John Rae and the Myths of War

Submitted by Reddebrek on October 30, 2017

THE FANATICISM OF BOY-SOLDIERS, or would be soldiers, is described by John Rae in his novel The Custard Boys, which has recently appeared as a film, with the title Reach for Glory. He has also attacked the indoctrination of children with military ideas in a radio talk in August last year, which has now been published by the Friends' Peace Committee as a pamphlet, Children and the Myths of War.*

He believes that the myths of war are three: "first, that violence was not only justified but laudable; second, that war was fun, a great game; and third, that physical courage was the finest virtue and that moral courage, as shown by the conscientious objector, for example, was contemptible …"

Film, book and talk all put across the same message. The book seems to me the least satisfactory of the three. It is written in the modern style in which the prevailing tone is one of despair and disgust. Well, life is pretty terrible, but not that bad. It is not merely that some of the characters, some of the situations, some of the actions that take place are bad. Everything is awful. The sun in the sky resembles a severed head. The lino on the floor is compared to vomit. Only

*The Custard Boys (Ace Books, 2s. 6d.)
Children and the Myths of War (Friends Peace Committee, Friends House, NW1, 6d.)
Reach for Glory (Columbia Pictures, distributed by Gala). Directed by Philip Leacock and completed in 1961 but not exhibited until November, 1962 when it opened at the Gala-Royal Cinema, Edgware Road.

to people in deep states of melancholia does the world appear like this. It is no more a portrait of reality than it would be if everything was shown as sweetness and light.
The disadvantages of this style is that when disasters do happen they no longer have the power to shock. In this twilight all cats are grey.

The film follows the book pretty closely in plot, but less closely in style. Of course there are changes, and there have, as in any film, to be some omissions. However the film seems to me to get the point across much better. This is a real East Anglian town we are shown, not the landscape of nightmare.

The story concerns a gang of boys, evacuated to the country, some with their parents, in the Second World War. Some of the boys are almost grown up, others are children still. They are bored and eager to grow up so that they too can fight. They are desperately afraid that the war will end before they are old enough to. In the meantime they occupy themselves with manly sports, like hunting cats, chasing them on their bicycles across the countryside and into the sea. They fight and beat up other boys, and seek all the time to display their manliness, as they understand it.

In this they are aided and abetted by the entire adult world. Films show deeds of heroism. The parson preaches fire-eating sermons from the safety of his pulpit. The fathers stick pins in wall-maps, in order to mark the daily movements of the armies, as given out by the radio. The mothers, like the women in barbaric hordes, urge their menfolk onwards to the fray — although in a very genteel and English manner. The headmaster compels his pupils to join the school cadet corps, where the boys are taught the care of the rifle, and how to shoot with it.

The hero of the story is one of the younger members of the gang. His position is precarious because his brother (here the plot of book and film diverge somewhat) is really a "conchie". His parents conceal it from the village, pretending that their elder son is in the army. Actually, released from prison, he comes to visit his parents, and says that he is going to be an ambulance driver. One would have thought that a hard, responsible and sometimes dangerous job such as this would have satisfied anybody. But in the hysterical mood of wartime it does not satisfy his family. His visit, which takes place after dark, so that the neighbours may not know, is one of the bravest acts of the film, for father, mother, and younger brothers, though deeply divided on everything else, all unite to reject him, each in their own way, with varying degrees of hatefulness.
Then in addition to all this the young boy has another burden placed on his shoulders. At the beginning of the new term the headmaster puts him in charge of a boy who has just arrived at the school. This new boy is an Austrian Jewish refugee. He is far more attractive in every way than the English children, and is more grown-up also. Naturally the other members of the gang are outraged. However the little Austrian ends by winning a grudging acceptance.
The leader of the gang is a youth of terrifying fanaticism. He lives
for war, and has accepted the standards that the adult world seems to be upholding with none of the mental reservations that adults allow themselves. He stirs up a quarrel with a gang of local toughs, farmers' boys who are nearly adult and have female camp followers of great viciousness trailing around behind them.
An ambush for these local boys is planned, but the little Jew, too sensitive to take kindly to this sort of thing, runs away at the critical moment. The local boys see him and are not taken by surprise, and their greater maturity and strength gains the day.

The culprit has to be punished according to military law, and a mock execution is staged, with rifles from the cadet corps armoury. Unfortunately a live round goes into one of the guns, by mistake for a blank, and the boy is killed.

At first the gang tries to make out that it was an accident, but this soon gives way to defiance. The leader of the gang, when asked why he had shot at the boy, replies.
"In war all cowards are shot."
"But this isn't a war.'
"What the hell is it, then? If it isn't a war, why are we wearing these uniforms? Why do we have to spend three afternoons a week learning the parts of the rifle? If they don't want us to use the bloody thing, why do they teach us how to?"

This is of course unanswerable, and the film concludes with the boys, on the way to the police station, becoming mixed up with a loyal and patriotic crowd, who have turned out to welcome the home-coming of a local man who has just won the V.C. Ironically he is going to marry the sister of the boy who actually fired the fatal shot.

Children and the Myths of War repeats the argument. John Rae believes that children are enthusiastic for war because they have been taught to believe it is a high adventure. He makes the point that cannibalism, which our ancestors accepted as normal enough, has now become taboo. No one, not even Hitler, could make men eat each other again. There is no glory in cannibalism. But war, which is closely connected with cannibalism, head-hunting and ritual murder, has retained its glamour. Still if one barbaric rite can be done away with so can another. This is his essential point.

It is a good argument as far as it goes. He realises that the violence of war and the violence of society as a whole are linked.

"During the war a generation grew up in a world that glorified violence and it was inevitable that some of that generation should have become violent themselves; they used knives and razors instead of bayonets and flame-throwers, but the result was usually the same. And today if a young thug kills an old woman it is because killing is still an accepted method of solving problems: you need some money so you bash an old lady on the head; you need law and order so you hang a few murderers; you need the Canal so you shoot a few Egyptians; you need national independence so you are prepared to drop a bomb that will kill a quarter of a million people, all of whom will be no more deserving of death than the old woman. I do not believe that you
can separate the different forms of killing, state-owned and private enterprise. Where one breeds, so will the other; when it comes to reproducing itself, violence can compete with the amoeba."

But when it comes to the point all he can suggest is a World No-Killing Year, on the lines of World Refugee Year. No doubt this would be a good idea. Pacifists would all get busy. There would be announcements in Peace News, and we should go around distributing leaflets as usual. The public would never hear of it, except for the small minority which is interested in good causes.

The truth is surely that war, unlike cannibalism, is an integral part of authoritarian society, if only because no authority (except the moral kind) can be enforced without the possibility of ultimate appeal to violence. If a man refuses to pay a parking fine he can ultimately be arrested, or have his goods distrained. If he refuses to submit to either, but barricades himself in his house with a shotgun, first the police and ultimately the military can be called in, fully equipped with the latest modern weapons. Of course this never happens, the punishment is too trivial to be worth such a stand, but in the background the threat of it is always there.

A World No-State Year, or a World Freedom Year, in which large numbers of people passively resisted every aspect of authoritarian society that bore upon their lives (not that it is at all likely to happen, alas!) would achieve more publicity, and would have the same effect as a No-Killing Year, for apart from hunting and crime, the only killing done nowadays is at the behest of the state.

By all means let us do all in our power to counter the cult of war and violence which is thrust upon children. I do not think that the situation in this field is as hopeless as is often supposed. It is a popular saying that "children are little savages", but there are degrees of savagery, and there are plenty of children who detest real violence, and avoid it as much as they can. Instead of being made to feel ashamed of themselves as they are today they should be encouraged to develop their non-violent attitudes. The cruelty of children is always "news", like the man who bit the dog. The kindness of children is forgotten. It can never be the basis of a sensational novel or a dramatic film, so it tends to get overlooked. The children who dislike violence are our potential allies.

And there are of course different sorts of violence as well. There is a world of difference between the situation where a small boy rushes into the kitchen with a toy pistol and shouts, "Bang! Bang! Mummy you're dead. You must lie on the floor", and the situation where the same little boy, a couple of years later is put into barrack-like conditions and made to do drill. The one situation is a play situation, the other is serious. In the first case the little boy knows at heart that it is a game. In the second the dividing line between play and reality has become dangerously blurred, to say the least of it. We are already in the world of reality, and the guns may have real bullets in them, as in the film. The violence in the first situation is no more than an outlet for childhood's energy. In the second it is violence under discipline, violence stimulated and at the same time kept in check, to be released at the appropriate moment and directed in accordance with the rulers' desires, as one directs the water through a hose.

Again, it would surely be wrong to make children feel guilty, as is sometimes done, about getting angry, punching their parents or throwing things about. And surely there is too a certain degree of legitimate self-defensive violence? One does not have to submit to being knocked about or bullied in the interests of world peace. Nor should children who enjoy games of war, cowboys, indians, pirates and so forth be made to feel abnormal in some way, just as those who do not like these games are made to feel abnormal in present society. (Actually those children who most delight in such games are by no means always those who become most militaristically-minded in after life. Here again one needs to distinguish between the "bang-bang" sort of violence, the "friendly wrestle" sort of violence and the real savage, hurtful kind of fighting. A child may not care for all three. A taste for the first and second does not imply necessarily a taste for the third).*

But to teach children the truth about war, about the horror, futility and inglory of it, is not enough. The logic of authoritarian society demands armies and war. It is no good encouraging constructive interests, as opposed to warlike ones, if the children are eventually going to be whisked away by conscription, or whatever the modern equivalent will be in the "exciting" new age or rocket-bombs and push-buttons. The children will have to learn the origins of war. They will have to learn that society is unjust, to its very foundations. They will have to learn that our economic and social arrangements cause war, and that, if war is to be abolished, these must be done away with and new ones substituted.

A. S. Neill says that in his school, Summerhill, the children are not taught to be pacifists. And very few pacifists, and even rebels, come from his school. In this I am a supporter of Francisco Ferrer, who ran a free school in Spain before the First World War. He taught the children the truth about society as he saw it, and so dangerous was he considered that the Spanish government, at the instigation of the Church, put him to death on a trumped-up charge.

In this matter neutrality is merely to side with the authoritarians. It is impossible not to teach the children something about the world one lives in. I am not now necessarily thinking only of the classroom but of the home as well. Parents and their friends can hardly stop discussing The Bomb, etc., simply because the children are present and must be protected from the danger of being influenced by their elders until "they are old enough to decide for themselves". Whatever one does the children will have a political education, and let it be, as John Rae desires, an anti-war one, and as Ferrer wanted, an anti-authoritarian one, at the same time.

*A whole article could be devoted to the different sorts and degrees of violence among children and adults, to the kinds that are harmless, or even healthy, and the kinds that are not. It is a large and complicated subject that I have hardly ever seen discussed.