»  National Review Online

May 3rd, 2001

  The Pity of War


"Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea." An interesting aspect of the fuss over what Bob Kerrey may or may not have done in Vietnam is the opportunity it gives us to take out Samuel Johnson's apothegm and see if it still applies. Very few American men — one in fifty? one in a hundred? — have any experience of being in combat. (I have none myself.) For those who have, it's awfully tempting to pull status and say: "You've no right to judge these things. You can't imagine what it's like." This temptation has been widely succumbed to. After doing a segment on the Kerrey flap, Bill O'Reilly reports getting a lot of mail from veterans saying: "You have no right to pass comment. You don't know."

You'll walk a long mile to find anyone that has more respect for fighting men than Derb has, but I think that's bull. God endowed us with the power of imagination so that we could think ourselves into situations we have never experienced. Both fiction and non-fiction testify to this power. Patrick O'Brian, who wrote those wonderful novels about the British Navy in Napoleon's war, was never in combat; he had a desk job in WW2. The best non-fiction book about how men actually feel in combat, John Keegan's The Face of Battle, has been praised by military men of all kinds, including combat veterans like my old editor Bill Deedes; yet in the book's first sentence Keegan confesses: "I have not been in a battle; nor near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath."

A related fallacy is the one that says: If you've ever actually been in battle, you know how unutterably awful war is, and want nothing more to do with it. There are undoubtedly some men who react this way, but a lot don't. Adolf Hitler served valiantly on the Western Front in WW1, but the experience did not seem to turn him towards pacifism. His opposite number across the channel, Winston Churchill, saw combat in the old Victorian horse army, and then all over again, in middle age, as a volunteer in WW1. (Contrasting the two experiences, he grumbled: "War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid. It has been completely spoilt.") Yet he was the principal opponent of the war-averse policies of Neville Chamberlain in the late 1930s. The poet Robert Graves, who also served on the Western Front, and wrote a funny and moving book about it, declared, fifty years later, that his service in the trenches was the best time of his life. The British politician Enoch Powell, asked in old age whether he had any regrets about his life, replied that, yes, he regretted not having died fighting in WW2. Combat, in fact, acts on individual human personalities in as many widely different ways as does any other very intense experience — passionate love, grief, or sudden wealth. For some, it is a ghastly nightmare they'd prefer to forget. For others, it is the high point of their lives, cherished in memory for decades afterwards.

Of all these you-had-to-be-there arguments about war, though, there is one that gives me pause. It turned up in the letters column of the April 14th London Spectator. The March 24th issue of that noble magazine had been a "Military Special Issue," with seven good essays on military topics, including one by historian Niall Ferguson, who wrote that fine book about WW1 whose title I have borrowed for this column. Ferguson deplores the de-militarization of Britain, arguing that this trend threatens not merely the nation's security, but its very culture. The other essayists took similarly sympathetic attitudes to the military, with some sneering at the soft, pacifistic Europeans Britain finds herself shackled to in NATO. Well, in the April 14th issue one Raymond Gann wrote in from Einbeck, Germany. He observed:

The craven, non-martial Continental Europeans actually enjoy their current peace because unlike Britain they all have recent memories of armed conflict in their major centres of civilian population … Paris and Berlin have each been occupied by foreign troops at least four times in the past 250 years … These are experiences totally foreign to Britain and certainly not conducive to collecting regimental silver.

Leaving aside trivialities like the Channel Islands, there has only been one case of an Anglo-Saxon army suffering defeat and then enduring the indignity of having its territory occupied by the victor. That was the Confederate States, and even there, the occupying forces were not altogether alien. Defeat and occupation by foreigners is an experience the English-speaking peoples have yet to taste. Pray God we never do.

My impression is that men today are much less embarrassed than they used to be about "not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea." The distinction of having taken up arms in combat is now so rare, and the majority you are in if you don't have that distinction so comfortably vast, that it's not worth being embarrassed about. This is not necessarily a good thing. The TV folk in Tom Wolfe's brilliant audio novel Ambush at Fort Bragg are not embarrassed about it … but the author makes it plain that they ought to be.

To return to, or at any rate to the neighborhood of, Bob Kerrey's war record, unless some dramatic new information comes out, I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Certainly no credence whatever should be given to these "villagers" the Vietnamese government is trotting out. That country is a communist dictatorship, people know what they're supposed to say. Like the so-called "wife" of that Chinese aviator who lost his life hot-dogging too close to a U.S. plane recently, they may very well be professional actors hired for the purpose. I have known a couple of ex-SEALS, and I am in awe of their professionalism — military professionalism being the thing that prevents wanton massacres of innocents. It is untrained, ill-disciplined troops that perform those kinds of atrocities. I don't insist that you love the SEALS — I imagine they can be awful scary on a dark night — but if you think they are untrained or ill-disciplined, you haven't a clue. In any case, it was a night patrol, and I have memories.

The memories don't amount to much. As I said, I've never been in combat. I did once do a military night exercise, though. It was a pretty trivial thing: I had to lead a squad of men through some rough country patrolled by the "enemy," capture a "sentry" at a known location, and bring him back. It was a clear night with a moon. We had luminous compasses, and had planned our movements beforehand using aerial photographs of the terrain. (One of the most useless tools a soldier has ever been given. "Is that a lake?" "No, that's the shadow of this hill …") Yet I confess, with shame, that much of the time I had no idea where we were, where the sentry was, where my men were, or whether the firing we heard from time to time (blank rounds, of course) was directed at us or not, or even whether the fire was "blue" or "red." The main thing I learned from the exercise was that it is impossible to move through winter woodland, with snow underfoot, without making a lot of noise. The objective was attained at last when the sentry, who had been standing in the cold for three hours listening to us crashing about, yelled out in exasperation: "I'm over here, you bloody fools." Mission accomplished, Lt. Derbyshire? Mission accomplished, Sir.

Thank God we were armed only with blanks. Thank God there were no civilians around.



In my Passover piece I quoted the ditty: "How odd / Of God / To choose / The Jews" and gave the riposte: "Not news, / Not odd: / The Jews / Chose God." Several readers emailed me with much better ripostes. The all-time winner is surely Leo Rosten's: "Not odd / Of God: / Goyim / Annoy 'im." Runner-up is this one, apparently from the late Sir Peter Medawar: "Though not as odd as those who choose / A Jewish God, yet spurn the Jews." Thanks to all.