Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Who is controlling history?

It has been widely reported in the news today that all 360 soldiers executed for cowardice or desertion in WWI are to receive posthumous-pardons. The trigger for this has been the case of Private Harry Farr who refused to go back to the front after the Battle of Somme and was shot for "misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice".

Now, certainly it appears that in the case of Private Farr there was medical evidence presented at the time that suggested he was suffering from shell shock, so arguably his case can be reviewed. However, according to the Defence Secretary Des Browne, a group pardon is the best solution even though "the evidence just doesn’t exist to assess all the cases individually". The primary driver for this is apparently the need to end the "decades of shame" for the families of these men.

I may be going out on a limb here and being somewhat controversial, but what exactly is the point? After all, these men were shot for cowardice and desertion within the historical context of the time. Also, the fact that we will be arbitrarily pardoning all men whilst acknowledging we have no evidence to suggest that in all cases the justification for execution was not accurate, we are, are we not, altering history in a way that sets a dangerous precedent?

The claim that families have suffered "shame" is an emotional plea that seems to me to not stand up to scrutiny in today's world either. After all, it is well known how utterly horrendous WWI was for the men who took part in it. The idea that people look down on the second and third generation of those shot for cowardice is nonsense, most would be honest and say "I don't blame him for not wanting to walk across no-mans land".

This issue may though raise a wider question. After all, if we can give out posthumous-pardons on the basis of appeals to emotional consideration, would not the same argument be valid for posthumous-convictions? Is not the 40 year old man abused as a child justified in demanding that his long-dead abuser be posthumous-convicted for his crimes? That seems to be the logical conclusion of the rather dangerous legal precedent the Government is setting.

To paraphrase Orwell, he who controls the past, controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past. Should we really be playing with history in this way?

No comments: