Diary of a War Hero

England 1939:

I ‘member, the radio declared war in the morning. In the afternoon I went to see a guy about some smokes. All I’d ever heard from the fellas that had made it back from the last one was that the market for smokes was big over there, once things got going. I’d thought it was smart. I packed my haul up safe in a case, I gave ma a kiss on her cheek, and I signed up.

France 1940:

France was a pile of shite, no matter how you dressed it. We should have known, one look at the frozen faces of our pas, the empty space our lads should have filled, they said it all. What were we expecting, really? That eleven years would have turned graves to paradise? Sure, the ditches had been filled, grass had grown, wire had rusted to nothin’, but the tears remained. Wouldn’t have to dig far to find the bloodstains from the last war. I dunno what the hell the props guys were spouting back home, to get ‘em signing up for this, not with the state we were sending their brothers back in, but the steady stream kept coming. Every day a new face to pretend you didn’t see. It was easier that way. Kept your thoughts down on your boots and your mess and kept right on marching, one foot before the other, ’til it was time to stop. The mud sucked at your boots as the trigger sapped your soul, yet still you marched. Fought. Died. And marched again. An endless haze of brown, and grey, and red.

Until we couldn’t march anymore. Bloody Jerrys broke through Belgium, slipped the French bastards and came right for us. Caught us with our pants around our ankles, so to speak. There we were, marching on one minute, all soldier-like, an’ the next we’re burning our own tanks, trucks, food, shooting horses, fleeing like rats before the flood. It was messy. Real messy. Later, they’d try an’ call me a war hero when I lay in the dirt like a worm. Did you know there was a medal for that? Honoured for letting others die in my place. I asked them to. And they, brave boys, went willingly.

“Operation Dynamo”:

Here we gallant survivors were, cowering in marshland like rats, while they, the martyrs, stood tall and defiant, marching at the enemy. We were not brave men. Not as we brought hell to the town we cowered beneath, waiting restlessly for our turn to bail, to get the hell out of this blasted pit of a country. Laid in whatever dank cellar we had stumbled upon in the ringing haze, eyes screwed tight shut. With every rumbling impact, every shake of the walls, the opera of death played out across my lids, the face of a child blown in, the polished fingers of a woman in flight, a blue-eyed man-boy drowning in a soup of mud and blood. Opening ‘em did no good either, they were always there, one endless, accusing stare. Whose war was this, really? Not theirs, surely. What on earth had they done to deserve this? I lay in my makeshift cot, unable to find sleep to the lullaby offered by the orchestra of war, and turned that final battered pack of smokes in trembling hands. It was ironic, here I was, unable to bear parting with them, unable to bear smoking ‘em. Unable to do anything with em really, useless bastards, ‘cept stare at them laying there, nine pretty white coffins in two neat rows, mindlessly playing my grime-caked nails across their pearly tops, trying and failing to catch a breath.

Fat lot of good those smokes did me, fed to the sea. If only fish smoked.

_____________

‘So long as the English tongue survives, the word Dunkirk will be spoken with reverence. In that harbour, such a hell on earth as never blazed before, at the end of a lost battle, the rags and blemishes that had hidden the soul of democracy fell away. There, beaten but unconquered, in shining splendour, she faced the enemy, this shining thing in the souls of free men, which Hitler cannot command. It is in the great tradition of democracy. It is a future. It is victory.’

New York Times, 1 June 1940

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The Chickens (An exercise in transposing Orwell’s 1984)

  First they came for the chickens

and I did not speak out – because I was not a chicken…’

 

In the beginning they were as free as chickens could be. Each morning, copious amounts of grain were scattered about the decrepit concrete yard and they would be free to peck it up at their convenience. They’d emerge from the henhouse as soon as a farmhand slid open the door, their first goal to seek out a patch of dust in which to immerse their tousled feathers. They lived in blissful ignorance, unaware of the feelings of resentment that emanated from the other animals as they toiled through mindless drudgery, or were led across the yard for the last time, en-route to the abattoir.

Mr. Frederick had never liked the chickens. They got under his feet as he went about his chores and their grain was so expensive, he was barely breaking even. Egg farming just wasn’t profitable any more. The other animals’ jealousy was hindering the production of the farm. Something had to be done, and fast.

The door to the henhouse slid up, and as usual the chickens shuffled sleepily down the ramp, only to be confronted by a fence. It was not a particularly high fence but, since Mr. Frederick had clipped their wings overnight, it was high enough. The ground was conspicuously absent of grain, and the chickens scratched aimlessly at the cracked concrete. Eventually, when the sun was sinking over the horizon and the bellies of the chickens were protesting their emptiness to the world, Mr. Frederick appeared with a small bucket of grain, grain that was crawling with weevils and green with mould. The chickens, starving as they were, fell upon the poor quality food, pecking and scratching each other in their haste. The sun winked one last time before disappearing behind the hills as Gobbler, one of Mr. Frederick’s favourite Rottweilers, crept into the barn where the majority of the farm’s animals slept.

“I suppose all of you have noticed the predicament of the chickens,” he said. “Do not feel sympathy. The chickens have been stealing food from your mouths.” The other animals bayed their agreement. “All Mr. Frederick is doing is moving the chickens into a separate area so they no longer hinder our production rate, and reducing their expenses.” With that, Gobbler left the barn and returned to guard the farmhouse door. The next morning, the animals went about their business without a thought for the plight of the chickens. After all, Gobbler had made it all seem quite reasonable.

After a week had passed, the chickens’ emaciated forms were a cause for concern. The other animals found it difficult to remain unperturbed by such a sight, and were often distracted in their work. The eggs the chickens produced were poor, and some had stopped laying altogether.

One dismally damp afternoon, Mr. Frederick and his farmhands converged on the chicken enclosure, dressed in long rubber gloves and wellington boots. Each grabbed two chickens roughly by the yellow stalks that were once healthy legs. They swung them by their sides as they strode towards an unused barn, one that the farmhands had been busily working on throughout the week. As they entered the gloomy depths of the building, thunder rolled and lightning flashed, illuminating, for a mere moment, the glistening metal of the blades arrayed before them and the stack of compact chicken-wire cages. Through a door left ajar, the chickens glimpsed a small room, empty but for a stump of wood that held a freshly-sharpened axe. Coldly and clinically, the men de-beaked the chickens, snapped a numbered ring of plastic around their left legs, and then stuffed them three to a cage.

Gobbler again visited the other animals, this time to inform them that Mr. Frederick had discovered that the chickens were able to provide a vital service, one that would give them an edge over Foxwood and Manor Farm, and they had been moved to the barn to allow them to work uninterrupted.

With each day that passed, the chickens were force-fed large quantities of grain. Some chickens developed infections in the wounds where their beaks had been, others developed problems with their legs from standing in their own excrement. Never were the chickens let out, except to be carried into the room with the axe. Carried to their deaths.

 

‘First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew…’

-Pastor Martin Niemöller