Wednesday, November 15, 2006

If Ye Break Faith

This past Saturday, I listened yet again to In Flanders Fields at eleven o'clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It is a poem which I have heard, read and taught for over fifty years. And still, after all that time, I choke up when I get to the last three lines:

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

"We are the Dead", John McCrae wrote, unable to foresee his own fate, while admonishing us not to forget his and his contemporaries' sacrifice. But, it seems to me, if we are not to break faith with the dead, there are a few things which we need to remember about the nature of War and its consequences.

First, all wars are cloaked in soaring rhetoric. McCrae's war was the "war to end all wars." The American Civil War was fought to ensure that "government of the people, by the people and for the people [should] not perish." The French Revolution was all about, "liberty, equality and fraternity." However, as Wilfred Owen -- McCrae's poetic ally -- recognized, whatever the slogan, it is an "old lie."

Second, it is a lie because wars are not fought for ideals; they are fought for strategic resources. Land (living space, Hitler called it), opium, oil -- the list is almost endless. But, however long the list, these resources are presented to the public as the equivalent of oxygen. They are the things upon which the survival of the combatants depend. Take them away and we -- however "we" define ourselves -- will cease to exist.

Third, those who lead the charge on both sides suffer from terminal certitude. They are incapable of performing that "trick" which Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, calls "getting inside a man's skin and walking around in it." Once one looks at the world through the eyes of one's enemy, it is impoosible to demonize him. We can only kill those we truly don't understand.

And, finally, most wars have something to do with revenge. World War II had a lot to do with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, just as present conditions in Iraq have much to do with centuries old rivalries between Sunnis and Shias. On the other side of the ledger, much of the suceess of Western Europe can be traced to the path the Allies pursued after The Second World War and the implementation of the Marshall Plan.

There is a moral imperative every November 11th to remember those who, in Lincoln's words, gave "the last full measure of devotion." But we do the dead no honour if we forget the nature of war itself. It is, as William Tecumseh Sherman -- one of Lincoln's generals -- said, "hell." Anybody who tries to sell it as anything else is selling snake oil.

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