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Hudson Martin
Hudson Martin

What You Need to Know About Strike Force Heroes 3



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Somewhat paradoxically, wartime hunger strikers are often adept at drawing public attention to unacceptable institutional conditions. While imprisoned, politicised prisoners can do little to challenge the government that has incarcerated them. But wars end and opportunities arise to speak out. This was certainly the case for First World War conscientious objectors. In the 1920s, exposure to disproportionate violence and suffering encouraged many of them to campaign for prison reform. Some brought considerable change to the prison system. Deaths from starvation and brutal force-feedings buttressed the broader claim that early twentieth-century prisons were beset with problems; that the disciplinary functions of these sites were excessive and unjust. Prisons, by their very nature, are enigmatic sites. The disciplinary regimes enacted within them on the bodies of prisoners are mostly hidden from public view. However, politicised prisoners are often skilled at gathering support for prisoner welfare concerns. Upon release, they prove remarkably vocal about their institutional experiences. As Martin J. Weiner suggests, politicised prisoners tend to feel extremely alienated from authority and are particularly sensitive to mistreatment. Many are highly articulate. 2 They are able to convey details of prison life in a way that the majority of convict prisoners cannot. Many are educated and communicate their memories eloquently and fluently. Through their writings and campaigning, they bring to light conditions that normally remain hidden from public view. In turn, tales of excessive suffering jar with public sensitivities towards pain and torture, sparking debate about governmental support of dismal institutional conditions, unethical behaviour, and inhumane treatment. The rational political logic of protecting national security can certainly lend support to mass internment or wartime imprisonment, as well as the claim that hunger strikers inflict death upon themselves. But, the emotional economies of western societies provide a counterbalance. Suffering, after all, is something which the barbaric enemy supposedly enacts. It holds no place in a society battling to maintain its values of humanity and decency. When investigating the relationship between governments and hunger strikers, historians have regularly outlined the complexities of political manoeuvrings. 3 However hunger strikes have rarely been contextualised in relation to ideas about the body, pain, and emotions. A distinct emotional script exists in the public sphere that counters the rational logic adopted by governments in tackling hunger strikes at times of crisis, a world of feeling that condemns actions such as force-feeding that seem to contradict western sensibilities on suffering. 4


During wartime, politicised prisoners often pursue activities that seem to threaten the integrity of the state. They find themselves exposed to imprisonment and a relative lack of public sympathy in their plight. A need to protect national security interests justifies particularly brutal methods of force-feeding or, in some instances, a willingness to let starvation run its natural course. Censorship and appeals made to the over-riding concern of securing military victory ensure that the fate of politicised hunger strikers remains mostly hidden from public view. Nonetheless, politicised prisoners are often adept at drawing attention to the harsh conditions in which they reside, either through their supportive political network or through their own subsequent writings. This produces a mixed emotional response. While public support for conscientious objection or IRA activity was minimal in the contexts discussed in this chapter, the idea that suffering was being inflicted upon individuals forced to live in inhumane conditions clashed with public sensibilities on how humans should be treated. The prisoners had suffered enough by being isolated from society. Was it really necessary to beat, punish, and brutally force-feed them? In many ways, wartime hunger strikers are relatively powerless in comparison to their peacetime counter-parts. They feel the weight of sovereign power working against them due to the additional powers conferred on wartime governments. But paradoxically, it is these groups of hunger strikers that historically made the most inroads into campaigning for institutional reform. The harsh treatment meted out to them remained vivid in their memories, encouraging participation in prisoner welfare movements. Perhaps the greatest achievements of the hunger strikers analysed in this chapter was their ability to raise a broader set of questions about the milieu of prison life, even if their disparate political aspirations ultimately failed.


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