As I Please

in Tribune

29 December 1944

George Orwell

I AM indebted to an article by Mr Dwight Macdonald in the September number of Politics, the New York monthly, for some extracts from a book entitled Kill – or Get Killed, a Manual of Hand-to-Hand Fighting by Major Rex Applegate.

This book, a semi-official American publication, not only gives extensive information about knifing, strangling, and the various horrors that come under the heading of ‘unarmed combat’, but describes the battle-schools in which soldiers are trained for house-to-house fighting. Here are some sample directions:

. . . Before entering the tunnel, the coach exposes dummy A and the student uses the knife on it while the student is proceeding from target No. 1 to target No. 4, the ‘Gestapo Torture Scene’ or the ‘Italian Cursing’ sequence is played over the loudspeaker . . . . Target No. 9 is in darkness, and as the student enters this compartment the ‘Jap Rape’ sequence is used . . . . While the coach is reloading the student’s pistol, the ‘Get that American son-of-a-bitch’ sequence is used. As the coach and student pass through the curtain into the next compartment, they are confronted by a dummy which has a knife stuck in its back, and represents a dead body. This dummy is illuminated by a green light and is not to be fired at by the student, although practically all of them do.

Mr Macdonald comments: ‘There is one rather interesting problem in operating the course. Although the writer never states so directly, it would seem there is danger that the student’s inhibitions will be broken down so thoroughly that he will shoot or stab the coach who accompanies him . . . . The coach is advised to keep himself in a position to grab the student’s gun arm “at any instant”; after the three dummies along the course have been stabbed, “the knife is taken away from the student to prevent accidents”; and finally: “There is no place on the course where total darkness prevails while instructor is near student.”’

I believe the similar battle-courses in the British army have now been discontinued or toned down, but it is worth remembering that something like this is inevitable if one wants military efficiency. No ideology, no consciousness of having ‘something to fight for’, is fully a substitute for it. This deliberate brutalizing of millions of human beings is part of the price of society in its present form. The Japanese, incidentally, have been experts at this kind of thing for hundreds of years. In the old days the sons of aristocrats used to be taken at a very early age to witness executions, and if any boy showed the slightest sign of nausea he was promptly made to swallow large quantities of rice stained the colour of blood.

The English common people are not great lovers of military glory, and I have pointed out elsewhere that when a battle poem wins really wide popularity, it usually deals with a disaster and not a victory. But the other day, when I repeated this in some connexion, there came into my head the once popular song—it might be popular again if one of the gramophone companies would bother to record it—‘Admiral Benbow’. This rather jingoistic ballad seems to contradict my theory, but I believe it may have owed some of its popularity to the fact that it had a class-war angle which was understood at the time.

Admiral Benbow, when going into action against the French, was suddenly deserted by his subordinate captains and left to fight against heavy odds. As the ballad puts it:

Said Kirby unto Wade, ‘We will run, we will run,’
Said Kirby unto Wade, ‘We will run;
For I value no disgrace
Nor the losing of my place,
But the enemy I won’t face,
Nor his guns, nor his guns.’

So Benbow was left to fight single-handed and, though victorious, he himself was killed. There is a gory but possibly authentic description of his death:

Brave Benbow lost his legs, by chain shot, by chain shot,
Brave Benbow lost his legs, by chain shot;
Brave Benbow lost his legs
And all on his stumps he begs,
‘Fight on, my English lads,
’Tis our lot, ’tis our lot.’

The surgeon dressed his wounds, Benbow cries, Benbow cries,
The surgeon dressed his wounds, Benbow cries;
‘Let a cradle now in haste
On the quarter-deck be placed,
That the enemy I may face
Till I die, till I die.’

The point is that Benbow was an ordinary seaman who had risen from the ranks. He had started off as a cabin boy. And his captains are supposed to have fled from the action because they did not want to see so plebeian a commander win a victory. I wonder whether it was this tradition that made Benbow into a popular hero and caused his name to be commemorated not only in the ballad but on the signs of innumerable public houses?

I believe no recording of this song exists, but—as I discovered when I was broadcasting and wanted to use similar pieces as five-minute fill-ups—it is only one of a long list of old popular songs and folk songs which have not been recorded. Until recently, at any rate, I believe there was not even a record of ‘Tom Bowling’ or of ‘Greensleeves’, i.e. the words as well as the music. Others that I failed to get hold of were ‘A cottage well thatched with straw’, ‘Green grow the rushes, O’, ‘Blow away the morning dew’, and ‘Come lasses and lads’. Other well-known songs are recorded in mutilated versions, and usually sung by professional singers with such a stale perfunctoriness that you seem to smell the whisky and cigarette smoke coming off the record. The collection of recorded carols is also very poor. You can’t, I believe, get hold of ‘Minstrels and maid’, or ‘Like silver lamps in a distant shrine’, or ‘Dives and Lazarus’, or other old favourites. On the other hand, if you want a record of ‘Roll out the barrel’, ‘Boomps-a-daisy’, etc., you would find quite a number of different renderings to choose from.

.     .     .     .     .

A CORRESPONDENT in Tribune of 15 December expresses his ‘horror and disgust’ at hearing that Indian troops had been used against the Greeks, and compared this to the action of Franco in using Moorish troops against the Spanish Republic.

It seems to me important that this ancient red herring should not be dragged across the trail. To begin with, the Indian troops are not strictly comparable to Franco’s Moors. The reactionary Moorish chieftains, bearing rather the same relationship to Franco as the Indian Princes do to the British Conservative Party, sent their men to Spain with the conscious aim of crushing democracy. The Indian troops are mercenaries, serving the British from family tradition or for the sake of a job, though latterly a proportion of them have probably begun to think of themselves as an Indian army, nucleus of the armed forces of a future independent India. It is not likely that their presence in Athens had any political significance. Probably it was merely that they happened to be the nearest troops available.

But in addition, it is of the highest importance that Socialists should have no truck with colour prejudice. On a number of occasions—the Ruhr occupation of 1923 and the Spanish Civil War, for instance—the cry ‘using coloured troops’ has been raised as though it were somehow worse to be shot up by Indians or Negroes than by Europeans. Our crime in Greece is to have interfered in Greek internal affairs at all: the colour of the troops who carry out the orders is irrelevant. In the case of the Ruhr occupation, it was perhaps justifiable to protest against the use of Senegalese troops, because the Germans probably felt this an added humiliation, and the French may have used black troops for that very reason. But such feelings are not universal in Europe, and I doubt whether there is anywhere any prejudice against Indian troops, who are conspicuously well-behaved.

Our correspondent might have made the point that in an affair of this kind it is particularly mean to make use of politically ignorant colonial troops who don’t understand in what a dirty job they’re being mixed up. But at least don’t let us insult the Indians by suggesting that their presence in Athens is somehow more offensive than that of the British.

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