I paraphrased this bit of writing from Herman Wouk a couple of years back. I still think its a marvelous bit of writing and particularly appropriate as "America begins to leave the world stage". Not because it was forced to-but because of those who feel that merely dying for your fellow servicemen is sufficient justification for their ever being there in the first place. It is not-and it is important to remember on Memorial Day above all days. For every wartime death is an unnecessary tragedy, created because the world chooses to solve its problems, after 6000 years, with the fighting and dying of young men ( and now, even more sadly, women-who are supposed to serve a different role in our world)-for conflicts that shall not be long remembered. I post this because I think since, 1991, American casualties have been equivalent to those of the British Empire in the 20th century-men who were also fighting for their contemporaries, fighting to preserve an order that still needs to exist-but were sold out by their own civilian leadership.
Of course we should honor their sacrifice on this day. But it only has real meaning if we honor the volunteers who died in these two wars by taking a lesson from these losses and work to keep this kind of stupidity from happening again. I am going to tell you this again Phib, the Afghans were never worthy of the sacrifice that was made on their behalf-and the effort expended to try to help them has accelerated our march from the world stage. That is why it is worth reading this passage-we honor their efforts to our very soul. But if we don't find a better way to run our planet-then we have failed these valiant souls deeply. "Either war is finished, or we are!"
I've been out of pocket this weekend-down in Pensacola, playing golf at AC Read, watching the boats go across the sound, and catching up with some friends. He let me in on some very sad developments happening in our Navy-which I will proceed to document later this week. This, however, being Memorial Day, I thought I would pass on something different concerning remembering the fallen-from one of my favorite authors: Hermann Wouk. In the book is a fictional correspondent's report, Sunset at Kidney Ridge, reflects on the decline of the British Empire; it serves roughly as the emotional midpoint of the book. While written about the path of the British Empire, I find Alastair Tudsbury's thoughts have applicability to our situation and our continuing struggle in the War without End. I have transcribed the entire piece, word for word , from Wouk's novel, War and Remembrance, Chapter 49.
Here then is Sunset at Kidney Ridge:
SUNSET ON KIDNEY RIDGE
By Alstair Tudsbury
By wireless from London. This dispatch, dated November 4, 1942 was the famous British correspondent's last-dictated shortly before he was killed by a landmine at El Alamein. Edited by his daughter and collaborator, Pamela Tudsbury, from an unfinished draft, it is reprinted by special permission of the London Observer.
The sun hangs huge and red above the far dust-streaked horizon. The desert cold is already falling on Kidney Ridge. This gray sandy elevation is deserted, except by the dead, and two intelligence officers and myself. Even the flies have left. Earlier they were here in clouds, blackening the corpses. They pester the living too, clustered at a mand's eyes and the moisture in the corners of his mouth, drinking his sweat. But of course they prefer the dead. When the sun climbs over the opposite horizon tomorrow, the flies will return to their feast.
Here not only did these German and British soldiers die, who litter the ground as far as the eye can see in the fading red light. Here at El Alamein, the Afrika Korps died. The Korps was a legend, a dashing clean- cut enemy , a menace and at the same time a sort of glory; in Churchillian rhetoric, a gallant foe worthy of our steel. It is not known if Rommel has made good is escape, or whether his straggle of routed supermen will be bagged by the Eight Army. But the Afrika Korps is dead, crushed by British arms. We have won here, in the great Western of Africa, a victory to stand with Crecy, Agincourt, Blenheim, and Waterloo.
Lines from Southey's "Battle of Blenheim" are haunting me here on Kidney Ridge:
They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won,
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.
The bodies, numerous as they are, strike the eye less than the blasted and burned out tanks that dot this weirdly beautiful wasteland, these squat hulls with their long guns, casting elongated blue shadows on the pastel grays and browns and pinks of the far-stretching sands. Here is the central incongruity of Kidney Ridge-the masses of smashed twentieth-century machinery tumbled about in these harsh flat sandy wilds, where one envisions warriors on camels or horses, or perhaps the elephants of Hannibal.
How far they came to perish here, these soldiers and these machines! What a bizarre train of events brought youngsters from the Rhineland and Prussia, from the Socttish Highlands and London, from Australia and New Zealand, to butt at each other to the death with flame- spitting machinery in faraway Africa, in a setting as dry and as lonesome as the moon?
But that is the hallmark of this war. No other war has ever been like it. This war rings the world. Kideny Ridge is everwhere on our small globe. Men fight as far away from home as they can be transported, with courage and endurance that makes on proud of the human race, in horrible contrivances that make one ashamed of the human race.
My jeep will take me back to Cairo shortly, and I will dictate a dispatch about what I see here. What I am looking at, right now as the sun touches the horizon, is this. Two intelligence offices, not fifty yards from me, are lifting the German driver out of a blasted tank, using meat hooks. He is black and charred. He has no head. He is a trunk with arms and legs. The smell is like gamy pork. The legs wear good boots, only a bit scorched.
I am very tired. A voice I don't want to listen to tells me that this England's last land triumph; that our military history ends here with a victory to stand with the greatest, won largely with machines shipped ten thousand miles from American factories. Tommy Atkins will serve with pluck and valor wherever he fights here after, as always; but the conduct of the war is slipping from our hands.
We are outnumbered and outclassed. Modern War is a clangorous and dreary measuring of industrial plants. Germany's industrial capacity passed ours in 1905. We hung on through the First World War by sheer grit. Today the two giants of the earth are the United States and the Soviet Union. They more than outmatch Germany and Japan, now that they have shaken off their surprise setbacks and sprung to arms. Tocqueville's vision is coming to pass in our time. They will divide the empire of the world.
The sun going down on Kidney Ridge is setting on the British Empire, on which-we learned as schoolboys-the sun never set. Our Empire was born of the skill of our explorers, the martial prowess of our yeomanry, the innovative genius of our scientists and engineers. We stole a march on the world that lasted 200 years. Lulled by the long peaceful protection of the great fleet we built, we thought it could last forever. We dozed.
Here in Kidney Ridge we have erased the disgrace of our somnolence. If history is but the clash of arms, we now begin to leave the stage with honor. But if it is a march to the human spirit toward world freedom, we will never leave the stage. British ideas, British institutions, British scientific method, will lead the way in other lands, in other guises. English will become the planetary tongue, that is now certain. We have been the Greece of the new age.
But you object, the theme of the new age is socialism. I am not so sure of that. Even so, Karl Marx, the scruffy Mohammad of this spreading economic Islam, built his strident dogmas on the theories of British economists. He created his apocalyptic visions in the hospitality of a British Museum. He read British books, lived on British bounty, wrote in British freedom, collaborated with Englishmen and lies in a London grave. People forget all that.
The sun has set. It will get dark and cold quickly now. The intelligence officers are beckoning me to their lorry. The first stars spring forth in the indigo sky. I take a last look around at the dead of El Alamein and mutter a prayer for these poor devils, German and British, who turn and turn about sang Lili Marlene in the cafes of Tobruk, hugging the same sleazy girls. Now they lie here together, their young appetites cold, their homesick songs stilled.
"Why twas a very wicked thing!"
Said Little Wilhemine
"Nay, nay my little girl" quoth he-
Pamela Tudsbury writes: The telephone rang just at that moment, as my father was declaiming the verser with his usual relish. It was a summons to the interview with General Montgomery. He left at once. A lorry brought back his body the next morning. As a World War I reserve officer, he was buried with honors in the Brisitsh Military Cemetery outside Alexandria.
The London observer asked me to complete the article. I have tried, I have his hand written notes for three more paragraphds. But I cannot do it. I can however, complete Southey's verse for him. So ends my fathers career of war reporting-
"It was a famous victory"
* * *
Yes it is a piece from an American novel, with a British slant. However I think if you try, you can substitute American battles, American names, and American cities and see the analogies to our present day. It is true that not all of the comparisons are apt-the Soviet Union is no more and it is pretty clear socialism has been discredited-however substitute "Globalization and rampant unregulated profit taking" and Tudsbury's prediction holds true. And I would also point out-as much as so many people try to deny it, whatever we Americans have in the way of honor and virtue, we learned it from the British.
If we seek to honor the sacrifices of the brave Soldiers, Sailors, Airman and Marines who have fallen today-we must also ask ourself what are we doing to make this country a better place to live for their children and their families. For in the end, that was what they were fighting to defend, a free society that improves itself, not simply falls back into the evils they fought so hard to protect us from.
Andrew Bacevich wrote recently:
Americans once believed war to be a great evil. Whenever possible, war was to be avoided. When circumstances made war unavoidable, Americans wanted peace swiftly restored.
Present-day Americans, few of them directly affected by events in Iraq or Afghanistan, find war tolerable. They accept it. Since 9/11, war has become normalcy. Peace has become an entirely theoretical construct. A report of G.I.s getting shot at, maimed, or killed is no longer something the average American gets exercised about. Rest assured that no such reports will interfere with plans for the long weekend that Memorial Day makes possible.
You should find that trend very scary-I know I do.