The poppy chronicles

“You must work harder on your choice of targets,” I vaguely recall overhearing in Vietnam, from a young officer noted for his dry and deliciously black sense of humour. It was directed to a fresh draftee, inclined to shoot at anything that moved. Let me identify with this latter, who might himself have been targeted by the World Wildlife Federation, great friends of the spindle-horned Saolas.

If it is any comfort to my vegetarian readers, the animals (especially those hard-to-hit snakes) took their toll of the draftees, too; though disease-carrying insects probably took more; and the Viet Cong most of all. I can easily understand why so many, who did not fly in body-bags instead, returned to America traumatized. It is so from all modern wars. The human psyche is not well adapted to unrelieved horror; though oddly it is the contemplation of this that does the damage. The episodes of participation are comparatively brief, and almost exhilarating.

As we approach the centenary of the Great Armistice, I see the plastic poppies circulating from the little boxes in the liquor stores. My thoughts turn to war qua war. Though sometimes necessary, it is not a good thing (“bad for children and animals” as the peaceniks say); and given the ambiance of our high-tech weaponry, little heroism is left to raise the tone. Contemporary battles are not confined to the soldiers, as once they could be. The devastation of cities and towns, the routine destruction of infrastructure, the civilian suffering that follows from that, may match or even exceed ancient measures of conquest and rapine.

While I’ve never thought war should be avoided at all costs, I recognize that the cost is very high. Opportunities for peace should not be overlooked, even while the carnage is in progress.

When, for instance, the newly-enthroned Karl I — Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary; “fanatic” Catholic Christian — discreetly proposed a separate peace to the allies in the spring of 1917, his agents were rebuffed, outed, and mocked. The Americans were coming to tilt our fortunes, the Germans were distracted overrunning the Russians, and while the Western Front was in catastrophic stasis, our nationalist politicians could now hope to utterly crush the foe. They would demand unconditional surrender.

This all-but-forgotten diplomatic event haunts my historical imagination. It was a serious opportunity to restore something close to the status quo ante, while resolving casus belli (very much plural) from Belgium and Alsace to Serbia and Constantinople on the principles of sweet reason. Drowned in the gunfire was this Blessed Karl’s expressly Christian plea. In an instant the decision was made, in the West, to persist till millions more were slain, and the conditions assembled for international violence and totalitarianism through the next seventy years.

The gentlemen I call “the three stooges of the apocalypse” — Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau — were all modern democratic politicians, whose nationalist ideals were now buttressed by the vast constituencies of countries at war, goaded on by the screaming headlines of a paper mass media. They wanted a New Europe, a New World Order, in which antiquated empires and all the sleepy old aristocratic polities would be smashed and replaced — with modern, ethnically homogeneous, democratic States. The consequences were unforeseeable to them, wrapped in their flags and the rhetoric of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

It was a war to end all wars! … Both the malice and the naivety were astounding.

Yet this takes nothing from the bravery and stamina of the men like my grandfather (and his horse!) who fought in their trenches, went bloodily up their hills, and who far from exulting in their final victory, sailed home heartbroken by all they had seen. We are right to honour them.

And we’d be right to despise all political ideals.