Toni is off on her much-deserved holiday, so this week I'll take center stage with a rant about soldiers. Do we Americans coddle them too much, or do the Brits fail to show them due appreciation? What's your view?
During my son's wedding, as his Best Man was roasting him before the wedding banquet—you know, "the groom never learned much in school, he still thinks the capital of Montana is Hannah" and stuff like that—it was noted in passing that the groom had serviced in Iraq, and the room erupted into spontaneous applause. After the applause died down, my son grabbed the mic and said, "Thanks for that, but there's a table of my Marine buddies over there, why don't you give them a shout." The room, once again, exploded in applause, and then we all gave them a standing ovation. I remember thinking to myself, "This would never happen in Britain."
And indeed it would not. A few weeks after my return, I read an article in the paper telling of how three servicemen in uniform were refused entry into a pub. The young men were part of a larger group that had just left the funeral of one of their comrades who had been killed in Afghanistan. The bar manager was willing to let the people dressed in civilian clothes in, "but not the squaddies." The friends of the soldiers were outraged, but the soldiers told them, "Don't worry about it, we get this all the time."
I really find this behavior odd. In America, they would have been invited in and given free drinks. In fact, there were times in America, prior to my move to the UK, when conversation turned to world events in the bar, that I mentioned I had a son serving in Iraq, and my drinks were free.
Now, you can say Americans are jingoistic war-mongers and worship their warrior culture (no, really, go ahead, you won't offend us; if we could find a way to work it into our national motto, we would) but it seems to me that, far from appreciating soldiers, the Brits don't want them around.
Consider this: soldiers coming home from serving overseas were made to change into civilian cloths in Birmingham airport because they were not allowed in the terminal in combat gear. An ex-soldier I met and talked to about this, told me it was common practice to refuse service to soldiers in uniform, and they were, in fact, not allowed off the base unless they were in civilian clothes.
This particular soldier's take on the matter went like this:
"People think of us as trained guard dogs. Everyone wants to be protected by the guard dogs, but they don't want to be around them if they are not on a leash. That's what they see the squaddies as, dogs off their leash."
So why would anyone consider being in the military, I asked him:
"You do it for yourself, because you want to be the best, and to be part of the best. You don't do it for recognition because you know you're not going to get any."
There is no question that Britain, as a country, honors its soldiers; they hold the two-minute silence on Remembrance Day, and cheer them in certain newspapers, but on an individual level, not much as changed in the 119 years since the following poem by Rudyard Kipling was first published:
(By the way, I've made my point; you don't need to read the poem, but I think you should.)
by Rudyard Kipling
I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.
I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls,
But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, wait outside";
But it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide,
The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide,
O it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide.
Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.
We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;
While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind",
But it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind,
There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,
O it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind.
You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!
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