A book by the British historian James Matthews has reminded me of some older men I knew when I was a child, as I helped them gather olives, or dig potatoes. The book is called Reluctant Warriors, and looks at a little-treated aspect of the Spanish Civil War: the conscript soldiers who fought in it, on both sides, and were there out of mere obligation - not out of the fanaticism that so many writers, particularly foreign ones, like to attribute to the archetypal Spaniard.
What Matthews says sounds a lot like what I intuited in those old countrymen's talk, or what they were pleased to hammer into my ears, with the tiresome repetition of rustic rhetoric. A few years ago we heard a lot about how, under the Socialist government of Zapatero, we could at last break our timorous silence and say what we thought about the Civil War. Foreign correspondents, again, were particularly fond of this theme. One was almost sorry to dispel their romantic daydream about the dungeons of the Inquisition, and point out that these things had been openly written about since well before the death of Franco, and had never been absent from common conversation.
Those men I listened to were old to the eyes of a child: about the age I am now. The oldest were not much over 60. They spoke of what seemed to me an epoch of fabulous antiquity, but to them it was just the other day, as the Socialist electoral victory of 1982 now seems to me. They had all been conscripts and, as uneducated peasants, had spent the whole war at the front. I remember the terms they used, which I failed to understand: "the baby-bottle draft" and "the bottom-of-the-barrel draft." These terms as Matthews explains refer to the drafts of under-18 and over-40 soldiers that the extenuated Republican army mobilized near the end of the war.
So much has been written about the Civil War, and so little about the conscript's life
Almost all of them said they had fired with their eyes closed. They said this quite naturally, as if it were the only reasonable thing to do. "If the man out there on the other side was someone I had never met, and had never done me any harm, why should I want to kill him?" To a child raised on American war comics, with their martial ethos, these stories seemed bizarre. They also told of how they got together with the men in the enemy trench to play soccer, or to exchange tobacco and rolling paper. In Spain tobacco was grown in Franco territory, rolling paper manufactured in Republican, so that barter was in order. Matthews mentions the indignation such fraternization aroused in the officers on both sides - as had happened before in the trenches of World War I.
Normal people are disinclined to kill or die, unless they have been brutalized by fanaticism. War is noble only for the unhinged, and for glib-talking sofa samurais who send poor men off to the slaughter while they sit comfortably in the rear, finding safe office jobs for their friends. All the verbal rubbish about the two Spains, possessed of the rage of Cain, and fated to drive bayonets into each other's guts, is deflated by the sober arithmetic of Matthews' account. In the summer of 1936 Madrid had one and a half million people, of whom ten thousand volunteered for the war, and five thousand in Barcelona. The figures on the other side are not much different.
So much has been written about the Civil War, and so little about the conscript's life: cold, hunger, amputation, premature death, and afterward the hard times in a devastated land. I remember some of the voices of the conscripts. I hear them, too, in some books - those of Miguel Gila and Pedro Corral, for example. And in this meticulous study by James Matthews, which I see as a tribute to those oldsters of my childhood, who talked while gathering olives. I am glad to hear that a Spanish translation will soon be published, by Alianza.