Under my byline

The buttered toast war

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 5 June 2010


Writing this review of three new Nepali novels, I was left wondering what happens to idealism in times of war. In the case of Nepal, in these few books at least, idealism among the Maoist cadres — though triggered by poverty and inequality — where it survived appears to have been the result of a certain amount of brainwashing.

Not so, perhaps, among the volunteers of the International Brigades. These were the foreigners who rushed to Spain to support the left-wing Republicans in the 1936-39 civil war against the nationalists who had tried to seize the government. The nationalists had support from Germany and Italy; the Republicans were helped much more equivocally by other powers, including England and Russia. For the Axis troops this was useful war training; for many of the international volunteers it was a chance to quiet the ghosts of the First World War — and it was clearly the right thing to do, to take the side of ordinary working people and peasants against their feudal masters.

Ultimately, of course, the republicans lost, and General Franco took control of Spain. But despite defeat and an almost comical absence of major achievement, the story of the international volunteers — and that of the undersupplied, untrained native militias of the republic — is one of remarkable idealism and a slightly mad courage.

George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) was there in 1936. “I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles,” he wrote later, “but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” He spent months at the front, which was then a fairly static holding operation. He also saw bitter street fighting in Barcelona between Republican factions. Back at the front he took a bullet through the throat and was invalided out. But before he left the country in 1937 he started writing.

Homage to Catalonia was published the following year. Although the book is about life at a warfront, it is an uncommonly pleasant, level-headed read. This is not the excruciating pulverisation of the French front in the First World War, written up in Robert Graves’s Good-bye to All That and so many other books — it is war by non-professionals, against (mainly) non-professionals. If you want to know what low-tech field warfare is like, and how little war actually has to do with weapons, read this book.

Manning a hilltop position, and facing the enemy on another hilltop, neither side was going anywhere. “[T]he real weapon was not the rifle but the megaphone. Being unable to kill your enemy you shouted at him instead,” Orwell says. The objective was to convince enemy soldiers to desert. One way was to bombard them with Republican slogans urging them not to fight their own class. But sometimes:

The man who did the shouting… was an artist at the job… ‘Buttered toast!’ — you could hear his voice echoing across the lonely valley — ‘We’re just sitting down to buttered toast over here. Lovely slices of buttered toast!’ I do not doubt that, like the rest of us, he had not seen butter for weeks or months past, but in the icy night the news of buttered toast probably set many a Fascist mouth watering. It even made mine water, though I knew he was lying.

This was war fought in a foreign yet human way. But when Málaga fell to the nationalists, the scales fell from Orwell’s eyes. The Republicans had abandoned the townspeople to the enemy; a great many were killed. “It set up in my mind the first vague doubt about this war in which, hitherto,” Orwell writes, “the rights and wrongs had seemed so beautifully simple.”

There are a few parallels with Nepal’s civil war: there, too, the poor and exploited took to weapons to rid themselves of their oppressors. But that’s as far as the idealism goes — in real war it cannot be sustained without some brainwashing.

(The photograph of Republican soldiers at the top of this page was taken by Gerda Taro, possibly the first woman war photographer. She was killed in the war a few months later.)


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