‘Our Indifference To Ourselves’ – Beyond The ‘Virtue’ Of Self-Sacrifice – Part 1

The name Arnold Ridley will be familiar to many viewers of ‘Dad’s Army’, one of Britain’s best-loved TV comedies, which ran a long time ago (1968-1977) but is still shown on prime time BBC TV.

Ridley played Private Godfrey, the loveable, most doddery member of a Second World War platoon of elderly Home Guard troops tasked with defending a stretch of the British coast ‘from the Novelty Rock Emporium to Stone’s Amusement Arcade’.

Godfrey would typically interrupt preparations to repel Nazi stormtroopers with observations such as, ‘My sister Dolly makes very nice cucumber sandwiches.’ It was lovely, gentle humour, contrasting the fanatical seriousness of total war with the innocence of everyday life.

Unbeknownst to most viewers, although Godfrey seemed the unlikeliest of warriors, the actor who played him had been involved in bitter fighting in both world wars.

In 1915, enlisted into the Somerset Light Infantry, Ridley’s draft was welcomed by the sergeant-major of the third battalion ‘cursing us at length, both individually and collectively’ (Quoted, Nicolas Ridley, ‘Godfrey’s Ghost – From Father to Son,’ Mogzilla Life, 2009, p.66). The officer ended on a ‘cheering note’ that Ridley remembered, word for word, for the rest of his life:

‘Don’t none of you think you’re going to see your homes and mothers and dads no more, ‘cause you ain’t. We sent out a draft to our First Battalion at Wipers [Ypres, France] three weeks ago and where are they now? I’ll tell yer – they’re all bleeding well dead! And that’s where you buggers will be in a couple o’ months time – all bleeding well dead!’ (p.66)

If this was sadistic, it was also accurate. Ridley described what followed:

‘To anyone of sense and imagination it was quite clear that the vital question wasn’t if I get killed but when I get killed… Battalions were wiped out, not once, but time after time. What happened to survivors? Did they go home in glory? Not a bit of it. The best they could expect was that they might get a week or so out of the line, while the battalion was being brought up to strength again with drafts of fresh troops, before going back to yet another “over the top”. One couldn’t expect to be a survivor each and every time. It didn’t make sense. One’s only hope was that one might receive a “blighty one”, and that is why the war correspondents could rightly describe the wounded as being so cheerful.’ (p.68)

Within days of arriving at the front, Ridley was wounded in the back by shrapnel. Having recovered, he was then shot through the thigh. He received his ‘blighty one’ in September 1916 at the apocalyptic Battle of the Somme, a slaughter that cost 415,000 British casualties alone. In murderous, hand-to-hand trench fighting, Ridley’s left hand and arm were all but severed by a German bayonet. He was also bayoneted in the groin before being knocked unconscious by a rifle butt. His son, Nicolas Ridley, explained how his father had barely survived:

‘He woke to the sound of appalling screaming. He found himself in a shell-hole with the terrible shreds of a man who had been torn apart by shrapnel. The man – the source of the screaming – must have carried my father, unconscious, to safety. My father, lying on the other side of the shell-hole, had been sheltered from the later burst.’ (p.69)

When a brutal surgeon general inspecting the ruined hand asked if the wound had been self-inflicted, Ridley’s sarcastic reply cost him dear: instead of being allowed to return to civilian life he was sent to a freezing command depot in Ireland where ‘rations were at near-starvation level’ and physical treatment was ‘conducted by sadistic column-dodging instructors from Aldershot’. (p.71) Conditions were so bad that Ridley felt he had been sent there to die, ‘as many did’ (p.71). He was later handed a white feather by a woman who assumed he was a ‘coward’ shirking combat. He took the feather with his undamaged hand without a word and walked away.

Ridley described the aftermath:

‘I suffered badly from nightmares between the wars. They always took the same form. Somehow or other my discharge had gone wrong and I was back in the army again. Not amidst shot, shell, bayonet and other horrors, but merely back in France awaiting orders to go up to the front line once more.’ (p.73)

It was a dream that wouldn’t leave him and, on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Ridley wrote:

‘My dream had caught up with me. My real and conscious life was now my nightmare – a nightmare from which I had no awakening.’ (p.73)

In May 1940, while fighting in France, Ridley was caught up in the collapse of allied forces at the Battle of Boulogne, returning to Britain on the very last British ship to escape. Ridley never discussed these experiences:

‘To recount the events of this time I would have to relive them. I have no intention of reliving them. I am too afraid.’ (p.73)

An idea of what he went through can be gleaned from the fact that Royal Navy ships had to shoot their way in and out of Boulogne harbour to pick up wounded troops while under German tank, artillery and air attacks.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, on a later visit to London, Ridley was knocked unconscious by the blast from an exploding V1 flying bomb.

Quite apart from his physical and mental wounds, the ongoing cruelty and humiliation Ridley experienced in the army are shocking and painful to read. It seems almost impossible to believe that this was the same individual who played gentle Godfrey to such comic perfection.

‘Everybody Had Gone Mad’ – The ‘Glorious Adventure’

Ridley’s story is a stark reminder of the gulf that separates the acclaimed glory of ‘service’, ‘duty’ and self-sacrifice from the reality. It seems that Ridley started out almost as innocent and naïve as the character he played:

‘At midnight on Bank Holiday, August 4th 1914, I was one of the cheering young men in Bath who welcomed the declaration of war with the utmost enthusiasm. Youth regarded war as a glorious adventure and I don’t suppose many of them realised that they were heralding their own deaths… Everybody had gone mad, myself included.’ (p.65)

An obvious question arises: why would these cheering young men race to sign up for a ‘glorious adventure’ that was so clearly not in their own self-interests? Even if they couldn’t always imagine the full scale of the inferno to come, war clearly meant they would be torn from homes, jobs, loved ones, families and friends; that they would have to violently kill and be killed.

Tolstoy, who had also experienced the grim reality of war first-hand, explained this ‘enthusiasm’ for war with typical honesty:

‘From infancy, by every possible means – class books, church services, sermons, speeches, books, papers, songs, poetry, monuments – the people is stupefied in one direction’ – militant patriotism. (Tolstoy, ‘Writings On Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence,’ New Society, 1987, p.95)

The ‘enthusiasm’, then, is crudely manufactured in a way that hides the reality:

‘before they look round, there will be no more admirals, presidents, or flags, or music; but only a damp and empty field of battle, cold, hunger, and pain; before them a murderous enemy; behind, relentless officers preventing their escape; blood, wounds, putrefying bodies, and senseless, unnecessary death’.

The historian Howard Zinn offered this wonderfully mind-expanding observation:

‘It seems to me it only takes a little bit of thought to realise that if wars came out of human nature, out of some spontaneous urge to kill, then why is it that governments have to go to such tremendous lengths to mobilise populations to go to war? It seems too obvious doesn’t it? They really have to work at it. They have to dredge up an enormous number of reasons. They have to inundate the airwaves with these reasons. They have to bombard people with slogans and statements and then, in case people aren’t really persuaded, they have to threaten them.’ (Howard Zinn, ‘Power, History and Warfare’, Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, No.8, 1991, p.4)

Human culture has been celebrating self-sacrifice for millennia. The Roman poet, Horace, most famously declared:

‘Dulcē et decōrum est prō patriā mōrī.’ (‘It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland.’)

A monument to a German First World War infantry regiment reads:

‘Germany must live even if we must die.’

Adolf Hitler, of course, considered self-sacrifice the key to unleashing the power of the ‘national will’:

‘Ten million free Germans, ready to perish so that their country may live, are more potent than 50 million whose will power is paralysed…’

Ten million people ‘ready to perish’ – for what? For the ‘national interest’? As Plato said:

‘All societies we know of are governed by the selfish interests of the ruling class or classes.’

The great American wit Ambrose Bierce described politics as ‘the conduct of public affairs for private advantage’. (Bierce, ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’, Arthur F. Bird, 1906, e-book version, p.93)

In the 1930s, the anarchist writer Rudolf Rocker poured scorn on the idea of ‘the national interest’:

‘We speak of national interests, national capital, national spheres of interest, national honour, and national spirit; but we forget that behind all this there are hidden merely the selfish interests of power-loving politicians and money-loving business men for whom the nation is a convenient cover to hide their personal greed and their schemes for political power from the eyes of the world.’ (Rocker, ‘Culture and Nationalism’, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.253)

After all, as Rocker wrote, and as we know only too well today:

‘The love of his own nation has never yet prevented the entrepreneur from using foreign labour if it was cheaper and made more profit for him. Whether his own people are thereby injured does not concern him in the least; the personal profit is the deciding factor in such a case, and so-called national interests are only considered when not in conflict with personal ones.’ (p.261)

Over the last year, we have seen how NHS doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers have been expected to risk their lives ‘serving’ their patients and their country in the face of the global pandemic. They have risked all for the ‘national interest’ without even the meagre reward of a pay rise. Last September, hundreds of nurses and healthcare workers marched through London to remember the 640 healthcare workers who had thus far died of COVID-19 after nurses were left out of a government pay rise thanking 900,000 public sector workers for their contributions during the coronavirus outbreak.

The glorification of self-sacrifice, duty, service – the fundamental belief that it is heroic, inspiring, even (ironically) life-affirming to subordinate ourselves to a Higher Cause – is a perennial theme.

Gandhi agreed with Hitler on the power of self-sacrifice, but insisted on non-violence:

‘Self-sacrifice of one innocent man is a million times more potent than the sacrifice of [a] million men who die in the act of killing others.’ (Quoted, Jack Homer, ed., ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Gandhi’, Dover Publications, 2005, p.90)

Gandhi said:

‘A satyagrahi [non-violent resister] must always be ready to die with a smile on his face, without retaliation and without rancour in his heart.’ (p.90)

Less dramatically, in 1947, young Queen Elizabeth II said:

‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.’

Confusingly, ‘Her Majesty’ was to ‘serve’ us, although we were also to ‘serve’ her, a monarch with zero democratic accountability. Her words were delivered less than two years after 384,000 British troops had ostensibly died fighting for freedom against Nazi totalitarianism, rather than for medieval-style autocracy.

In his most famous line from his most famous speech, John F. Kennedy commanded in his inaugural address:

‘And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.’ (‘The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches’, Brian MacArthur, ed., Penguin, 1996, p.486)

Praise for self-sacrifice is also a standard theme at the progressive left of the political spectrum. When asked, ‘who are your heroes?… who do you really admire when it comes to activism?’, Noam Chomsky replied:

‘Well, my heroes are people who were working with S.N.C.C. [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a Civil Rights Movement organization] in the [US] South – people who day after day faced very harsh conditions and suffered badly, some of them were even killed. They’ll never enter into history, but I knew some of them, I saw some of them – they’re heroes. Draft resisters during the Vietnam War I think are heroes. Plenty of people in the Third World are heroes: if you ever have the chance to go to a place where people are really struggling – like the West Bank, Nicaragua, Laos – there’s an awful lot of heroism, just an awful lot of heroism.’ (Chomsky, ‘Understanding Power’, Peter R. Mitchell and John Shoeffel eds., Vintage Books, 2003, p.94)

Chomsky made the same point in replying to the question, ‘Who are some people today that you admire and that you learn from?’:

‘Take my friend Ruben Zamora, for example, who is now with tremendous courage expressing his willingness to go back to the terror state that the United States has established in El Salvador, facing a high likelihood of assassination… I find that pretty inspiring, and I could think of numerous other examples. I know that’s not the question you’re asking, but I’m purposely evading it. I know there are people who have said smart things, which is fine, it’s not hard to say smart things.’ (p.159)

Chomsky, in other words, is not overly impressed by intellectuals – real heroes put their lives on the line fighting tyranny and injustice. He described his own death-defying experience of protesting the Vietnam war at an outdoor rally in Boston in 1965:

‘There must have been 200-300 police, who we were very happy to see, I should say, because they kept us from getting murdered. The crowd was extremely hostile… They were ready to kill you.’ (Chomsky and Barsamian, ‘Chronicles of Dissent’, AK Press, 1992, p.249)

Chomsky’s respect for self-sacrifice is part of a wider ethic of self-denial and self-abnegation. He has often commented that his intense activism has meant foregoing many personal pleasures – he finds time to watch a baseball game, or a movie, once a year, and so on.

In similar vein, Chomsky dismisses questions about his personal life and feelings as irrelevant. Asked about an early childhood experience that encouraged him to back the underdog (he says he witnessed an act of bullying but failed to stand up for the victim), he responded:

‘That was a personal thing for me, I don’t know why it should interest anyone.’ (Chomsky and Barsamian, ‘Chronicles of Dissent’, p.238)

When asked how he can discuss such depressing political material year after year without burning out, he replied:

‘I could talk to you about my personal reactions, but again I don’t see why they should interest anyone.’ (Chomsky and Barsamian, p.248)

His point is that his (and by implication, our) problems are so miniscule compared to those suffered by the victims of power he is discussing that time spent on his own ‘personal’ issues is an ugly indulgence. He has little time for the recurring question from privileged Westerners, ‘What can I do?’, which he views as an evasion. The question is never heard, he says, from people struggling for survival in places like Haiti and Gaza. In reality, we all know perfectly well what ‘doing something’ means:

‘You want to do something, you’re going to have to be dedicated, committed, at it day after day. You know exactly what it is: it’s educational programs, it’s organizing, it’s activism. That’s the way things change. You want something that’s going to be a magic key that will enable you to go back to watching television tomorrow? It’s not there.’ (Chomsky, ‘Collateral Damage, an Interview with David Barsamian’, Z Magazine, July/August, 2003)

Pampered Westerners, then, ask the question because they want quick fixes that will allow them to return to the TV and a life of comfortable self-concern. There is no ‘magic key’, just a Chomskyan equivalent of Churchill’s ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’.  

It really is striking, then, that so many voices across the political spectrum promote the idea that we should subordinate our petty personal concerns, and if necessary our lives, to a Higher Cause.

But is greater self-sacrifice actually the answer? Is our real problem indifference to others, or indifference to ourselves?

Part 2 is now available here.

David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org