In 1940, during the most desperate part of World War II, amid an avalanche of disasters, a British ship named the Lancastria was bombed and sunk as it was evacuating British troops from the collapse of France. It is thought that more than 3,000 soldiers died aboard this one ship — the equivalent of an entire brigade gone at a stroke.
Newly-appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill, not knowing how many more disasters Britain could take, at once ordered that the story be suppressed. Nothing was said about it in Britain during the war, and it has remained little known to this day.
There may be times during war when it is a soldier’s duty to lie — to prevent giving either hard information or that more loosely-defined thing, aid and comfort, to the enemy. All manner of lies and propaganda have been an inevitable part of successful war, and this has been taken for granted from at least the time of Sun-Tzu. Even camouflage is a lie of a sort. Many people are uncomfortable about this and there are philosophical propositions that lying is wrong in any circumstances. Whatever the morality of lying, however, it seems quite unquestionable that there are times in war, and perhaps after war, when it is a soldier’s duty to say nothing.
And not only soldiers. During World War II an elderly crook, Maundy Gregory, a British civilian, was captured by the Germans in France. To have called his past murky would have been to indulge in gross understatement. He had been a positive broker of political corruption. Principally he had sold and purveyed Honors for Lloyd George, but was prepared to make his services available to any party. There was even circumstantial evidence that he might have murdered a wealthy mistress and also possibly a political rival. A special Act of Parliament, the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925, was passed in an attempt to put a stop to him (the same act that now threatens Tony Blair’s associates) and he was jailed for flouting it. He had had some shady involvements with the half-world of various secret services.
Anyway, by the time the Germans captured him in France in 1940 he probably knew more of the secret scandals of the British Establishment than anyone in the world. And he was an alcoholic, to the point that if deprived of alcohol, he would die. The Germans did deprive him of alcohol, promising it to him if he told them the scandals he knew. A further inducement was that he was 64 years old, past military age, and could have been repatriated, as was P. G. Wodehouse upon turning 60.
Maundy Gregory refused and did die, probably a terrible death, but he died with his lips sealed, not divulging anything that could help the enemy against his country. He had long since lost any claim to be a gentleman, but by his code there were still some “things no fellow could do” — and giving aid and comfort to the enemy was one of them.
It is, perhaps, reasonable to compare the behavior of this whisky-sodden old criminal with that of the young British servicemen captured in Iran recently, who, perhaps following sensible orders not to provoke an international crisis, did everything their captives wanted, or the fresh-faced, wholesome-looking young Jessica Lynch, who publicly accuses her military superiors of lying about the whole incident of her capture and rescue.
Maybe they were lying. Maybe she is telling the truth. I have no evidence or reason to believe that she is not. But at the end of the day, who benefits from these revelations being made while the war is still on? Only, as far as I can see, the enemies of her country and of the West, as only the Nazis would have benefited from the revelations of the sinking of the Lancastria or the broadcasting of the contents of Maundy Gregory’s notebooks. (Perhaps the men whose corrupt behavior in 1930 Maundy Gregory might have pin-pointed were some of the same men who in 1940 were helping keep alight the torch of freedom.) Who loses? To a certain extent, her former comrades in the field, if the bond of trust between officers and men is eroded. We saw in Vietnam, and indeed with the Russians in Afghanistan, how the mightiest, best-equipped Army can be damaged if that trust is destroyed. Soldiers die when an army’s morale goes. It’s the lesson of John Ford and John Wayne in Fort Apache — the thing was a fiasco but you shut up about it.
It’s not necessarily a matter of lying, it’s a matter of shutting up for the sake of others who may be putting their lives on the line and who don’t need to be questioning the integrity of the thing they are a part of.
The anti-war left is gloating, of course: “The fabric of war consists not of gallant battles fought by hardy soldiers for some noble collective good yay yay go team, but of manufactured tales of valiant brotherhood and purebred heroism designed to make the vile pill slightly less bitter,” according to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford.
In a sense, none of this says anything much about justification or otherwise of the war. But, added to certain other incidents, it does look like further evidence that in some ways the West has forgotten what war means, which is another way of saying that it has forgotten how to fight.