Thoughts on Nationalism
Mystery Grove’s new release, Mine Were of Trouble, by Peter Kemp, is an exhilarating book. It is also an informative book, helping the amateur and the experienced alike, when it comes to understanding the Spanish Civil War. Both of these dimensions, on their own, make the book worth reading. More importantly, though, the book provokes a number of helpful thoughts.
The first thought that emerged for me while reading Mystery Grove’s new volume is: why does Peter Kemp, a lover of England and its way of life, leave his family to fight on the Nationalist side of the Spanish Civil War? Why would a man sympathetic to nationalism risk his life for those who are not his own? These questions become especially pressing when we see numerous examples of how much he loves his family.
From this thought, I was led to think: how or in what way does it make sense for someone like the Bronze Age Pervert to be a rootless cosmopolitan nationalist, seemingly supporting all sorts of varieties of nationalism in most places they appear? Aren’t nationalists supposed to love one nation?
Further reflection easily justifies both Kemp’s and BAP’s decisions. What is nationalism? It is a people making themselves distinct from other peoples or from other masses of human beings. Nationalism is brought into stark relief when compared to universal ideologies like Communism (and Liberalism as it is understood today) which seek to make the whole world somehow one–which is to say, amorphous, bloblike, and yeasty. Thus, the nationalist fights so that the world may remain in distinct parts. The nationalist wishes for there to be vital wellsprings of particularity. The world profits through there being healthy, vital, and genuinely diverse parts that remain in competition with each other. Such competition does not always necessarily mean war–though it can–but it can also be competition in cultural refinement or art. This is what makes the world serious. Thus, the nationalist finds himself allied with other nationalists in the face of universal yeast ideologies like Communism which threaten the very possibility of there being peoples for which we may care and devote ourselves to. For something to be beautiful it must be rare and distinct from other, uglier things. A universal homogenized world will not be beautiful. It will be like a big brutalist Shell gas station.
I don’t mean to suggest that Peter Kemp had these exact thoughts. But one doesn’t need to think too hard to know that loving one’s own nation is good and that ideologies like Communism are ugly. Let’s turn, then, to the text itself so that Kemp can explain why he fights.
Why Peter Kemp Goes to War
Kemp writes Mine Were of Trouble about 20 years after the war began. Some writers who put together memoirs so long after an experience might be tempted to offer some kind of fancy or grand reason justifying their actions, giving their past self thoughts they would have never had at the time. Admirably, Kemp does not fall prey to such a temptation. Indeed when asked on two different occasions by others why he chooses to go to Spain, he reports that his response was: “To fight” (4, 13).
To his friend, Daughleigh Hills, he provides a more significant justification. Kemp admits that he was much farther Right than the Conservative Association at Cambridge, but says: “My reasons aren’t entirely political” (7). “Above all,” Kemp continues, “it’s a chance to learn to look after myself in difficulty and danger. Up till now I’ve never really had to do anything for myself” (7). Such a statement is scarcely imaginable from the college students of today who use words like “adulting.” Rather than learning how to pay the bills, Kemp wants to reveal to himself who he really is under the harshest conditions.
Kemp provides an additional motive, when he describes the ugliness of Communist actions that were reported before news agencies were infected by propaganda: “mob violence…wherever the Reds took control,” and “Priests and nuns were shot simply because they were priests and nuns, ordinary people murdered because they had a little money or property. It is to fight against that sort of thing that I am going to Spain” (7). My initial impression of this reason was admiration. Many us know about “that sort of thing,” but few of us stand up against it. Surprisingly, Kemp says of his response: “Reviewing them now, I find my words embarrassingly naive; perhaps I really was trying to justify myself, to convince myself for the last that it was the right one” (7). Strikingly, then, Kemp takes his renewed attempt to provide reasons as a kind of embarrassing lack of resoluteness. Perhaps Kemp suddenly realizes that it was not, in the first place, arguments that led him to want to go to war. He must be in possession of, or possessed by, a desire he lacks the words to express.
Peter Kemp’s Honesty
One of the great pleasures of reading this volume is Kemp’s refreshing honesty. Kemp does not portray himself as some kind of based warrior god destroying enemy after enemy. In one of his first major engagements, a defensive action, Kemp says of himself during the height of it: “my hands were shaking as I feverishly loaded and fired my rifle. With a great effort I pulled myself together and began to fire more slowly, checking my sights, resting my elbows on the parapet and taking careful, aimed shots” (61). The warrior must remain psychically integrated in order to succeed; Kemp has to “pull himself together,” indicating he is in separate pieces before, perhaps divided between a mix of unstated passions, not the least of which might be fear.
During a badly handled offensive against a heavily fortified Republican (Communist) position, Kemp “tried to look as though this were the one thing in life I enjoyed, but with dry throat and thumping heart I doubt if I succeeded” (117). It is one thing to die in war–it is another to feel that one’s life is being wasted on something that is impossible to accomplish. Nonetheless Kemp does as much as he can until his unit is called on to retreat. But again, you see that he is divided; his being is not unified in its action, though he is able to compel those parts of him that resist to endure the danger.
I don’t say these things to present Kemp as some kind of wimp–he surely isn’t one. I just mean that, if Kemp is willing to give us a glimpse into these less than flattering moments, it stands to reason that we can trust the rest of his account. It makes us able to completely believe Kemp when he describes his internal state when he is quite sure he is going to die defending a hill he has been told to “hold at all costs.” Kemp says:
“In a few moments–minutes at most–the enemy would close and that would be the end. As I unwound the tape from a grenade and slung it across the clearing I understood that at last I was face to face with death; that there was nothing I could do about it. With that realization there came over me an extraordinary sense of freedom and release from care” (142).
Kemp does not despair, he does not panic, he does not resent his commander for giving a difficult assignment; indeed, he does not even pray. Rather, he resigns himself to his fate, knowing that it almost cannot be otherwise. What does it mean to feel free here? I wonder if Kemp feels completely psychically unified and at home in himself. He may feel that sense of levity that attends a man who has shown to himself, in the face of the harshest teacher, that he is indeed a real man.
I hope in showing a few of these revealing moments that you can get a sense of what kind of man Peter Kemp is. And all this at the age of 19! But there is much more in this powerful yet slender volume. I therefore invite you to join Kemp on his journey. His conversation with Generalissimo Franco, his struggle for life after being grievously injured, and many other exciting moments await the intrepid reader.