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Raymond Challinor

Nonsense on Stilts

(July 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 177, July/August 1994.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Let readers go to their local war memorials to inspect the names of those killed in the First and Second World Wars. Then they will realise that Chris Lyneham (June SR) was writing nonsense on stilts when he says, ‘Death and injury rates for those actually fighting in the two world wars were very similar, and the experience of the campaigns in Normandy, North Africa and the Pacific was every bit as traumatic as Passchendaele and the Somme.’

In fact, the British general staff realised the British people would not tolerate Haig madness again, the squandering of human life on a limitless scale as had happened in the First World War.

Consequently, military tactics were modified accordingly. Whereas in 1916 on the first day of the battle of the Somme the British forces sustained 60,000 casualties, in 1942 at El Alamein, Britain’s most costly encounter in the Second World War, there were 15,000 casualties suffered over a fortnight’s fighting.

But, when considering casualties, two points are usually overlooked. The first is the arithmetic is done along imperialist and racist lines. As Professor John Dower states in his superb book, War Without Mercy, Orientals, Africans, and others are regarded as being not truly human.

And, second, whatever the figures given for war casualties, they have an air of unreality about them. The reason is that it is really impossible to disentangle the deaths caused by the fighting from those caused by accompanying phenomena. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse ride together: war is joined by fire, famine and the destruction of the social fabric. Together they spread death.

In China, for example, the Japanese wanted to flush out Chinese guerillas from the Kwangtung province. Therefore, they cut off their food supply. But, as a result of this Japanese pacification programme, ten million civilians died of starvation as well. Peasants became so desperate that women sold their new born babies to the butchers to be eaten as meat.

Likewise in India: the harvests in 1942–3 were better than average, yet two or three million people died of starvation. Why? Because the British authorities commandeered the transport customarily used to carry grain for military purposes. British imperialists were more concerned with the struggle against the Japanese – the protection of the jewel in the crown – than they were about the lives of the Indian people.

At that time, I remember seeing a cartoon in the New Leader, an anti-war socialist paper. It depicted an irate editor, angry because one of his staff had made a slip up. To illustrate an article about the horrors of the German concentration camps, instead of the photo showing the death and starving camp inmates, the hapless journalist had inserted one where the dead and starving were Indians instead. Unwittingly, British, not Nazi, oppression had been highlighted!

Concentration camp victims (six million Jews, probably the same number of Slavs and others, as well as the Chinese, Indians and the rest who died through starvation and neglect) are not included in world war casualty figures. Were they, it would show deaths were overwhelmingly civilians who were workers or peasants.

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