Countdown to War, July 29th 1914-2014

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Yesterday, a hundred years ago, the Great War began. Austria and Serbia began the process that dragged the world into war. The metaphor of the Matterhorn tragedy of 1865 has often been used to express what happened. Four climbers were plucked off the mountain when a rope connecting them to three others, broke. They were on their way down. It is often more difficult to get out of a situation than to get into it. The weight of the uppermost climber pulled the second one loose. Their combined weight peeled the third and then the fourth from the face of the crag. The ties that bound them together, were their undoing. The watchers below were helpless to do anything.  The tragedy became the subject of paintings and engravings. After all, the leader of the expedition was Edward Whymper, an artist in love with the Alps.

Professional historians say that the situation was much more complex than this metaphor. Of course it was, but Austria pulled in Germany while Serbia plucked the Russian Empire to its destruction, then France, Belgium, the British Empire and any innocent bystanders who happened to be watching. Portugal was wary of Germany in Africa, so they sent troops to Belgium. The French brought Indo-Chinese  and Senegalese to Europe. Australians and Dubliners went to Turkey. Keep an eye on the Japanese, not that they could pose any serious threat to The Great Powers. The Arabs are getting restless. A glorious opportunity for world strategists to display their skills. Spread out those maps. Send in the cavalry. Send an expedition to Mesopotamia. That should keep those blighters quiet for a century or two.  King Hammurabi of Mesopotamia, in Biblical times, made laws for the protection of widows and orphans. No need to worry about them. It will all be over by Christmas.

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It’s a load of shit. Bird shit in fact. The first naval battle was off the South American coast, where Britain and Germany fought to secure the supplies of bird guano from Chile, to make high explosive, to fill the millions and millions of shells needed to dismember millions and millions of people and destroy the drainage of the rivers of Flanders. The shells are things of beauty, works of art. My father defused one of those small shells and brought it back from the war as a souvenir. He saw lads doing the same thing on ammunition dumps and blowing themselves up in the process. There is an art to removing the detonator and the high explosive. Handle with extreme care. It is safe now. In his old age he gave it to me. Their manufacture ensured full employment and liberated women to take paid labour. What could be wrong with that? Famine, Plague, War and Death kicked their horses into a canter. Welcome to the Apocalypse. The troops marched to the front. The khaki-clad British, sensibly, took taxis. The brightly coloured French despised camouflage. They relied on élan. The Russians promptly got lost.  The Kaiser turned to his chemists to fabricate guano. While you’re at it, make me some poison gas.

There were other allegorical figures linked together on that slippery slide into catastrophe: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth. They all brought their talents to the conflict. You could mention also, Irony, Stupidity, astonishing Charity, Mercy, Generosity, Patriotism and Honour, Humour, Endurance and heart-breaking Courage. Poets idealised the shedding of blood. Artists tried to depict the grim reality. Musicians lifted the spirits. In La Grande Illusion a disillusioned soldier remarks that there would be no wars if there were no brass bands. We all love a brass band.…and we won’t be back till it’s over over there…That film was made by Renoir, son of Renoir the artist. There are many things to love about old Renoir. I particularly admire his remarks about the necessity of keeping the house safe for children: removing razor blades and anything that might injure them, poisonous fluids and chemicals etc.

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However, it may be necessary in a war to kill children, along with their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents and neighbours, if strategy demands it. This is of course, regrettable and should be avoided if possible, by extensive leafleting in advance, as is done in the present conflict in Gaza. The fact that they have nowhere to run to is a sad irony of the situation. That gun is a thing of sinister beauty, a work of art and precision. It is sited at Sanctuary Wood. Who sought sanctuary there? Where do the children of Gaza seek sanctuary? In a playground? In a school? In a hospital? Not right now. Don’t you know there’s a war on? God fights on the side of the big battalions, with the big guns.

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My brother, who knows a bit about museums, accompanied me to Flanders. He took issue with the way artefacts (objects made by art?) were displayed at the Ulster Tower museum. ‘These items should be displayed in atmosphere controlled environments’ he pointed out. ‘They will deteriorate over time.’  ‘Don’t worry,’ replied the official.’We can always go outside and dig up some more.’  That is the truth.

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Plenty more where George Nugent came from. His name is attached to a cross.

When I was a child, my mother took me to the National Museum. I saw wonderful things. One thing that puzzled me was the inscription on the belt-buckle of an Irish Volunteer uniform: Gott Mit Uns. It wasn’t Irish. I asked her what it meant. ‘It’s German, ‘ she told me.‘God is with us. The Kaiser, out of the goodness of his heart, sent over some uniforms for the Irish Volunteers.’  What a kind man! I wonder how his chemists got on.

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Kipling was a strong advocate of the war until the day an irate father challenged him at a recruiting rally. ‘Why don’t you send your own bloody son?’ he shouted. Kipling had done everything he could think of to keep his boy safe but he could no longer shield him. The boy was killed. Kipling learned a hard lesson. When my father died, or as an old soldier, faded away, at the age of 82, my little son wrote in Our News in school: ‘My Grandad died and we have his shell on the mantlepiece.’ It made for a very puzzled teacher. I tried to write about his experience, in my novel, Reprisal. Maybe I should have mentioned his shell. My father would have smiled at the little boy’s version. He would smile too at the sudden enthusiasm for The Great War in Ireland after a century of shamefaced denial.

The Great War was the war to end all war. That’s day one over anyway.

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Eyeless in Gaza

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John Foster Dulles gave us the concept of brinkmanship: ‘The ability to get to the brink without getting into the war, is the necessary art.’ I recall a critical cartoon of Dulles as a blind man groping his way to the edge of an abyss. It was captioned Eyeless in Gaza. That was during the Suez invasion of 1956. It was Milton’s phrase for Samson…’eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.’ Samson brought the roof down on the Philistines and incidentally on himself. The devotees of God/Jehovah/Allah/Ra/Ammon/Baal/Moloch/and many more, have been particularly busy in the Middle East, for the last 5000 years or so. Milton singled out Moloch for special mention…’Moloch, horrid king, besmeared with blood of human sacrifice…’ The followers of Moloch gave their first-born children to the god, through fire. Has anything changed? Possibly, just for good measure, the children of others are offered also.

Moloch must be smiling. The shells rain down on the children of Gaza. The rockets of the weaker side, the Palestinians, (Philistines/Pelasgi, sea people) fuelled by hatred and despair, score infrequent hits on Israeli towns and psychological hits on Ben Gurion Airport. It is a recurring obscenity, without pity or magnanimity. Those who suffered the Holocaust, say ‘never again’. Their vision is one-sided. By ensuring their own security they store up years of future conflict for their children. Their great war hero, Dayan, wore a black eye patch. Arafat, it is said, kept one hundred young girls in readiness to act as suicide bombers…’my army of roses..’  This region is called The Holy Land, for God’s sake.

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On a beautiful sunny day I brought my four year old grandson to the playground. It was full of young parents and children, with a few grandparents, here and there. They have their uses. He lay on the wheel and travelled all around the world. The wheel is powered by parents and grandparents by turns. He went to The North Pole and America and Poland and Ireland and Australia, until, like Samson, I ran out of steam. There is a notion that playgrounds are places where children play and parents relax on the benches and smile benignly. It’s not so simple. The price of peace and harmony is eternal vigilance. The big children must not trample or push the smaller ones. The small ones must not climb beyond their ability or wander behind the swings. The adults are on their feet all the time. It is an exercise in tolerance and co-existence. You may not strike or abuse the parent or grandparent of some other child. There may be a need for negotiation and voluntary rules. The playground is no place for brinkmanship. {Dulles believed that as long as nuclear weapons remained in the hands of  ‘the good guys’, there would be world peace, under the threat of mutually assured annihilation.}

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We sat on the seat dedicated to Percy French, where he was inspired by the view, to write his famous song, The Mountains of Mourne. There was a fog so we had to be contented with singing a few  bars about the invisible mountains. It is a song of an exile longing for home. We went to watch the swimmers. We met a man whose four-year-old grandson is coming home from Australia. He is very happy about that. We had ice cream (obligatory) from the little shop on the harbour.

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We climbed the steps to the lighthouse and saw thirty seven jellyfish and a floating crab. We went to see the memorial pole, dedicated to those lost at sea. Tragic deaths but accidental. The names are inscribed all around the pole, stories of long ago and not so long ago. He had to climb the pole. It’s a tradition. When he is big, he told me, he will climb to the top. If you reach the top, you can make a wish. What else could you wish for your children and grandchildren, but peace and safety? What can you see from up there, Alex?

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It was a perfect morning.

When we came home the news was that Moloch was still smiling; the bombs were still falling on schools and hospitals and on children playing on the beach. The rockets were still flying. There is no vision beyond the next salvo. An eye for an eye, as the old adage has it, leaves everybody blind. What did Ariel Sharon see, as he lay all those years in a coma? What did Moise Dayan see with his dark eye? Is Yasser Arafat enjoying the fruits of his labours in Paradise, with all those virgins? God help the poor virgins and God pity the children.