Saturday, October 04, 2003

Back to Normal

Active bloggers are as sensitive to the vagarities of news as sailors are to weather at sea. If headline frequency is anything to go by, the military wing of Islamic terrorism has been all but beaten or forced into temporary eclipse. That's good news. Large scale attacks which used to shock and horrify the world at intervals of about every ten days have been recently replaced by political and cultural news. Yes, Courtney Love is in rehab again, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been accused of groping women in the past and pundits are arguing over David Kay's report on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The everyday is back.

And now the dangerous part begins. Every conflict begins with a dramatic phase. The first clashes of the Great War in 1914. The British Expeditionary Force wading to salvation in surf of Dunquerque. The breakout at Inchon. The bewildering news that the two tallest skyscrapers in New York had been hurled to the ground in one morning followed by the stunning ripostes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet the seemingly definitive beginnings are inevitably succeeded by a period of uncertainty, as a world long at peace struggles to accept the consequences of belligerency. In the first few months of conflict each generation clings to belief that the world can be returned to its ante-bellum state; that the hurts can be forgotten and the old world restored. The generation that rushed to the front in Great War thought it would be "home before the leaves fall". They did not know as they left the train stations that the Edwardian world they were leaving would be lost forever. In the first Christmas in the trenches in 1914 British and German soldiers still met informally in No-Man's Land to sing sentimental songs and exchange packages of food. It would take a year and the bloodbath of the Somme before the combatants realized how irrevocable their conflict was. On the next Christmas they would kill each other unmercifully. When Hitler crossed the Polish frontier on September 1, 1939 none of the great capitals of Eastern Europe realized half century would pass before they would regain their freedom again.

It will never be September 10, 2001 again. The old familiar world, which to us was as comfortable and solid as the vanished Europe of crowned potentates was to generation of 1914, was in its entirety the cassus belli that led us to this pass. And the ultimate consequence of every belligerency, the fact that every generation struggles with as it presses forward in war, is the realization that victory requires it to destroy the shining world of memories which it holds so dear. Only at the end can it look back with clear eyes and see itself as part of the path it has trodden.

One such moment came late in World War 2, when Chaplain Roland Gittelsohn delivered this sermon at the dedication of the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. (Hat tip: Little Green Footballs) He asked us to remember how much of the normal led to that extraordinary island in the Pacific in the foolish hope that we would never forget.

WHEN THE FINAL CROSS has been placed in the last cemetery, once again there will be those to whom profit is more important than peace, who will insist with the voice of sweet reasonableness and appeasement that it is better to trade with the enemies of mankind, than, by crushing them, to lose their profit. To you who sleep here silently, we give our promise: we will not listen. We will not forget that some of you were burnt with oil that came from American wells, that many of you were killed by shells fashioned from American steel. We promise that when once again men seek profit at your expense, we shall remember how you looked when we placed you reverently, lovingly, in the ground.

And maybe we have forgotten already.