An army officer who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, he was angry at the casualties that had been sustained and at the prolonged engagement in unwinnable conflicts. He was angry at the depiction of the Iraq war as being for some lofty or noble causes. Talking about the men with whom he served, he asked me, “Do you know what they will die for?”
“They will not die for Queen and country. They will not die for the Government or democracy, whatever that means. What they will die for is their mates”.
When talking to other army officer, it was a sentiment that had been repeated. It was a conversation that cast light upon lines spoken by David Craig, a character in Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, a drama set in the trenches of Thiepval before the fateful hours of 1st July 1916 when the first day of the Battle of the Somme proved to be the darkest hour in British military history.
“You said you wanted to die. I know what you mean. I didn’t want to die, but I know what you mean. I wanted war. I wanted a fight. I felt I was born for it, and it alone. I felt that because I wanted to save somebody else in war, but that somebody else was myself. I wanted to change what I am. Instead I saved you, because of what I am. I want you to live, and I know some one of us is going to die. I think it’s me. Sometimes I look at myself and I see a horse. There are hounds about me, and I’m following them to death. I’m a dying breed, boy. I can’t talk in your riddles. I used to worry even up till today, when you talked to me like that, in case you were setting me up. I don’t worry any more. It was yourself you were talking to. But when you talk to me, you see me. Eyes, hands. Not carving. Just seeing. And I didn’t save you that day. I saw you. And from what I saw I knew I’m not like you. I am you”.
Today is the centenary of the death of Wilfred Owen, one of the greatest of war poets who died seven days before the armistice. His poem Dulce et decorum est captures the horrors of a gas attack on men in the trenches and challenges those who would send young men to die in futile conflicts:
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.
Sweet and fitting? Ask the families of those whose sons never came home.