If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud(12)
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13)
To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
From “Dulce et decorum est”
by Wilfred Owen (1918)
i am indebted to M, who responded to my post on poppy-wearing by reminding us all that behind the habit is real respect owed to the mostly young men who gave everything for a cause: that the real argument is with those in power, who risk little – yet are swift to glorify the most awful of enterprises behind a veneer of rhetoric about gallantry.
But they choose soldiering! Maybe. Though as i discovered many years back, touring the West Country on behalf of the Young Liberals, the realities of local unemployment mean that in many places, young males face a stark choice: army or dole.
I was, still am to some extent, a military geek. That means i have studied military history, which in turn gives me a slightly more jaded academic take on so many encounters billed by later generations as “heroic”.
Because the mark of a good general, always, has always been the “sure bet”. Command, Control, Communication – all with one single aim in mind: to achieve local overwhelming superiority of force, so that battles are not chance encounters, but as one-sided as possible.
I could weep with the sheer pity of WWI.
Take, f’rinstance, the first day…the first hour…of the 1916 Somme offensive. Billed as the Allies big push, they got it wrong. Generals gave the order to advance. Hundreds of thousands of young men got up to go forward – and the best part of 60,000 never made it out from their trench. That’s a Hiroshima or Dresden scale happening…presumably less
remarked by later generations because it was carnage brought about by hundreds of machine guns and not one spectacular bomb.
Now rewind. The same part of France, several centuries earlier: the 100 years war gave us at least one memorable bit of Shakespeare – Henry’s address to his troops before Agincourt – following which a small bedraggled force of Brits took on and defeated the flower of French chivalry.
French knights travelled slow: English archers fired their deadly volleys at a pace of between 10 and 12 arrows a minute. Assuming they didn’t run out of ammunition, then in the time it took a few thousand French knights to narrow the gap between them, they were clobbered with a solid wall of iron: perhaps half a million arrows slamming into them at full pelt.
Stop. Think. Imagine. Then ask how different that was from 20th century slaughter on the Somme.
Rorke’s drift: a handful of Brits holding off thousands of savages. Conveniently, our modern day myth makers forget to explain the difference made by repeating rifles. Or, in other “heroic” colonial conflicts, the advantage of a gatling gun.
The vast majority of heroic victories were anything but. For the most part, they were simple butchery, carried out after overwhelming superoirity had been achieved.
The few exceptions, wherein a small force holding off the massively superior aggressor – the Alamo, Thermopylae, the stand of the Swiss Guard – are troubling, too, in their own way. For whilst we in the West are utterly scathing of young male suicide bombers, we still seem to have a soft spot for young men who took a stand that was inevitably fatal.
Heroism – or just a fancier form of suicide?
No. In case anyone didn’t quite get it: i have no issue whatsoever with remembering those who gave their lives. I do have immense probs with those, of all stripes, who seek to politicise the simple, humble act of poppy-wearing for selfish purposes.