Yesterday, we recalled a conversation from the weekend; the subject was rabbits.
We were sitting in a café in London, watching a group of old men walk by. It was Remembrance Day, the 11th day of the 11th month…the day WWI stopped. The men were wearing their service medals; some had so many they practically stooped from the weight of them.
“Of course, they should be proud of the time they spent in the army,” we were telling Elizabeth. “But there’s more to it. I watched a bit of the ceremony – commemorating those who died in WWI. They wheeled out one of the last veterans – Harry Patch, who served in the trenches. He’s 109 years old.”
“Yes, I feel proud of them…and I’m not even British,” said Elizabeth. “It’s part of what holds a group of people together…it’s what gives them a sense of identity and what makes a nation work…a shared history…a shared sense of commitment and sacrifice…”
“Yes, but it is also stupid…and often fatal. Remember, that rabbit?”
We had a particular rabbit in mind. The one your editor ran over when he was driving on the rural roads of France. The rabbit feinted and dodged. The tactic might have worked against a wolf. But our Renault minivan was indifferent to feints and dodges. It simply crushed the poor animal.
“Not all our instincts are suitable to modern life,” we observed. “We tend to eat too much…because some instinct tells us to load on calories when we have the chance…probably an instinct developed over thousands of years of living on the edge of starvation.
“And the instinct to fight wars too…that is even more dangerous than hamburgers. When WWI began, millions of young men answered the call. They stood up…got their guns…and went over to defend the Empire. It was not a logical, well-considered response.
It was an instinct…a deep instinct that made men who didn’t sign up feel like cowards.
“The instinct was a good one – thousands of years ago. Then, men needed to defend their villages and tribes. If they didn’t, their genes probably wouldn’t have survived into modern populations. But now, they rush into the trenches of WWI…or into Iraq today…and what’s the point? In WWI, the Europeans spent four years killing each other – for no apparent purpose. Germany never had any intention of invading England. The soldiers’ wives and children were never in danger. Even as a territorial dispute, the issues were trivial…and usually fraudulent. Nobody knew or really cared whether the Alsatians wanted to speak French or German. Then, at the end of the war along came the Americans with the doctrine of “self-determination,” the idea being that people should be free to decide for themselves which government ruled them.
“The Europeans practically laughed at Wilson when he came up with that one. Even the Americans themselves had already decided against it. The ‘War Between the States’ settled the matter; despite the declared intentions of the southern states, Lincoln’s army forced them back into the union.
“The wars usually don’t make any sense…but the instinct is still there. So when the cannons warm up, men still grab their shields and their spears. The result: many of them get killed. The instinct proves fatal…just as it was for the rabbit. And then, both the dead and the living are hailed as heroes…that’s an instinct too…as if they really had defended their homes and families.
“That’s true in Iraq today too…we praise the soldiers as heroes…even if we think the war is a humbug. And if you dare to point out that the war is a fraud…or even that it is probably a mistake, you’re called a coward. Of course, it’s preposterous. Logically, it takes no more courage to send someone else out to fight a war than it does to oppose it.”
“Yes…but you wouldn’t want to deny all instincts,” said Elizabeth.
“Love…faith…hope…charity…those are instincts too.”
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