Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What is it good for?

Mankind's insatiable desire to obliterate himself and all those around him...

In the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden's slaying and the barely concealed triumphalism displayed by our American cousins the only surprise was that the severed head of the tyrannical despot wasn't paraded around Times Square. Scenes of jubilation and reverie as a nation rejoiced were par for the course as after almost ten years the U.S gained revenge for one of it's darkest days. It was the ultimate trophy killing and brought a sense of closure for all those directly affected by the assault on the Twin Towers. But as evil as the supposed leader of Al-Qaeda was the sight of thousands of people outwardly celebrating the expiration of another human being was somewhat unsettling and from an objective point of view bordering on sickening.

There is no doubt that Bin Laden will take his rightful place somewhere near the top when the list of the world's most nefarious people is compiled sometime in the distant future. We will never know for sure just how instrumental he was in the 9/11 attacks but history will depict him as the main perpetrator and compare his repugnant feats to other deranged types like Hitler, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein. The thing all of these oppressors had in common was their lack of respect for human life, killing someone meant as much to them as the absent minded swatting of a fly does to your average person. Sadly rather than be shocked and appalled by the deeds of the aforementioned it seems that as time progresses we are gradually lowering ourselves to their level whether we realise it or not.

For as long as man has existed he has chosen to resolve the majority of his conflicts through force, deadly or otherwise. Quibbles over land, money, women, honour and of course national pride have entered the annals of history and with them the names of the great men who fought in them. We look back at skirmishes between the Greeks and the Persians, the French and the English and the Americans and themselves in awe and encourage our children to do likewise as we teach them of the daring feats of Nelson, Custer and the indomitable Spartans. That countless people died horrible, unnecessary deaths is overlooked as the cause and end result somehow justify the means. How many times have phrases along the lines of 'If it wasn't for us you'd all be speaking German' been heard spewing out of the mouth of an indignant patriot? So what if we had been speaking German? What if Hitler had 'won' the war? There would have been more wars, more deaths and more unwitting heroes regardless of the outcome of that or any other war. As long as warfare is our only means of resolving conflict then humanity will continue to create 'monsters'. Not only that but previously unaffected souls will return from the field mere shadows of the people that went out there.

The turn of the twentieth century is considered a high point for mankind as technology, science and inventions progressed at a rate previously unseen. Up until this point wars had been raged on a mass scale over land and sea but although the casualties had been high the sense of devastation felt was nothing compared to what lay ahead. World War 1 saw the death of 9 million people over a four year period. Pause and consider that figure for just one moment. Then think of all those affected by the deaths, the mothers who lost their sons, the wives their husbands and the children their fathers. Those who survived this most hellish of experiences recounted tales so horrific as to be beyond comprehension to those not involved. And yet who amongst can say with any authority exactly what World War I was fought for. We may have vague notions about the allies repelling the dastardly German forces but in truth only those with a vested interest could attempt to justify and explain why young men barely in their teens perished in the mud of the Somme. WW1 is sometimes referred to as the Great War, presumably by those who sat in their ivory towers and relayed orders safe in the knowledge that no harm would ever come to them. Great were the losses and great was the grief but for those who sit in silent vigil at the various monuments of the Somme knowing that the remains of their ancestors were never recovered from deep in that muddy battlefield the idea of a Great War seems laughable.

At this point in time it was still deemed acceptable to forsake your life for your nation's pride. Grieving loved ones were somewhat consoled by a piece of metal and the assertion that 'he died fighting for his country'. There was bad people on this earth and every now and then a war was needed to address the balance and rid us of those that wished to harm our children. No one questioned this on either side of the divide and the trust in our leaders was absolute. Those that thought there may have been another way to resolve the issue and avoid the deaths of an entire generation kept their mouths shut for fear of reprisal. Of course worse was to follow for those still scarred by what they'd just lived through. Like something from a the mind of a particularly sadistic novelist Adolf Hitler went beyond the boundaries of anything seen before and attempted to take over the world, presumably laughing maniacally as he went along. Even someone with a pragmatic point of view like myself could see how the ordinary man in the street was stirred into action by Hitler's deeds but you only have to look at the nascent opposition to the draft system to see that the tide was turning and no longer was dying for your country an honourable feat.

By the time the US chose to intervene in the Vietnamese quarrel society as a whole had begun to question the motives of those that sent innocent young men to die. Not only were those at home in opposition to the war but those that fought did so under duress thanks to a draft which enlisted men to fight whether they liked it or not. One GI famously summed up the mood of US troops when saying 'We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful'. Suddenly it was not simply a matter of the good ol' boys helping the poor underprivileged yellow men from themselves. People were becoming socially conscious thanks to the power of television as images like these helpless children running from the aftermath of an American aerial assault were beamed into the living rooms of horrified audiences. Finally it seemed that the world as a whole had come to the realisation that a call to arms need not be the only solution to conflict and that there were other means of resolving disputes. But arguably more importantly everyone was beginning to understand that in truth we weren't all that different, the Vietnamese father of two who set off early to work each morning shared similar travails to the labourer from Queens who after a hard twelve hour shift at the factory liked nothing more than to relax in his easy chair with a can of Bud lite.

If the opposition to the Vietnam war and the subsequent withdrawal of troops is considered a watershed for humanity then what on earth must those who lobbied and marched for peace think of society's outlook on war today. Despite being more educated than ever and countless cultural advances it could be argued that ignorance and hate are more prevalent than ever. Worryingly it appears that most of those that spew incoherent bile are the educated ones and they have used their learnings to promote fascist beliefs to all who will listen. Of course much of this could be down to our collective fascination which all things warfare related. Ask any man from the age of sixteen to sixty to name his top ten films and chances are you will find one of many war epics in there somewhere. Even though the majority of books, films, drama series etc make no attempt to glamourise the events depicted we are still unerringly drawn to them as we see men just like us endure experiences beyond our belief. This morbid curiosity seems to stem from a desire to feel their pain, to almost get in the trenches with them and savour the full force of a shellacking whilst under heavy fire all from the comfort of our armchairs, vicarious living at it's best. Of course there's absolutely nothing wrong with a bit of escapism from time to time and those involved in works like Platoon, Band of Brothers and Chickenhawk should be commended for their unflinching portrayal of events.

Has this consistent exposure to the horrors of war somehow blurred the lines of reality. Films, and to a certain extent video games, are so authentic nowadays that it's almost impossible to discern what's real and what's not. The debate as to whether violence on television and other forms of media pollutes the minds of our youth is a discussion for another day but what can't be disputed is that the impact of real life events has been lessened by the entertainment industry. Occasionally we will see destitute families fleeing their homelands and feel true sympathy for them but for the most part the events unfolding on our screens take on an almost otherworldly feel. Even something as dramatic as the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 became nothing more than a television event as we all frantically texted our friends to ensure they were watching the drama as it happened. Only later on when we watched documentaries such as The Falling Man did we begin to truly appreciate what those people went through. As members of the 'free world' we were almost willed to feel outraged by the events of 9/11, almost immediately there were reports of revenge attacks on innocent Muslims in the United States as incensed locals lashed out at what they believed to be viable targets. If the same thing happened to Americans every time their country decimated another nation there would be a countless stream of confused and bruised yanks nursing their wounds and wondering 'what the hell did I do?'.

So like the song asks what it is good for? Justice for those who died on that balmy September morning was finally gained but at what cost? If given the choice would those who perished in New York have chosen for thousands more lives on both sides to be sacrificed just so Bin Laden could get what he deserved? Sure the US was a nation in outcry and almost to a man it's inhabitants sought revenge for what happened to their citizens. But why must every single action result in a retaliatory reaction? It's a never ending cycle of death and misery which will continue unabated unless the powers that be can have the common sense to put an end to it. Like a gaggle of boozed up lads at chucking out time they lock horns with little or no thought to the consequences when all it would take is for one to simply walk away and say 'no more'. Maybe the fear of being labelled a coward or a weak leader causes those who govern us simple souls to act in this manner, the more cynical would say that self preservation or financial gain is the real reason. Whatever it is that motivates those in charge to make these decisions it's highly unlikely that they consider the ripple effect of their actions. As they sign their papers and commission their generals those who will ultimately pay the full price go about their day oblivious to the horrors that await them. It makes you wonder if we won't be fully content until we have completely destroyed not only each other but also the world we inhabit. Absolutely nothing indeed.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Memoirs of Misspent Childhood

Part 2: Schooldays Revisited....

This was it the day I'd been waiting for. No more inane recitals of the alphabet or farmyard noises for me I was joining the big league, moving up in the world. Everyone had been telling me that I 'was a big boy now' and I had no cause to doubt them. After all you don't see anyone other than big boys in uniforms like the one I had on, with a fuckin tie and everything! I decided to play it cool for my Mum's sake as she was obviously feeling a little emotional at the thought of her brave little soldier heading out into the real world.

 So after umpteen combs of my hair and an inappropriate amount of that peculiar motherly grooming technique which can only be described as 'licky tissue rub face' I was ready to leave my old life behind and become a man of the world. I gathered my Han Solo schoolbag checking to ensure it contained the booty which I'd been instructed to save until lunch, but was unlikely to last the morning, and clambered onto the bus. As we sped off into the horizon I looked back at my tearful mother and did my level best to transmit an air of indifference whilst fighting back my own tears.

Of course I was nervous and afraid but as I looked around the bus at all the smiling faces I was damned if I was going to show it. Far from being a big boy I felt like the smallest boy of all time and I longed for my mother's embrace like never before. But I banished all these thoughts from my mind and admonished myself for being so weak, big boys don't feel fear and they sure as fuck don't cry on a bus full of their mates. Once the initial panic subsided I began to enjoy myself, here we were like soldiers heading into battle and I felt a sense of camaraderie unlike anything before. I joined in as some of the more unfortunate kids were teased and mocked mercilessly even though all I wanted to do was go over and ask them if they were alright. It's every man for himself from now on I thought and in truth I was just grateful that it wasn't me being derided, I knew I was right to resist getting those horn rimmed glasses last year.

Upon arrival we were herded into groups by a kindly lady who seemed unperturbed by the various wailing children who'd cracked under pressure or the one poor mite who crumbled completely and ended up shitting himself on the bus. I feared for his long term future and wondered whether he could ever hope to make it in the real world. Once we'd be taken to our classroom and assigned our seats we all sat expectantly waiting to be imbued with the vast swathes of knowledge at Miss Clarke's disposal. However it seemed like she'd decided to ease us in gradually as after a brief introductory period, in which I gave her my most winning smile, she chose to start our odyssey with a bout of colouring. Colouring? COLOURING?!?!? I've been doing fuckin colouring since I was two years old what is this shit?! I'd come here expecting to have my mental agility sorely tested and here I was with a crayon in my hand!! I considered approaching Miss Clarke and explaining that this wasn't quite what I had in mind and could I perhaps be moved to a separate class but thought better of it as I sensed that she'd already developed a thing for me.

Things proceeded at this pace until the mid morning break, oh yes we were all quite exhausted from ensuring we didn't go beyond the lines, at which point we were finally allowed to tackle the goodies contained within our respective lunchboxes. As I surreptitiously scanned the contents of the other's lunchboxes (no double entendres please, they're children for Christ sake) I noted with a fair degree of relief that my mother had done me proud and I had passed yet another important test. Interaction with some of the older boys had been kept to a minimum so far and none of the horror stories which I'd taken as fact had yet materialised. Indeed my most taxing interrogation thus far had consisted of the question 'Are you red or blue?', thankfully I was red and this seemed to meet with the approval of my inquisitor.

My hopes that perhaps the early morning colouring was just a way of giving us a false sense of complacency were quickly doused upon return to class. Now it seemed we were going to play a game. A fun game that involved learning I wondered? Nope just a game. At this point I resigned myself to a day of frivolous activities and vowed to have a serious one to one with the headmaster at the first available opportunity. Far from being a place of learning and education it appeared that I'd been taken to a glorified playschool with the emphasis on treating us like idiots rather than the big boys we were told we'd become. I needed to know that this was the school for me because if not then I had no qualms whatsoever about transferring myself to a place better suited to my needs. I mean what on earth were the people at home going to think.

As I rose on the morning of my last Leaving Cert exam, the laughably irrelevant Art History, the thoughts of the people at home were far from my mind. Freedom would soon be mine. No more rebuttals for not wearing my tie, no more sunny days spent listening to incessant nonsense, no more half hearted attempts at studying to appease my mother, no more futile guilt trips for my lacklustre efforts, no more answering to my inferior superiors, no more empty threats which didn't concern me, no more......of

I sat there looking at the sum total of my efforts and considered it worthy of a pass which while not thrilling anyone else would suffice for me. Not a hint of regret or remorse entered my soul as I slowly picked up my paper approached the desk and announced my self finished, in more ways than one. My only thoughts now were how would I procure enough alcohol to commemorate this occasion and ensure that a sleepless night was in store for my mother when I hadn't returned home by the early hours of the following morning. This task was completed with gusto on both fronts and as I awoke to my first day as a free man with the taste of Smithwicks and vomit in my mouth I cared not about the fateful day a few months from now when the fruits of my labour would be there for all to see in written form.

Clearly something had gone askew in the intervening years. From the bright eyed, spry young child who'd set off on his journey with infinite hope to the sullen, beligerent youth who completed that journey with barely a second's thought to what lay behind him. But what did lie behind him, to paraphrase many a social commentator 'Where did it all go wrong'? To the best of my knowledge I was a fiercely committed student right up to the latter days of Primary School and my results underlined this fact. So was it the trauma of Secondary School that brought about this sea change in performance, the feeling of going from big fish to small fry? Or maybe it was not being allowed to call it Sums and having to refer to it as Maths from now on? All these new subjects like Home Economics, Business Organisation, German and French surely couldn't have helped? No I think for me and many others who were summararily met with the words 'has potential but must try harder' on their school reports it came down to one simple problem. Puberty.

I'm not going to get into the vagaries of this most difficult of times. We've all been there we've all got the tshirts there's no need to share our stories of pain and anguish. But I often wonder if a change in the education system is required to help out our more angst ridden teens. How can a young man or woman filled with thoughts of lust, betrayal, vengeance, wrath and envy ever hope to maintain an interest in Pythogaris' Theorem or the ramblings of Shakespeare? It's a difficult enough time as it is without having all of these unnecessary distractions vying for your attention. And in reality is seventeen really an old enough age to make decisions which will impact your career for the rest of your life? I certainly don't think so.

In truth I'm probably just bitter because I didn't get my head down and study like all the other clever bastards did. Not for me I thought as I swanned off for an evening of vandalisation and solvent abuse. Contrary to what some might think though I certainly don't regret not trying harder, at that time in my life I wasn't cut out for academia and boy did I know it. Whether they're the best days of your life is, in my opinion, up for debate. But rest assured when I have kids of my own I'll be wheeling out all the cliched old phrases in the desperate hope that something clicks and they don't find their schooldays passing them by in a haze like mine did.  Chances are they'll call me a hypocrite and chastise me for not having practised what I preach, and you know something the little fuckers will be right.