Reluctant warriors

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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.