The happy soldier

Celebration of the secular nation state, with fireworks &c, helps one remember what it is good for — fighting wars, mostly. And so on the eve of Dominion Day, wandering idly through a flea market, I was pleased to find, in mint condition, the first edition of a fine book on war; for one dollar. True, I already had a copy, but I’m of the Scottish genetic persuasion, and cannot resist a bargain. I’m sure I could flip it to a dealer for two dollars, just like that. Maybe three. Or read both copies at once, to get the effect in stereo.

The book is Private Army, by Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Peniakoff, DSO, MC, a.k.a. “Popski,” published 1950. The man was a very British Russian Jew, from Belgium, quietly making his fortune from sugar refining in Egypt when War came along. The unit he assembled — a “demolition squadron” or raiding party — was called the “PPA” (for “Popski’s Private Army”). The whole merry story of their works, chasing Rommel across North Africa, hitting his fuel dumps and so forth; then finding further German weaknesses in a sprint up the spine of Italy — can probably be found on the Internet somewhere. Details, details, for another day. But for today, they are the first three paragraphs of this delicious memoir that I would call to gentle reader’s attention:

“This is the story of what happened to me in my middle age between the beginning of 1940 and the end of 1945. Up to the times I am writing about I had found little contentment, and I believe that my contemporaries had the same sterile experience; but during these five years every moment was consciously happy. …

“My tale is of war and hard work and enterprises, sometimes stirring but more often ludicrous; of sudden reversals of fortune; of people in high places who were not ruled by convention and others who were; of lowly men from foreign nations whose devotion to our cause exceeded our own; of bloodshed and violence, but more of cunning and deceit and high spirits and the pleasant cudgelling of brains and then again more hard work; above all of friendship.

“Only to the fools among the men of my generation will the realization come as a surprise that we liked war.”

The rest is of a piece, and Popski’s joyful outlook is everywhere apparent. On losing a few jeeps, for instance, despite a pang for all the work that had gone into bringing them to peak performance, he is perfectly blithe. “War is wasteful,” he explains to his companions. “We’ll get more.” …

On the loss of a good friend, and very successful bomb disposal artist (until one unlucky moment), he is philosophical. A terrible loss, to be sure, but the man was at least having a good time.

Canadians are lucky not to have me as their Generalissimo, perhaps, but had I the command of any armed force I’d want happy soldiers, and give them more latitude for war as sport. How often, thanks to increased dependence on technology, the whole experience has lapsed into grimness. From my own father, grandfather, and other veterans, I was already acquainted with the Joy of War, and had glimpses of it in Vietnam and elsewhere. The big marching army is a tedious affair, to say nothing of wasteful. The fun is to be had in special forces.

(Verily, that was my “critique” of Vietnam: “Why aren’t you guys fighting this like the British in Malaya and Borneo? You’ve got a perfectly good jungle out there, full of Commies. Why are you piling up accountants in Saigon?”)

For war is inevitable, and has always been, and there will always be wars. Even in the blessed Middle Ages, there were plenty: though for the most part small when internecine, and well regulated by Christian tradition. As Popski himself observed, the best sort of war can be fought without too much bothering civilians. That is what made the North African campaign especially attractive. I applaud fighting in deserts whenever possible, or in jungles, or on mountain glaciers such as those in Kashmir, or remote underpopulated islands such as the Falklands. Clausewitz to the contrary, it has never seemed right to slaughter non-combatants, and “Total War” always leaves me cold. It is among the reasons I dislike democracy.

But “no wars at all” would be too few. We should eschew fanaticism, and instead focus on making the wars we fight more enjoyable for everyone involved. I’m for more enterprise, and less bureaucracy; for “privatizing” armies on Popski principles, wherever we can; for making everything more voluntary. None of that puritanical “make love, not war” of my sad, embittered hippie generation. Why choose, when we can do both?