Thursday, August 06, 2009

Harry Patch his epitaph

Harry Patch, veteran of WWI

Thousands of gallons of sentimental outpourings today from the corporate media about the nobility and courage of Harry Patch, the last British Great War veteran from the trenches. The journalists almost, but not quite, manage to quote his feelings about the futility of war. You can hear his words sticking in their throats. His comrade in experience, Henry Allingham, captured the philosophy of the old soldier, distilled from the charnel-house of the trenches into the line, "War is stupid. Nobody wins".

That is the only wisdom that a soldier can bring back from war. Mostly, they do not talk about it, they just shut it away in a locked tin trunk in the attic of their consciousness, knowing that people who have not seen war will not understand their views, and those who have seen war do not need to hear them.

The world does not want to know what the old soldiers know because the near-universal belief that war is inevitable, an irremovable part of political reality.

Three thousand years ago, the necessity of the regular and orderly sacrifice of human beings to propitiate the gods was also a universal belief. Then some began to question it. It began with those like Abraham, or like Kaveh, who had handed over their sons and daughters to the priests, and watched the golden knife slash the neck of their loved ones. They began to question the absolute wisdom of the priests. They began to think independently of the masses and the respected leaders of the time. They began to talk. Many of them would have been arrested for thinking irreligious thoughts, and no doubt many of the sceptics were sacrificed to the gods in their turn. The priests would have scorned them, and castigated them for undermining the very fabric of civilisation. "The gods will kill us if we do not give them the sacrifices that are due to them". Kings would have passed decrees outlawing any critics of human sacrifice.

But in the end, human sensibility defeated the artificial reasoning of the priesthood, and by the 6th century BC most human civilisations had got over the idea of the necessity of human sacrifice. But just as the old gods survived into Christianity redressed as saints, so also human sacrifice survives in the guise of warfare. Instead of ritualised killing of one or two a week, thousands of young men and women are initiated into the orderly rituals of the military parade, and then slaughtered in the chaotic mess of battle. Instead of being immolated on the altar of the nation's god, they are sacrificed on the altar of national security. Instead of obeying the psychotic ideation of some crazed arch-priest, they obey the orders stemming from the projected belief of George W Bush and Tony Blair that the demon Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

It doesn't have to be like this. As Harry and Henry said, wars always end in talks. Real talks can prevent war. Frameworks can be set up that make it more difficult for dictators to emerge. Separatist aspirations, which are behind about one in three of the wars burning in the world at the moment, can be discussed under the aegis and authority of the United Nations.

It will take a long time to break the power of the military industrial complex, just as it took a long time to prise the sacrificial knife out of the hand of the priests. It is a long journey to make, but the longest journey begins with a single step, and that first step is for us to stop giving head room to the belief that war is inevitable.

Let this be the epitaph of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch and all their comrades:

"War is stupid. Nobody wins".

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