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Starvation cheap

Oh good, I find myself with a few spare minutes, to discuss the other big interest of this blog; the political and economic analysis of works of literature. I want to stress at this point that despite appearances, this post has nothing to do with any contemporary event; I just want to have a swipe at Rudyard Kipling for writing:

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;

, a line from his poem “Tommy”, much quoted by people who don’t like it when anyone suggests that the armed forces might be the undereducated, often ill-behaved proleterians that they actually are rather than the noble, disciplined warriors that belligerent sentimentalist civilians would like them to be. I don’t suppose it’s particularly relevant to the sentiments expressed in the poem, but the historical fact of the matter is that Kipling is bullshitting particularly hard in this couplet.

The poem “Tommy” was written in 1892. At that point, the last time when the British Army had been used in any capacity which might be regarded as “guarding the civilian population of the British Isles while they slept” was at Waterloo, some fifty years before Kipling was born. The British fought a lot of wars in the nineteenth century, but they were in general wars of agression fought against people less well-armed or well-fed than themselves, in pursuit of anything worth stealing for the gloary of the Empire, or in an attempt to protect the profits of privately owned British corporations. Furthermore, between Waterloo and the writing of that poem, the British Army had massacred demonstrators with a cavalry charge in 1819 in Manchester, brutalised the Irish peasantry in 1832 and fired on unarmed protestors against road tithes in Wales in 1844, among other instances of domestic political repression. It is for this reason that the British Army was unpopular among the civilian working class during the nineteenth century, as well as for the unruly, drunken and antisocial behaviour of bored British youths which to this day makes groups of soldiers unwelcome in many licensed premises. Kipling was wrong to have suggested that the British Army was doing anything to protect the British population, and Orwell was wrong in his essay on Kipling to attribute the unpopularity of British soldiers to a “mindless pacifism”. The rest of Orwell’s Kipling essay is very good, though, and I think I shall stop there.

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