instante moneth of January, between the hours of tenn in the morning and five in the afternoone of the same day, w[i]th full effect. And for soe doing this shall be yo[u]r sufficient warrant. And these are to require all officers, souldiers, and other, the good people of this Nation of England, to be assistinge unto you in this service. Given under o[ur] hands and seals.

To Col. Francis Hacker, Col. Hunks, and Lieut-Col. Phayre, and to every of them.

(Here is should be noted that the date at the top of 1648 was correct at that time. The new year was then considered to start on 25th March and this wasn’t changed to what we now use as the beginning of the year, 1st January, until 1752. As an aside, this was at the same time as the Julian Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian – a change which led many people to believe they had been robbed of 11 days of their life.)

Underneath were 57 signatures and seals of the Commissioners (those who sat in judgement) – some signatures were over erasures, so some of them were cowards and couldn’t deal with the seriousness of the crime of which Stuart was convicted. Then, as almost certainly would be the case in a similar situation now, the insidiousness and perniciousness of the tradition of the monarchy being different from us mere mortals playing a role in that decision.

Just before 14.00 on the afternoon of the 30th Stuart walked through the space provided by the removed window on the first floor of the Palace of Westminster on to a specially constructed scaffold. He was accompanied by the same Thomas Harrison who had brought the war criminal from Hurst Castle the month before and would have been the last person with which Stuart would have talked.

Execution of Charles Stuart - contemporary cartoon

Execution of Charles Stuart – contemporary cartoon

Stuart’s head was separated from his body by one sharp blow – so a professional was used, the identity of whom is still not definitively known.

Such was not to be the fate of those 57 signatories still alive in 1660 when the monarchy was invited back to be a parasite on the body politic of the British Isles.

In the discussions with Stuart’s eldest son, also named Charles there was an implied agreement that there would be no retaliation to those who had signed the death warrant of the father, being, as they were, merely servants of the people. When the new king had his feet under the table (and before he started his whoring and followed his favourite hobby of collecting mistresses) he started the process of extracting vengeance on the regicides.

Major General Thomas Harrison

Major General Thomas Harrison

The first to suffer at the hands of the vengeful spoilt brat was the very Thomas Harrison who had accompanied Stuart Elder to the scaffold. But Thomas didn’t get the quick death afforded the war criminal. His punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered.

This process, which had been around since the early part of the 13th century, had fallen into disuse during the time of the Commonwealth (from 1640-60). Rather than being hung with a drop that would break the neck the victim to be executed was dangled at the end of a rope, being throttled rather than hung. Just before loosing consciousness he (it was always a he, women liable to such punishment (that is, the crime of high treason) were merely burnt at the stake – for the sake of ‘public decency’) would be cut down, castrated and then shown the package, In the case of Thomas his abdomen was slashed open and molten metal poured into the wound. (At this point Thomas lashed out and hit his murderer who then immediately cut off his head – which seems to be a strange sort of punishment but was probably caused by the current level of ignorance and fear that a ‘dead’ man was able to react in such a manner.) The entrails would have been thrown into a nearby fire, his head cut off and the body hacked into four pieces, the separate five pieces then being distributed around the city of London, as a warning to others. The Royalists even took out the revenge on the dead, exhuming those who had died before 1660 and hanging the rotting copses from cages in various parts of London. Cromwell’s severed and preserved head even appearing in fairgrounds way into the 19th century.

Hanging, drawing and quartering was the punishment for high treason so Stuart could quite legally have been submitted to such treatment.

This form of torture existed in Britain until 1870.

At least Thomas died with dignity, the same couldn’t be said of the others in the country who had fought against Stuart but then kowtowed to the new monarch that was installed on the throne in 1660. They might have dies peacefully in their beds but they died as forelock-tuggers, sycophants and gutless cowards.

No one should really have been surprised that the agreement before the Restoration wasn’t honoured. Way back in 1381 Wat Tyler, one of the principal leaders of the Peasants Revolt, met with the boy Richard of Bordeaux. Trusting the monarchy was to be Tyler’s last act as he was treacherously stabbed in the back by William Walworth, the Mayor of London, and then hacked to pieces by surrounding soldiers. The revolt didn’t last long after that. The lesson that should have been learnt then was ‘never trust the monarchy’.

An interesting aspect of the picture at the very top (a contemporary painting of the event) is the image of the fainting woman. When revolutions break out there’s no way anyone can foretell how events will develop. This realisation didn’t exist in the 17th century as such popular uprisings were few and far between, peasant revolts being the only benchmark. Unfortunately, after many more recent workers led revolutions many still don’t understand that ‘a revolution is not a dinner party’ (Mao Tse-tung), that things happen that have never happened before and that a revolution can eat its own.

So events like the execution of a monarch can happen. However, there was a kind of evolution in people’s thinking when the next European king was to lose his head. Women fainted in 1649, they knitted in 1793 when Louis Bourbon had an appointment with Madam Guillotine.

The immediate political fallout of Stuart’s execution was that the English Revolution lost its momentum and direction. There wasn’t a formed ideology before the First Civil War started but once the people had taken on the established order, and especially the monarchy and the whole concept of ‘divine right’, this encouraged a flowering of ideas and debates.

The Levellers, who were probably most influential in the couple of years between the first and second civil wars, argued for what is implied in their name. They wanted a more equal society, with equal participation of those who had previously been marginalised, by both the monarchy and Parliament – which itself represented land owning interests. Many of the young men who joined the Roundheads (the name given to Parliament’s army) were apprentices from the towns. They were given arms and training, had seen parts of the country which without the war would not have happened, were mixing with people who they never would have met in normal life and started to think. But thinking is dangerous and the ruling class doesn’t want the workers to do anything so dangerous.

Soon after the execution Cromwell, who had become the most powerful general in the army due to his successes against the Royalists, had become virtual ruler of the country in Stuart’s place. (Just as it used to happen in Rome.) A mad Puritan – Protestant fundamentalist – he had a hatred of Catholics and there were a lot of Catholics in Ireland who he saw as a potential threat. He planned to send an expeditionary force to Ireland but parts of the army, those parts where Leveller influence was the greatest, refused. After all why had they fought tyranny to become tyrants themselves in another part of the British Isles?

A group of soldiers mutinied and ended up being surrounded by troops loyal to Cromwell in the Church in Burford, Oxfordshire. Three of their leaders were executed, whilst the rest looked on, on 17th May 1649. This was the virtual end of the Leveller movement.

At about the same time the Diggers (sometimes called the True Levellers) perhaps a more radical group of activists, inspired by the almost poetic writings of Gerrard Winstanley, occupied common land on George’s Hill, in Weybridge, Surrey. This experiment was crushed, yet again by troops loyal to Cromwell, the working class always being the ones who trample on movements that seek to take the whole class out of the mire in which they live.

For a short period of time in the 17th century the English had got up off their knees and could have improved their lot if they but had the courage. The execution of Stuart in 1649 seems to have made them dizzy and they knelt down again, only periodically getting off their knees over the next 400 years, but never for long enough to change society.

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.