Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why do men go to War?

Here is an interesting photo.  Seven men stare at the camera. A donkey or mule is in the picture - even he stares at the camera. It is an arid landscape.  Some of the men sit on some stone slabs and a great rock rises up behind them. Four of the men are dressed in civilian clothes, but three wear military uniform.  It must be hot, as most of the men have rolled up their sleeves. On the far right the man holds the donkey.  He seems to have a bracelet of some sort on his left wrist. To his left the man wears pinstriped waistcoat and trousers.  His collar is undone, his jacket has been cast off somewhere. I think his right hand rests on the next man's shoulder.  That man forms the central point of the photo. He is the only one who is seated comfortably, one leg crossed over the other, his hands resting in studied casualness across his knee. He is in uniform. To his right stands another uniformed man.  He squints at the sun that he is not used to. He looks hot and his hands are slightly blurred as they moved at the moment the camera clicked.  Perhaps they travelled to his sun soaked eyes. To his left, the only man in pullover. Yet he looks quite cool. At his feet, another uniformed man is seated, elbows on his knees, feet spread apart. The last man doesn't seem bothered by the heat, he still wears his heavy looking suit.  His left hand, which crosses his right, seems to be holding something, but it is hard to see for sure.

Spain 1937

When I turn the photo over I see printed on it the words "Post Card" and "Jerome Ltd.". Someone has written on the card in pencil, and I can vaguely make out the words "first spade, and hearts".  There follow four columns under C, S, D and H.  Each column has a series of numbers.  Perhaps someone has been playing bridge.

I found the photo in a box of my father's old photos. I have no doubt that it was taken in Spain in 1937. At a guess I would say that the three men in uniform are all Irishmen who, for whatever reason, have joined General Franco's forces.  Perhaps the man standing on the far left is Irish too.  But the other three are not in uniform, two of them even clad in suits.  Local lads, I would guess, posing for a photo with the exotic foreigners who have volunteered to fight in another man's war. What is the story behind the photo?  We will never know now, and there is little doubt that all of the men in this photo are now dead.

I know the place and date of the photo because I recognise one of the men, the one in the centre, casually sitting, legs crossed - my father.

Men go to war for many reasons - to avenge a slight, to defend their property and their loved ones, but most often, alas, simply to fulfill their duty. The Spanish Civil War, that raged between 1936 and 1939 and consumed a half a million lives and locked the country in a stifling cage for four decades, was unique however, for it attracted tens of thousands of young idealistic men from all over the world to its carnage. Most, like George Orwell, Arthur Koestler and Laurie Lee, went to Spain to defend some form of socialism.  A few, like my father, volunteered to fight on the other side, the side of the Fascist party, the side of the military rebels, the side of the catholic Church.  Fifty years after the outbreak of the war my father wrote that he had volunteered to fight in order to defend religious freedom. What amazes me is that many of these men had never touched a gun before, had never been to Spain, spoke no Spanish and knew little about the country's history.  Instead they allowed themselves to be convinced by the righteousness of their belief to the extent that they were willing to travel to a distant country, take up a weapon, and kill.

Here is another photo. A group of my father's Christian comrades, together with a catholic priest.  In their minds, and mostly in their hearts, the killing that they had volunteered to do was God's work.

Irish officers and catholic priest in Spain

My father's box of photo, also contains pamphlets from the time.  Most of them contain the words "Holy Crusade".  One of them is called "Ten things you need to know about the Dangers of Atheistic Communism".  The words "Red" and "Evil" appear frequently. The enemy is Godless, so the enemy is an enemy of God.  Having turned against God, they have turned against humanity; having lost God, they have lost their humanity. And so my father took up his gun and went to fight the enemies of God.

At the bottom of my father's box I found a framed Certificate of Service, it looked like some sort of diploma.  When he was alive he never displayed it.  Instead, it lay for years at the bottom of a box.  It contains my father's name: Matt J. Doolan. General Duffy, leader of the right-wing Blueshirts, (of which my father was a member) and leader of the Irish Brigade in Spain, has signed it in the bottom right hand corner.  Above O'Duffy's is another another signature, that of the Generalissimo himself. Just below the entwined Irish and Papal flags  you can read "Crusade in Spain 1936-37". That was the cause for which my father risked his life and, alas, the risked the lives of others.

Certificate of Service for Matt J. Doolan


  1. It is interesting that you ask Why do men go to War of the Spanish Civil War. I would think duty or force (conscription) sends men to war normally, especially when the men are fighting the war NOT on their own soil. So the Turkish farmer-soldiers at Gallipoli had a very different motivation from that of the British, Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli.

    But the Spanish Civil War was the only war I can think of where civilians dragged themselves from across the world, entirely to defend a moral or ideological position. They may well have been deluded, as you say yourself: "Instead they swallowed the propaganda that suited their taste and prejudice, and allowed themselves to be blinded by the righteousness of their belief .."
    But they didn't do it to defend their own land, to serve their own government's orders, to make money as mercenaries or any other motive.

    By the way, two of my cousins left Melbourne to fight in Spain. On the other side :)

  2. Hi Hels,
    I agree, I cannot think of any other war quite like it either. Nicaragua during the 1980s became a cause that the Eurpean left celebrated, and I know of some who volunteered to work there, but not to fight. Bosnia during the mid nineties was sometimes compared to the Spanish Republic in the sense that it was left unsupported by its natural allies (west European democracies) and was badly hit by an arms embargo while the other side had no problem getting arms illegally. Arab jihadists tried to fill the gap - luckily these volunteers failed to turn it into a holy war.

    Interesting about your cousins. I often come across people who have had family fighting on the side of the Republic (at least 43,000 foreigners volunteered). But it is rare that you find people from the other side, like my father. And if you do, they are usually Iriah. Franco had only a couple of thousand foreign volunteers (as opposed to tens of thousands of Italian and German troops) and the largest contingent by far was Irish - making up over 50%. Interestly, I went to a reading recently of Colm McCann, reading from his "Let the Great World Spin". We had a chat afterwards and it turns out that his grandfather fought in the same brigade as my dad.

  3. Gosh, this is such an interesting post! I knew very little about the Spanish civil war but I too find it intriguing that it was one of the last great moral crusades of our times. Then again, enlisting yourself to go off and fight in Iraq or Afganistan doesn't seem that much different really.