“… tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death”
The quote is from Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the light brigade”. It says that, though the soldiers knew someone had made a mistake, their role was not to comment or to question but to obey and give up their life. They charged into the ‘valley of death’, the poem narrates a true story from the Crimean War (from nearly a couple of centuries ago, not the recent Crimean crisis).
Can so few lines encapsulate so aptly the situation of so many in Eritrea today? We normally may admire a valiant self-sacrificial charge in extreme situations where the whole endeavour might be lost otherwise. Isn’t it true of humans that we’re quick to praise sacrifice, yet are hard pressed to be the sacrificial offering ourselves? I once heard it said that “everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die”. Let not these words be misconstrued as a rally to sacrificial fervour, I wish only to prompt the reader into truly considering what sacrifice means. In this vein, let me ask you, is it sacrifice and worthy of praise if you have no choice in the matter?
Presumably, one who volunteered for a cause and gave their life for it is usually seen as a hero or at least remembered in grateful terms (here I’m thinking of a just cause, whatever that may philosophically be). This initiative for the sacrifice might come from a proxy, such as a commander. To have something tangible in mind, so to speak, let us consider those icons of sacrifice during the battle for Massawa, who charged the bridge and gave up their lives so that the offensive may be successful. The story goes they took the initiative, but if it had come from a commander that would be an instance of a proxy initiative because, I think it’s safe to assume, they volunteered to fight to the death for freedom by joining the liberation movement and would take whatever position they would be assigned. But what if they hadn’t? What if they had been enlisted by force and then ordered to charge the bridge? In fact, the reality of the battle was such that if not them directly, their platoon or company was probably ordered to capture the position. Strategically that still might have been a sound judgement by a commander, and assuming unmotivated soldiers still managed to achieve the same result, would they be seen as heroes?
It is important to understand that I am not considering how each of us might feel about the situation or the reverence we might endow on their memory. I am exploring how we think of the role someone inhabits. I am asking you to think about this with me: the people would be the same and with the same knowledge that they will die, the action would be the same and the outcome would be the same. However, in one scenario the soldiers are in the role of the stereotypical hero, in the other they are obedient, even if fully aware, pawns. Here I shall not go deeper into the consideration of the value and dignity, or lack thereof, of blind obedience, save to share the example of Kazou Ishiguro’s character of Stevens from his 1989 book ‘The Remains of the Day’: Stevens is a proud butler who continues to obey even when it slowly becomes apparent that his employer is a Nazi sympathiser, or when he blindly fires colleagues for being Jews, or misses his father’s funeral because being perfect at his job requires him to be at work rather than burying his father. Stevens is even apologetic, in the excusing sense, of his master. Stevens is a character we feel sorry for, and the book is about regret: perhaps he should’ve questioned the role he inhabited and what it required of him.
Steven’s character helps us think of obedience, and the slow realisation of the un-praiseworthiness of the action someone might be asked, or demanded, to do. Combine that with the awareness of someone who didn’t volunteer to perform the action or inhabit the role. Enter the Eritrean population, reluctant butlers… though reluctant brigade might be more apt. Eritrea is heavily militarised, almost all of its citizens are conscripts. Unlike the individuals who with their tanks drove into their certain death for a cause however, today’s Eritrean conscripts are assigned the role of the sacrificial pawn. This sacrifice might not be, although it often is, of blood but of time and life spent in servitude and deadly poverty. The dark brigade knows there’s nothing but destruction ahead, it knows those who made the decision of going this route have made a vicious mistake (‘blunder’ seems too innocent, whereas innocence here does not apply), yet this militarised population keeps going along, obeying. I call it the dark brigade. Even if in Tennyson’s poem ‘light’ refers to the mobility of the unit, I am using ‘dark’ in the racial sense. Eritreans are racialised as ‘black’ because of our dark skin and African-ness and this plays a not insignificant role in our current predicament. For although we may find those who join us in voicing our grief, the assigned race and geographical position still plays an important factor in decisions taken by those who stand to profit from our continued oppressive militarisation.
The dark brigade has by now realised and knows the sinister nature of those it is made to serve, and it’s not made to charge but rather to march along in any way and direction it is told to, even in perpetual servitude. But must it continue to obey? Once the narrative of heroism’s sheen is exposed to be but an old tactic to blind the people into submission, once the role is understood and the purpose unveiled… does the dark brigade continue to march into its valley of death?