(Yes, I am still on a road trip. Should be home Friday; meanwhile, I find it hard to blog (and write fiction) while on the move and living out of a suitcase.)
In other news: I'm shocked but unsurprised by the idiocy of Prime Minister David Cameron in saying that, for the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, he wanted to see a "commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, says something about who we are as a people". I never had a particularly high opinion of Call me Dave, but in this instance he's clearly intent on digging himself a new pit in my esteem.
David Cameron is an Old Etonian, a child of privilege who was schooled at Eton College: he therefore has no excuse for not knowing better. Eton College made a grim contribution to the British Army officer corps during that war—a contribution paid in blood, many times over. Call Me Dave spent his teen years surrounded by the charnel memorabilia of that war, but it seems to have skidded past his cranium as effortlessly as he himself swarmed up the greasy pole to the top of politics. So some remedial schooling in the history of his own school is in order ...
Dave, if you're reading this, I'd like you to imagine the class you were a member of at age 16. This class probably had 20-25 boys in it. To put the first world war in perspective, I'd like you to line your classmates up against a notional wall. Now imagine it's 1914, and you and your classmates are 16, and we're going to emulate the first world war. I want you to take a revolver, load one chamber with a bullet, and play Russian Roulette with each boy in turn. One random trigger pull each, up close against their head. If the gun doesn't go off, fine: if it blows their skull apart, reload with one round and proceed to the next boy.
Once you've finished playing Russian roulette, you can have your PR people drag the corpses away. Then you start all over again, this time holding the gun against an arm, leg, stomach, or crotch—it doesn't really matter—as you pull the trigger. This second game of roulette is not about killing: it is about savage, crippling, maiming injuries. Shattered kneecaps and hands, castration and colostomization. Oh, by the way, this time you load the pistol with two rounds to double the probability of each boy catching a Blighty.
The screaming, weeping, leaking survivors are the ones who made it back to England's green and pleasant land alive. I wonder if they'll have anything positive to say about your iterated game of Russian roulette?
If you'd been 16 in 1914, then of your class at Eton probably 4-6 would have died (Eton boys ended up as officers: the death rate among junior officers was double that among the non-commissioned ranks). Another 6-8 would have been wounded—faces burned off, arms and legs and spines shattered, lungs scarred by gas until they coughed themselves to death in middle years—these are not pretty injuries, duelling scars or badges of honour: these are vile blows that turn strong young men into lifelong cripples (the sort of people who these days fail their ATOS work assessments and are denied disability payments two weeks before they die of their condition: but I digress).
Only a small fraction of Eton's 1914 class survived the war without physical injury. Lest you assume the death toll was confined to gung-ho officer chappies leading their men over the top, even for the non-commissioned ranks it was a brutal war: around 5% of the total male population of the UK died on the front line, and another 10% were damaged, wounded in body or mind. (As a reference point for foreign readers, the death toll among the British was considerably worse than that of the American Civil War—and among the French it was bloodier by far.)
This is the event that Call Me Dave, our inexplicably ignorant excuse for a Prime Minister, thinks is a suitable subject for a commemoration that says something positive about the British people: a teachable patriotic moment for the masses. Only a second-rate reject from the marketing industry could come up with such an abjectly peurile pile of shrapnel-severed bollocks: that, or a fool who has swallowed Michael Gove's conveniently patriotic educational myths without so much as a pinch of skepticism or introspection. The first world war started as a family scrap driven by the bloated egos of the richest, most powerful family in Europe—lest we forget, Kaiser Wilhelm II was closely related by blood to both Tsar Nicholas II and King George V of Great Britain—and ended up as a nightmarish industrialized slaughterhouse. It was a mincing machine into which the menfolk of entire towns vanished, a Pals Battalion at a time: a death factory that manufactured an average of a thousand British corpses a day for years on end.
They said at the time that the British soldiers were lions led by donkeys. And it seems that as a nation we are still led by donkeys ...