"War is organised murder, and nothing else."
And so the extraordinary life of Harry Patch, the last Tommy of the First World War, has ended at his home in Wells. His years as a centenarian were spent as an eloquent spokesman for the Lost Generation of 1914-18, imparting what he could of experiences beyond the comprehension of his listeners. There were no illusions: the war was "a family row", Remembrance Day "just show business".
The terrible irony is that as Patch’s past is laid to rest, so lives are still being lost in wars of choice. As the coffins pass through Wiltshire’s streets, Brown, Cameron & Co. conspire to whip up war fever, like music hall acts applauding ‘the soldiers of the Queen’. There is talk of ‘a 30-year haul’ in Afghanistan, in this, the 30th anniversary year of the Soviet invasion. The more soldiers die or are wounded, the greater the emotional investment at stake, the lesser the chance of a rational answer to the question, why?
The argument that blowing other countries apart protects us from terrorism is too silly for comment. And while the main party leaders drag us back to the days of Empire, when the Union flag was earning its nickname of ‘the Butcher’s Apron’, they might consider the record of all who have messed with Afghanistan before. The British lost the First Afghan War. They withdrew after the Second. And the Third, tactically a British victory, was strategically a lasting win for the Afghans. The Soviet Union too left humiliated, its whole empire imploding. Not the most encouraging set of precedents. On the first occasion, in 1842, Britain's expeditionary force was all but wiped out. Supposing himself the sole survivor, Dr William Brydon finally made it back to the gates of Jalalabad, he and his horse exhausted. The scene is depicted in Lady Butler’s great canvas, The Remnants of an Army, which hangs in the regimental museum of the Somersets at Taunton Castle.
The prospects of an oil pipeline from central Asia to the coast? Now that’s more like it. A far more convincing explanation of why lives are being laid down for ‘freedom’. Such is the curse geology has laid throughout the Mahometan lands. And as the oil runs out, so instability will worsen. Still more lives will be lost or shattered until we embrace the principle of economic subsidiarity: that nothing should be produced further away from the user than is absolutely necessary. The key to peace does not lie in a global economy micro-managed by totalitarian liberals but in living within environmental limits, regionally and locally. We can have prosperity without growth. But we cannot have growth without conflict.
Meanwhile Brown, Cameron and the rest of them responsible for organising murder in the 21st century must stand trial for their crimes.