Entry from July 28, 2009

The death at the weekend of Harry Patch, the last British veteran — and, according to the Washington Post the last veteran of any nationality — of the trenches of the First World War has seemingly lent credence to his opinion, as reported in his obituary in The Guardian that “politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.” The New York Times obituary reported that, “In an interview with Britain’s ITN television news channel shortly before he died, Mr. Patch was asked if the effort invested by the Allies in World War I was worth the lives that were lost. ‘No, it wasn’t worth one,’ he said.”

A man well over a hundred years old and looking back on events ninety years before isn’t necessarily the best guide to understanding what was going on then, but of course these opinions echo those of the fashionable intellectual world of today and so are the more likely to be festooned with the supposed authority of the last man who was actually there. As an editorial in the Independent of London put it,

To listen to Harry Patch and others was to learn at first hand how that war was experienced, not by strategists, politicians or planners, but by those actually fighting on the ground. And while their reminiscences underlined for many what wars have in common — the rawness, the brutality, the confusion — they also highlighted the truth that each war teaches its own lessons, too: lessons that, if forgotten, have to be expensively learnt all over again.

And yet there is no lack of testimony from “those actually fighting on the ground” in the form of poems and novels and memoirs and histories and films and TV interviews that are still widely read and watched to remind us of the war’s horrors. What we almost never hear are the views of those same strategists, politicians or planners who must have had some reason for what they did besides producing all that senseless slaughter. Wouldn’t it be an idea to hear from them once in a while too? Nor is there universal agreement as to what the lessons of the First World War were. Those who, like Private Patch, suffered in the trenches wouldn’t in any case necessarily have been in the best position to tell us what they were.

What the media mind wants from Harry Patch is really a bit of authoritative backing for the “lessons” that it is always so eager to draw from any contemporary conflict. Thus Mary Riddell in today’s Daily Telegraph writes:

Harry Patch was a soldier who dared to doubt. His death, at 111, severed the link with the Western Front and stilled the last authentic voice of horror. Mr Patch, who had watched his friends and enemies blown away, mourned both in even- handed measure. War, he said, was “organised murder and nothing else”. . . His view of warfare was so off-message, in terms of the official patriotic creed, as to verge on heresy. Almost a century after the First World War, government wisdom still says that democratic settlements are built on young men’s sacrifice. . . Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Almost to his final day, Harry Patch, like many of his generation, questioned the assumption that dying for one’s country is always glorious. Those leaders who paid tribute to him in death should have listened harder, through his long lifetime, to his anthem to the fallen. His real question, more relevant than ever, is whether the Government is a careful enough custodian of human life. Mr Brown says the “tragic human cost” of Afghanistan has not been in vain. We shall see. We shall also learn whether, at the very least, some lessons have been learnt about the futility of war. To that frail hope, Harry Patch might say amen.

But what if democratic settlements are built on young men’s sacrifice and what if dying for one’s country is always glorious? We only have her and Harry Patch’s word for it that these are dubious propositions. Millions of those who fought and died and were at least as well-placed to know as they are took a very different view.

When the late Mr Patch told ITN that the war was not worth a single life, there is one sense in which he was indubitably right. For if it were a simple matter of matching human life against geo-strategic objectives, who would dare say that any of the latter was worth even one of the former? What if it was your life? But war is not a commercial transaction in which you get to decide to buy or not to buy — or even, except in the most rough and ready way, how many deaths this or that objective might be worth. If it were, we would all be pacifists. War is not fought for objectives, or “war aims” in the cant of the World War I pacifists themselves. It is fought for honor. Once that is understood, no war, no individual death is futile — unless, like the pacifists of the media, we have made up our minds to find them so.

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