See, that initial response is almost exactly what pictures like this should evoke, even if it does start apologising for itself in the middle.
Because the point is, surely, that they were just people. You can say it until you’re blue in the face but it never gets any less true that no matter which side those people were on, whether they won or lost, whether they died or came home again, they were all just people, and there is no way to tar them all with the same brush.
You seriously believe that everyone on the side that ends up winning is a good person? A hero? A good egg, an officer and a gentleman, a properly sporting fellow through and through? Every single one? Then you’re deluded and you cannot have any real concept of just how diverse the human race is or how varied the population is, and you certainly can’t have a proper understanding of the sheer scale of the operation - just how many people the thing entails.
Do you honestly believe that everyone on the side that ends up losing, whatever crimes may be attributed to the regime they fought for, is a bad person? A cad and a bounder and a general bastard of the first degree? You think there’s no chance of any of them being anything but rabid fanatical lunatics who’d as soon maul an infant as do a single decent thing for another human being? All of them? Well then there is something seriously the matter with you, and everyone should be very afraid of whoever was responsible for the propaganda that’s brainwashed you so thoroughly.
There will be bad eggs and bastards everywhere, always. Coming from a certain place, fighting for a certain regime, believing in a certain God, being a certain shade of anything, none of that disqualifies you from potentially being a bastard and a bad person. None of that can change who you are if the foundations are rotten already.
There may be idealistic youths with beautiful minds and bright eyes and loving hearts brimming full of the joys of life and harbouring nothing but a burning desire to ease the way of others on one side, and unscrupulous opportunist cynics with a penchant for wifebeating and casual violence and theft on the other, but you won’t be able to identify who’s who just by looking at what uniform they’re wearing; that just isn’t possible, and to believe that it is possible is simply stupid.
No excuses should be made. Human beings should be rational and compassionate and sensible enough not to have to excuse this truth by tacking on things like ‘even though that particular group are meant to have been X’ to expressions of empathy and understanding and a hope that the people being discussed weren’t maimed or slaughtered horribly for a cause they may not even have believed in.
It is ridiculous for any rational human being to have to feel that they need to somehow add these little excuses to what is essentially a beautiful statement of compassion and powerful positive hopes on behalf of people who likely had a bad time of it at some stage either way. It is disgusting that we fixate so much upon the construct of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ that we begin to erase common sense and end up with not simply ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ but ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or even ‘right’ and ‘evil’, because that isn’t the way the world works and it’s not the way people work.
If we are to believe that every individual is unique and shaped by their background and the other individuals with whom they have interacted throughout their lives, and even that there may be genetic aspects to them which could have some impact on who they end up being, then a black-and-white system of blame and the shaming of everyone who had anything at all to do with what we declare to be the ‘losing’ sides is a ludicrous oversimplification and quite frankly a failure as a society to properly categorise and compartmentalise facts from fiction and the results of propaganda on every side.
Why should we, intelligent, sensitive human beings feel as though we need to add qualifiers and excuses to statements that prove our capacity for human understanding and compassion? Why should it have to be ‘in spite of’ anything? Have we truly allowed ourselves to become so thoroughly indoctrinated by those forces which dictate which is the ‘losing’ side and who is the ‘better’? And historians, especially, should recognise the need to rise above this force-fed shaming process that attempts to tell us who is and is not deserving, en masse, of compassion and lenience, because surely we who have studied such matters are painfully aware that history is written by ‘victors’ and that making an ‘enemy’ look bad is almost always the first weapon wielded in a conflict of any kind.
So yes, look at the people, wonder who they were, empathise with the things they must have seen, what they must have gone through - if you can, verify their identities and find out who they actually were, but until you have, do not simply judge them and their character and supposed deeds by lumping them in with this idea of the monstrous ‘losing’ enemy based on what’s attached tot heir lapels and what they’re wearing in general.
It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, it isn’t historically or socially accurate, and it isn’t any more permissable than taking one look at someone with a different skintone and proclaiming them ‘inferior’, or someone with a different sexual orientation and proclaiming them ‘defective’.
No one has the right to judge those whom they do not know or do not know anything of but their belonging to a group of others - any kind of group, and there should be absolutely no reason to have to excuse oneself for feeling positively for someone who may well have been justly deserving of positive feeling.
I’d go so far as to say that this world is so warped and full of hatred and prejudice, that those who can muster positive feeling even for those who are not deserving ought to do so where possible simply to set an example that hatred and blind bias is not always the right thing to fall back upon.
Now look at their faces and think of them like this - fathers, sons, lovers, friends, comrades in arms.
That’s how someone thought of them. That’s likely how someone continued to think of them even when they didn’t come home or came home in pieces or came home damaged for life by their experiences.
Someone loved them, saw them as the individuals they were, knew them as people, as human beings with their own thoughts and personalities, human beings with value.
If you can’t definitely prove that they have forfeited the right to that regard through their actions or the content of their characters, what right do you have to take it from them? What right does anyone have to take that from them, and from the people who might still remember them for who they really were?
P.S: Of course I’m not having a go at you, Jo, I’m just lamenting the way we’re all conditioned to think about this sort of thing.
I merely hanker for a simpler, more tolerant world where the powers that be are called on their precious self-preserving bullshit.