Not my sort of book even though its setting is historical. It’s a spy and murder mystery, and one of Bud’s library books. I expected to breeze through it for relaxation and not think about the murder bits too much, as I usually do with books like this. No Graves as Yet, by Anne Perry is set in the month before WWI breaks out- and this did catch my thoughts.
The First World War was utterly futile, the number of deaths was appalling and it solved nothing. (I still think that.) The blunderings of statesmen did more harm than seemed possible. The title of the novel is taken from a poem by one of my favourite authors, G.K. Chesterton.
Elegy in a Country Churchyard
The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.
But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.
And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.
But the individual moral dilemmas of the characters here still have me thinking. One, a pacifist, commits murder to try to ensure Britain will not be embroiled in the war. As we read the story we feel his despair that all that he loves about England and its heritage will be lost in war, invasion, and collapse of Empire. We are swept along by his logic- which is not logic at all, but imagination (of consequences) and emotion. And at what point are our ideals, our honour, our civilisation threatened not by what happens to our country, but by what our country does? I grieve for our military in Iraq and Afghanistan, not only for the danger and hardship they suffer, but for the evil they do- and can never forget.
Why do people get swept into actions that seem to them inevitable, just and logical but seem in hindsight or to others not so? Why on earth did Brits wave flags for a war in the Falklands, when they couldn’t even find the islands in question on a map? Ditto for Americans gung-ho to invade Iraq?
Why do we imagine that violence and conquest will breed anything but hatred and more violence? Why do we have drones flying over distant places (and at home?) where every death of insurgent or innocent non-combatant will only cause more anger and hatred- and more terrorists? Who are the terrorists if you are in a remote village in Afghanistan celebrating a wedding or birthday and your family gets wiped out by a bomb? Why did people ever think that the carnage of WWI would lead to “peace in our time” and not merely lead to WWII? “Do you have a man digging your garden, when he should be digging trenches” is a question in “Oh, What a Lovely War“. Well yes! Trenches for potatoes, not for millions of human corpses!
Why do we think this particular war (whatever it is) is a just war even when we see that the others were not? I am a pacifist- though were I to be living in a war zone, I don’t know how I would react, so this is a personal, ethical but theoretical position: my husband believes in the Just War theory, with the added statement that he hasn’t managed to identify one yet. My father was in the RAF during WWII and said in his old age that it was just a bloody waste. I have learned about Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a German theologian and pacifist, executed by the Nazis for being involved in a plot to kill Hitler. Did he make the difficult decision to kill, in order to end killing? It may not even be that clear, though. He was actually convicted of draft evasion. He was involved in resistance in non-violent ways, but there is, it seems no evidence that he was part of the actual plot. Either way, it must have been an agonising series of decisions, in a situation where he did actually lose his life.
Empires have risen and fallen. Countries have been invaded and their civilisations do not last forever. Where are the Hittites now? The Sumerians? Yet fragments persist: treasures of ancient empires existed in Baghdad until the Gulf War which destroyed and plundered yet again. War does not preserve; it destroys. The character’s fears that the English language, the plays of Shakespeare and the beauty of Cambridge are threatened in that coming war are not altogether false as such is the historical record of war and empire. In WWII both Coventry and Dresden lost their historic buildings. But our culture was no more threatened with extinction than was that of Germany who lost the war. The Norman Conquest? Yes- a major fork in possible histories occurred there, but “we” lost that one, and our land and people thrived again. Also threatened, though, are the values that England cherishes, but lives up to no more than any other empire. What is remembered in later centuries includes the atrocities, as mentioned in a recent Guardian comment. And, increasingly, we live in a world of non-official wars, popular uprisings, terrorist tactics, and atrocities especially against civilians.
Most of us are not put in the position of decision. I admire those who, like Barbara Lee, could hold on to sanity enough to vote against the Iraq War, but most of us are not even in her position- which is not to say that every opinion, vote, life, work choice and so on does not tip the scales one way or the other. Thich Nhat Hanh says that from wherever in life you are, you can always take steps towards or away from peace. Those steps are our prayers, for life or death, whether we say them out loud to God or not.
What steps will our characters take in sequels to this novel? Bud tells me that one brother, a college professor and ordained priest, decides to volunteer as a military chaplain, to be with the young men who will be over there. (We hope his faith is less founded on rationality and cerebral contemplation by then.) One we already know is in British Intelligence. I feel their sister will be driving an ambulance soon…
I may even read it.