Saturday, March 8, 2008

Grammar and Uniforms

Coming home on the bus late yesterday evening, I found myself sitting in front of a young couple, probably in their early twenties, who were discussing aspects of her job. A writer's ears are always tuned to stray scraps of conversation for what ideas they may spark, and the subject here was grammar. They were clearly well educated to today's standards, but she was having difficulty helping some young children, in what context I don't know, with their writing. She was having to find out what terms like 'verb' and 'noun' meant, topics which had been entirely missing in her own formal English education. Her companion agreed that it was a problem, especially when trying to learn another language.

I didn't register any more of their conversation, because an idea had indeed been sparked for me, looking at education in a wider context.

We learned yesterday that some of our military personnel have been advised not to wear their uniforms in public, for fear of hostile reaction. Now I'm not a militarist and have never been in the armed forces. I was opposed to the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, because I believed that not enough honest effort was put in to achieving peaceful solutions first. The arms lobby and jingoists were allowed their head, and the warning lessons from the past put forward by historians and diplomats were ignored or rejected. The Crusaders Bush and Blair, like their eleventh century predecessors, were getting their instructions directly from their personal gods.

However, there is an important difference between being opposed to war and insulting front-line warriors. These young men and women joined up for varying reasons - some because of family tradition, some because they believed that the defence of their families and country is a noble calling, and some quite simply because it was the only decent job available in our crazy lop-sided economy. And there are probably a few marginal psychopaths who slipped through the selection process as well - I would imagine every fighting force needs a few of those.

Once they joined up, they went through military training and came out of it prepared to do their job of defending their country. It was our Great Leaders who decided that the defence of the country was best achieved by waging war in the Middle East in a way which any historian of the area could have told them was doomed to failure. The soldiers, sailors and airmen (and that includes the valiant Michelle Goodman DFC and the other women in the forces) are doing what they are trained and paid to do, and doing it well. Would that our Great Leaders were doing theirs as well.

We are fortunate in the UK that we have Armed Forces which stay out of politics, unlike countries like Burma and Pakistan, and politicians who are wedded to a form of democracy. However, at some future date we may have a government which lurches to the right and decides to use the army rather than the police to keep the citizenry under control. We would, of course, expect the army to resist such an order, but what if the squaddies were finally disgusted with a population that clearly did not value them?

The lessons are clear - respect and support the members of our armed forces, intervene if we see them being harassed or insulted in public (before they take things into their own hands and flatten the idiots!), then get active at the next election and vote in a set of political representatives in tune with the real world. And to achieve this, we need an educated electorate who really understand what is being done in their names.

It would be good for them to know what verbs and nouns are, but even better to have a grasp of history for the last two thousand years, not in terms of the dates of kings and battles, but in terms of the growth of our many civilizations and the misunderstandings between them which have led to war. A Muslim cleric in Iraq was reported as saying at the time that the American invasion was imminent that 'we must not repeat the history of Andalucia'. I would like to think that all students entering our universities knew what he meant and why.