On July 1, Britain marked the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the battle of the Somme, the bloodiest fight of the war. One evening paper announced that Britain was remembering the “victims” of the Somme.
There are no known British survivors of the battle alive today, so we can’t ask them if they considered themselves “victims.”
But it seems unlikely that a generation which called dying in war “glorious” would have seen its soldiers as victims -- certainly not in the modern sense that insists we’re all victims and deserve 15 minutes on Oprah to whine about it. It would have seen them as what they were -- men and boys who did the job they were ordered to do. Men and boys who, despite serving under idiotic generals, still persevered to win a long war.
If the Somme’s survivors were victims of anything, it was a feckless civilian political leadership that gave away the hard-fought victory of World War I. Just a generation later, allied leaders seeking “peace in our time” sought to appease Adolph Hitler. Instead of peace they got war, and millions of new names were added to the existing European war memorials.
The fatalists of the 1930s thought they were doing the right thing, of course. So, too, do today’s fatalists.
“We cannot allow two dozen mass murders to change our politics and way of life,” wrote Simon Jenkins on July 2 in The Times of London. “Terrorism is not an ideology or a ‘threat.’ It is simply a weapon, the random killing of civilians. It is a threat to life but not to democracy, let alone western civilization, unless we choose to make it so.” In other words, some civilians will be killed, but there’s nothing we can do about it, so we should just accept that as our fate. It’s the price we pay for living in the modern world.
Jenkins echoes the American anti-war left, which claims that by going on the offensive in Afghanistan and Iraq we’ve only angered Muslim extremists and made terrorist attacks more likely.
But Jenkins is wrong to insist that terrorism will always be with us. “The murderous terrorism that has become a fact of modern life is part of the death throes of an ancient way of life,” journalist Mark Bowden (the author of “Black Hawk Down”) writes in his excellent book “Guests of the Ayatollah.”
By fighting back -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere -- we can overcome terrorism and eventually end our misery. After all, “Extremism, religious or otherwise, is by definition the province of a small minority,” as Bowden puts it.
Of course, in order to win we have to keep fighting. Whether we’re willing to or not is an open question.
Consider the July 4 political cartoon in The Times of London. It showed two panels, each with a giant poppy plant surrounded by dead British soldiers. One was labeled “The Somme,” the other “Afghanistan.”
At the battle of the Somme in 1916, 20,000 British soldiers were killed in one day. Another 40,000 were wounded. War isn’t like that anymore, thankfully.
Overall in Afghanistan last month, five British soldiers (out of an entire force of 3,300) were killed. That’s fewer than the eight people who died on British roads the first weekend of July. If we really want to save lives, maybe we need to find a way for British drivers to withdraw from their cars before the country withdraws its soldiers from Afghanistan.
Today’s Western militaries are the best equipped and most efficient fighting forces in history. One skirmish in Afghanistan on June 27 highlights that. Taliban fighters ambushed a British patrol, which fought its way out without losing a soldier. “The Taliban are quite ingenious, but they’ve probably got 25 dead blokes and we’ve got none,” Captain Alex McKenzie later told a newspaper reporter, “and that speaks volumes.”
Indeed. It says that our enemies can’t stand against us as long as we are willing to fight. But we also must remember the lessons of World War I. If we give back the victory we’re winning today, we’ll live to regret it, much as the allied leaders of the 1930s did.