Cole Moreton: A just cause is a hero's right

Share

Where do we look for heroes, today of all days? Not at the war memorial. They have almost all gone away. There used to be soldiers, sailors, airmen, Waafs and Wrens everywhere, even if they were mostly invisible. The elderly gent shuffling home from the supermarket with a budget meal for one, a survivor of the Somme. The bank manager polishing his car on Sunday, dogged by memories of D-Day. The headmaster who thrashed the same boys repeatedly and who was taken away in the end. Manhandled out of the school. He had gone funny in the head, they said, thanks to a war wound he never mentioned. Silence was a characteristic of most of those old soldiers. The battles were as close then in history as Live Aid is now, but the combatants kept mum.

Except on Remembrance Sunday. Then they polished medals and cap badges, dusted down regimental blazers and marched with the Scouts and Guides . The Last Post was played hesitantly by a bugler from the Boys' Brigade, the Mayor led the hymn singing and hundreds turned up to join in. The scene will be repeated all over the country today, but in many places the old soldiers will be older and fewer, the uniformed organisations down to the stragglers, and the crowds absent. War is what happens far away, or long ago, or on the PlayStation.

Those of us who grew up in the Seventies were the last to tell tales of the Second World War. Victor Book for Boys or Commando taught us what heroism was. And while it was the boys who obsessed about all this, the folktales of wartime were everywhere, and some of the heroes (as in the film A Town Called Alice or the TV series Tenko) were heroines. That was before Star Wars and its successors provided fantastical substitutes for war; before the primal urge to form a tribe and beat the crap out of the other lot was sublimated into football or video consoles.

Those of us whose parents and grandparents had fought were ignorant and romantic about the reality of soldiering, but we had a sense that those who fought had done it for a good reason. The further you are from a conflict, historically, the easier it is to see in simple terms. Regardless of the shades of contemporary opinion, the Second World War is now seen as Good versus Evil.

The invasion of Afghanistan seemed nostalgically simple and right, until it went wrong. Still, many of the troops there still have the sense that it is the Right Thing To Do. That is harder in Iraq. How easy would it have been to bend over the body of Kingsman Jamie Hancock, a teenager shot while on sentry duty in Basra on Monday, and wonder what the hell it was all for?

Today he is remembered along with the teenagers who died in the mud of Flanders nearly a century ago. At the Menin Gate memorial to the battles of Ypres a few years ago a survivor of that slaughter hauled himself to his feet, gripped my arm and saluted. He was 106. When asked why he had come, at risk to his life, he wheezed and coughed and thought a while and said: "Because they can't." He meant the teenage boys whose bodies were blown to bits or lost. He wore his medals to say he had been there, and so had they. They were not around to stand like this in the cold and remember, but he would keep doing it until the day he died. For Billy, Ernie, Chalky. All the boys. His mates. The dead.

For most of us, soldiers are strangers. The closest we get is in the town square of a garrison town on a Saturday night. For most of the time they do whatever it is they do out on the moors, behind fortified walls or in the desert. Then, when it is time to hand out medals, as is being considered at the moment, tales emerge of men - always men - storming the enemy single-handedly. This version of heroism is sometimes rehearsed in the tabloids: last week a British soldier was photographed with bullet belts criss-crossing his chest next to the account of how he had personally fired 40,000 rounds.

But the Strong Man is deadly because he fights for both sides. He allows the man who feels so aggrieved and powerless that he straps explosive to his body and blows up the enemy along with himself to claim to be a hero. The cult of the Strong Man leads us to the suicide bomber.

He has a modern brother, the Rescuer. Private Johnson Beharry won the first Victoria Cross in 40 years for saving his platoon from an ambush. What he did was heroic and deserved recognition. But the Rescuer is a PR-friendly hero. It was undeniably helpful to the Government to award our highest military honour to a young black Briton when the nation was struggling with multiculturalism and beginning to doubt the war in Iraq. But the VC has often been awarded for strategic reasons in its 150-year history.

Over that time our notions of heroism have changed dramatically. During the past decade, in museums, oral history projects or just quiet living rooms, that generation of men and women who kept silent after the last world war have been sharing their stories. As a society we have also learned to value the experience of civilians. The war memorials may be less crowded, but the internet throbs with stories.

Superb online projects such as the BBC's People's War website, have helped ordinary people take heroism back from the powerful and the victorious. My grandmother raised children among rat-infested ruins during the Blitz, surviving on adrenalin and very little food, and with nerves shredded by the screaming bombs. She lived alongside women who watched for fires from buildings that were themselves on fire. She saw a mother lay down on top of a child to save it, taking the force of an explosion. She saw nurses brave flying timbers and incendiary bombs. None of them got a medal for it, nor did they boast about it.

They did what they had to. That is what our servicemen and women do now. That they are volunteers does not lessen their sacrifice. Nor does our doubt about the wars they are fighting.

Those who revisit wartime memories today know a truth, deep down in their aching bones. It is that if a country asks a man or a women to give their life it should - it must - be in a good cause. Not for oil, or Bush family revenge or some ultimately pointless geopolitical power game. At the going down of the sun, here and in Basra and Camp Bastion, we should remember that.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
 

Never underestimate the power of the National Trust

Boyd Tonkin
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss