War: we can’t do this anymore

2009-07-28 00:00

TWO years ago this month, there were 24 left. Now they are all gone, and there is nobody alive who fought in World War 1. Well, there is still Jack Babcock, who joined the Royal Canadian Regiment in 1917 but got no closer to the fighting than England, and American veteran Frank Buckles, who drove an ambulance in France as a 17-year-old in 1918. But the last real combatant, Harry Patch, who was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, died on Saturday.

Patch was an apprentice plumber when he was conscripted in 1916, and 19 years old when he arrived at the Western Front in 1917. He lasted four months before a German shell burst overhead, killing three close friends and wounding him in the groin. He was evacuated to England, and never saw the war again.

He married in 1918, had children, followed his trade of plumbing, and served as a volunteer fireman during the bombing raids on Bristol during World War 2. He died on Saturday, at the age of 111. So what have Patch of Somerset and his 60 million comrades (for it no longer matters which side they were on) left behind for us?

One thing they would have been quite clear about: we can’t do this any more. In World

War 1, we crossed a threshold. All the advances in science and technology came together and created a kind of industrialised warfare that is simply unsustainable in human terms. It consumes soldiers, civilians and whole cities at a rate that endangers civilisation itself.

All the technological innovations that have been added since World War 1 — armoured divisions, bomber fleets and nuclear weapons — only deepen the lesson, they don’t change it. Human beings have fought wars since we were hunter-gatherers, and those who were good at it tended to prosper. Now, if you are really good at war, you will be destroyed.

Europe is just where industrialised total war first appeared. You can send expeditionary forces into the weaker parts of what we used to call the Third World and bash them to your heart’s content, but if you get into a serious fight with another fully industrialised country, you will both be destroyed. (This is a lesson that emerging industrial countries like India, China and Brazil can learn cheaply from history, or very expensively from experience.)

What else did the 60 million leave us? Inscribed on the wall of the chapel at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where I taught war studies as a much younger man, is the first line of Horace’s poem: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country). But we don’t believe that lie any more.

Wilfred Owen was killed crossing the Sambre canal a week before the war ended. He never got any older than 25, but he put the wisdom that the millions bought with their lives into his poem Dulce et decorum est. It’s about a poison gas attack, and the last lines run: “If you could hear … the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs … My friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”

It’s almost a century now since anybody but fascists and fools saw war as glorious. The government may tell us that our “glorious dead” have “fallen”, but we know that they were only teenagers, and that they died in agony and lost all the rest of their lives. Sometimes we even worry about the fact that we have sent them to kill people for us.

In 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, Patch was manning his machine gun when a German got close enough that he looked like a real person — and suddenly Patch realised that he didn’t want to kill him. Should not kill him, in fact. He shot the German in the shoulder, which made him drop his rifle, but he kept coming.

So Patch shot him again, first above the knee and then in the ankle. God knows if the German survived all this, but at least Patch was trying. So are the rest of us. Most of the time.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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