From James Scott’s recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchism.
A little item in the local newspaper informed me that anarchists from West Germany … had been hauling a huge papier-mache statue from city square to city square in East Germany on the back of a flatbed truck. It was the silhouette of a running man carved into a block of granite. It was called Monument to the Unknown Deserters of Both World Wars (Denkmal an die unbekannten Deserteure der beiden Weltkriege) and bore the legend “This is for the man who refused to kill his fellow man.” It struck me as a magnificent anarchist gesture, this contrarian play on the well-nigh universal theme of the Unknown Soldier: the obscure, “every infantry-man” who fell honorably in battle for his nation’s objectives. Even in Germany, even in very-recently East Germany (celebrated as the “First Socialist State on German Soil”), this gesture was, however, distinctly unwelcome. For no matter how thoroughly progressive Germans may have repudiated the aims of Nazi Germany, they still bore an ungrudging admiration for the loyalty and sacrifice of its devoted soldiers. The Good Soldier Svejk, the Czech antihero who would rather have his sausage and beer on a warm fire than fight for his country, may have been a model of popular resistance for Bertholt Brecht, but for the city fathers of East Germany’s twilight year, this papier-mache mockery was no laughing matter.
… Soon, progressives and anarchists throughout Germany had created dozens of their own municipal monuments to desertion. It was no small thing that an act traditionally associated with cowards and traitors was suddenly held up as honorable and perhaps even worthy of emulation. Small wonder that Germany, which has surely paid a very high price for patriotism in the service of inhuman objectives, would have been among the first to question publicly the value of obedience and to place monuments to deserters in public squares otherwise consecrated to Martin Luther, Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Goethe and Schiller.
I was born in a country which was of two minds about celebrating the fallen. There isn’t any real Irish equivalent of Memorial Day. Over here was a cult of blood sacrifice, in which the dead served as martyrs, exemplars and permanent reminders of the perfidies of Albion. Brian MacNeill, a grand-uncle of mine, fought for the Republicans in Ireland’s Civil War, and was killed under suspicious circumstances by government forces on the slopes of Ben Bulben (he was probably shot in cold blood after surrendering and disarming). When Maria visited the area in the 1990s, she saw his picture along with others on a pub wall, and asked the locals about it – she was told that he had been killed by the British rather than (as was the fact) his own recent comrades-in-arms. After his death, Brian had been assimilated into a story that reinforced the mythology rather than revealing its complexities.
Over there was a pervasive distrust of the military – both because the Irish independence movement got its legs from the anti-conscription movement during World War I, and because people had complex attitudes towards the state and the Irish Army in the wake of the Irish Civil War. It was a bitter little war, where both sides were convinced they were in the right, and both were entirely willing to carry out atrocities for a good cause. We could have done with more deserters.