Having been brought up by Communist parents to loathe all violence and the armed forces of the repressive state (unless it was the Soviet Union or its allies) I am of course in love with firearms and the British Army. So in love am I with our armed forces that my secret desire is that I'd really like to be able to pretend that I'd once been in the British Army. If I ever attempted such a thing I wouldn't over-reach myself and pretend that I'd been in the SAS or anything like that, but would choose a modest regiment to pretend to be in - Second Battalion in the Royal Horse Artillery say, or The Queens Own Lancashire Fusiliers. I'm not the only one with this impulse: I once appeared on This Morning when it was still broadcast from Liverpool's Albert Dock and a fellow guest was Chris Ryan, the ex- SAS soldier and Bravo Two Zero author. All morning fat scousers with wheezy coughs could be seen bumbling up to the studio doorman saying things like, "Alright mate. Erm... I'm a friend of Chris's from the regiment. Can you tell 'im Billy Tommo's ere too see 'im? See if 'eed like to go for a pint an 'dat." They weren't very convincing trained killers these fat men: apart from anything else you would have thought if they'd been in the regiment they'd know his real name wasn't Chris.
In order to learn as much about the British Army as possible, I read lots of military books such as Bravo Two Zero, but not enough of it went in for me to ever feel confident enough to impersonate a soldier. In fact the only part that's stayed with me is his description of what happened after they were released from Iraqi detention and were flying home. What occurred on the plane, to me, defines precisely what it means to be British. Together with US prisoners of war, the remains of Ryan's patrol were being flown to the big airbase at Ramstein in Germany; as soon as they entered Syrian airspace (remember the Syrians were one of our allies in the first Gulf War - didn't do them much good did it?) a pair of American F-16 fighters flew alongside. All the US prisoners crowded to the windows and began chanting "USA! USA! USA!" while the pilots made that "USA Number 1" gesture with their fingers. After a while the sleek F-16s peeled away to be replaced by a couple of beat-up looking RAF Tornado GR3s. The British prisoners, many of whom had endured long hours of torture at the hands of Saddam's secret police, pressed themselves to the airliner's windows where the RAF pilots made "you wanker" gestures at them, then flew away.
I used to think that my secret desire to pretend that I'd been in the armed forces wasn't a particularly good thing, that it was a kind of escapism or closet fascism or vaguely homoerotic in some way, but now I believe it perhaps had a higher, more noble purpose. Back when I mixed with those who were active on the left I always remained silent when they spewed out their coruscating contempt and hatred of soldiers and their close relative the police officer. When they ranted about "brutal pigs" and "thick squaddies", I would just get a queasy smile on my face. I thought my inability to join in, to feel their righteous hatred, was a fault in me, a lack of revolutionary rigour. No matter how hard I tried to force myself, it simply didn't chime with what I saw out in the real world.
Back when I was still doing stand-up shows there often seemed to be soldiers and police in the audience, and when they came backstage they generally came across as a lot nicer and more intelligent than the social worker types who thought they owned me and would harangue me in my dressing room hair-splitting over bits of my act they felt weren't politically conscious enough. Sure, from time to time like everyone else I would come up against right-wing racist police or violent thuggish soldiers, but when I did I still couldn't hate them, instead I just found myself feeling sorry for them. I got this feeling that they have become trapped in a role that they couldn't find a way out of, that their racism came from a loathing of themselves and that the soldiers' thuggishness was because the world had never treated them with any respect. It's a fact that a very high percentage of soldiers were in care as children, so the Army becomes their family, giving them the boundaries and structure that the rest of society has conspicuously failed to provide.
And after a while I came to see that in fact my view was the right one, that those lefty activists I had known - like all believers - were people who had been drawn to their inflexible ideology by a deep-seated need to be right all the time and to control the lives of other people. If you are this type of person, to allow that your enemy has any humanity would undermine that need. My desire to pretend to be a soldier embodies an understanding that the world isn't black and white, that people who you disagree with can still be complex and attractive human beings.
So that's my plan for world peace: think about somebody you hate, learn all about them, dress up as them and dance about your bedroom in their clothes, then you won't hate them.
Tracey Emin is awayReuse content