Jesus has many wise sayings, truisms that are timeless. One of them is "the poor you will have always with you." One could almost hear him averring the truth of another such saying like "wars you will always have with you." One need not be a very good historian or even a tolerably good politician to realise the truth of this latter contention. A casual glance at the news in any medium will convince you of the endurance of war, of its seeming endlessness. I shall start this post with a few quotations from real-life witnesses of the horror of war. Once again, one of my quotes comes from the wonderfully insightful and learned Jonathan Glover's Book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century "We lived happily together for many years and now it has come to killing each other's babies. What is happening to us?" This heart-felt cry was by one Indira Hadziomerovic who was mourning in Sarajevo. Glover took his poignant quotation from the Independent (8 August 1992) (quoted Glover, p.123) The list of crimes perpetrated by all sides during the ethnic conflict after the break-up of Yugoslavia is beyond description almost in both quantity and in the actual horror perpetrated by one ethnic group on another. Glover recounts the following among his many examples of wanton cruelty: "Other Serbian forces created a reign of terror in eastern Bosnia. There were at least 17 rape camps, where Bosnian women and girls were held for weeks and repeatedly raped. A European Community investigation later estimated that 20,000 women had been sexually violated. Some of the victims were as young as three or four." (ibid., p. 127)
Glover's account of the Rwandan attempted genocide is blood-curdling and I shall refrain by quoting any of the testimonies he cites or lists of horrific crimes which he outlines rather clinically, but very sympathetically. One always gets the sense of Glover's sheer recoil as he lists his brutal news. In the Sunday Times Culture supplement of November 4, 2007 there are many references also to the literature that is spawned by war from the poetic testimonies of the poets of the Great War - Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney to the recent poetry of Simon Armitage who wrote his poems as the result of listening to the accounts given by the veterans of Bosnia, Iraq and Malaya. (see pp. 6-8 Culture Supplement). On page 8 of this same supplement we read a soldier called Eddie's words which describe the suffering of war all too clearly:
But of all three combatants, Eddie seems to have suffered the most, despite the fact that he was on duty in Bosnia as a UN peacekeeper and wearing a "blue lid." A born soldier, he expected to shoot and be shot at: that's what he was trained for. Instead he lifted the barrier at the checkpoint to wave through the death squads. A couple of days later, he'd be a member of the party that went in to witness the horror and clean up the mess. He describes a pregnant woman tied to a tree, sliced open, with her dead unborn baby hanging from her womb. There are other things he won't describe, he says, because they are worse. To try to cure his nerves and overcome his paranoid reactions to loud bangs, he once took a revolver out into a field and fired round after round of blanks against his head. He tried to hang himself from a tree, but the branch couldn't bear his weight.
Here we witness third-hand the suffering Eddie witnessed first-hand. We also witness Eddie's own mental suffering. In that same supplement of The Sunday Times we read the review by Max Hastings, a war correspondent of note, of Arkady Babchenko's revealing book One Soldier's War in Chechnya. Hastings confirms his contention that all wars are hell by appropriate quotations from Babchenko's book. Therein the author recounts how almost daily young soldiers were sadistically beaten by veterans; how almost every Russian soldier in Chechnya was drunk nearly all the time; how the Russian army is a brutish, demoralised , drunken rabble and how soldiers refer to badly burnt corpses as "smoked goods" and to the morgues as "canning factories." Those soldiers were often sick and hungry and sometimes even went without boots. On how the rebels tortured and killed one of Babchenko's comrades, we read:
The rebels had slit him open like a tin of meat, pulled out his intestines and used them to strangle him while he was still alive. On the nearby whitewashed wall above him, written in his blood, were the words "Allah akbar!" - God is great" (quoted by Max Hastings page 51 of Supplement)
Of the poor creatures who managed to go home from Chechnya, many of them maimed and horrifically crippled, he reports that all of them are irreversibly mentally scarred. Babchenko tells us succinctly that these scarred veterans "see the world from below, and not only because they have only half of their bodies left, but because half of their souls are gone too." (ibid., p. 51) Strangely, or more correctly serendipitously and sychronistically, in this same supplement I also read the review of Manguel's Homer's The Iliad And The Odyssey, reviewed by Mary Beard. Therein one is reminded of Homer's sage words from those long-gone ages that "all life is battle" (The Iliad) and "all life is journey" (The Odyssey). How right the critic Harold Bloom was when he wrote that "Everyone who reads and writes in the West is still a son or daughter of Homer." It would seem, also, regrettable that everyone who makes war, or upon whom war is made, is also one of Homer's suffering offspring.
Above I have uploaded a picture I took in May 2007 of recently dug graves - shortly after the tragic deaths of two of our young students at school.