ONE thing above all puzzles me about contemporary warfare: it’s the words used to comment on it. Recently I have heard loud and frequent shrieks of disgust at today’s goings-on: ‘Barbarity, terror, cruelty – it’s medieval!’
It is as if the commentators were personally offended by the atrocities being perpetrated. After all, they and we are not medieval. We are enlightened modern people – of a different pedigree from that of all those demented savages back in the 12th century. We have human rights and an International Court of Justice. We have Conventions by which the most terrible weapons are banned. That’s a laugh! Do we imagine that because we have parliamentary democracy and all those Commissions for Peace and Concord that lions no longer need keepers, and there are no more snakes in the grass?
Now look here, we are not primitive. We are modern. Moreover, we have electric light – for the time being, anyway! And indoor plumbing. We have mobile phones and the BAFTAs. We even have Adele, if she deigns to turn up. And if my back itches, I can ask Alexa, or some other computerised golem, to scratch it. We have made great strides – even to the extent that if our little boys at junior school so desire, they can take some tablets and have their plumbing readjusted and pretend they are little girls.
We are so enamoured of ourselves and our supposed progress that we are colossally affronted when something hurty turns up in the form of wholesale slaughter. It’s almost a personal insult or, as they say in the colour supps and on Woman’s Hour, a blow to our self-esteem. Gosh! It plays havoc with our mental health and drives us to take extreme measures: we might even be driven to write to Michael Mosley or, in the very worst cases, to Bryony Gordon.
The dog returns to its vomit – Proverbs 26:11.
No, no, no! We have not progressed or, pace Sir Tony Blair, got ourselves modernised – except technologically. We are still the Old Adam, capable of great goodness, but also of great evil. We are, as we always were and always will be, half-rotten and half-golden. But let me get back to the subject of war and the pity of it . . .
So, you are surprised and outraged by contemporary wars? We speak in shocked tones of war in the 21st century – as if just because something is new, like the 21st century, it must be better: like New improved Persil, family size 130 washes only £22.90 from Amazon. Well then let me remind you: the wars of the last 100 years or so – the time of our beautifully-progressed modernity – killed at least ten times as many people as those who met their deaths in all the previous wars there have ever been.
And in these same wonderfully-progressed and modernised, nickel-plated and Sanforised 100 years, there were 6million murdered in Hitler’s Holocaust, perhaps as many as 40million under Stalin, and even more at the hands of Chairman Mao. And so many of these genocides were prosecuted in the interests of creating heaven on earth, a world fit for heroes to live in, the dictatorship of the proletariat, universal, freedom, equality and diversity. Sundry varieties of peace and plenty in which wasps no longer sting and chickens strut around ready-roasted.
If you must know, our modernity began with the ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ of the French Revolution in 1789. Four years later this blissful dawn into which Willie Wordsworth was so glad to have been born turned into the Reign of Terror. And it wasn’t just a few noble heads which rolled in Paris: Madame Guillotine went on the Tour de France and altogether 40,000 people were summarily executed. And these are accurate figures, for the one and only thing that bureaucrats of all times and in all places can do superbly is keep records.
Leave the battlefield for a minute and return to the streets for rapes, shootings and stabbings galore; to the hearth or the kitchen for domestic violence; to the cloisters become infamous for child-molesters in cassocks.
We don’t even have to venture as far as the kitchen: only to look into our lusts, our desires, our covetous cravings, our fantastical delusions and sheer selfishness. Let us first look at all our personal sickening moral garbage – or perhaps you are just too nice to have any of this sort of stuff? – and then dress up in our prized modernity and sneer at the Middle Ages.
We will make no improvement – if ever – until we get a grip on reality, open our eyes and see what’s actually going on here, there and everywhere beneath the brassy sheen of our deluded modernity.
We have not even the possibility of finding a cure, when we don’t even recognise the disease. As TS Eliot put it:
Do you need to be told that whatever has been can still be?
Do you need to be told that even such modest attainments
As you can boast in the way of polite society
Will hardly survive the Faith to which they owe their significance?
Men, polish your teeth on rising and retiring! Women, polish your fingernails!
You polish the tooth of the dog and the talon of the cat . . .
. . . We constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that IS will shadow
The man that PRETENDS TO BE.