He is born, more often than not, in some out of the way place and suspended in some era of clouded time. He comes shambling up from the rush-choked valleys of central Tennessee in the late twentieth century or off the rainy edges of Salisbury plain in the twelfth. What he knows has mostly to do with how birds lie in the autumn dusk or what it takes to cure a dog’s bruised pad. He is usually a distinct creature of a particular time and place – a very brief time and a very small place – and what the rest of the world does to itself or how it conceives of itself in the ugly little vanities that are often the origins of war are none of our man’s affair. Indeed, the world beyond his time and place usually bewilders him.
While still young he learns a fundamental lesson – that the world will not let him alone. It has a need for him, not his lightness or darkness of spirit, but for his flesh which is the firmament upon which war is based. If he isn’t present, there is no one to kill and no one to die and without each you can’t have a successful war. So, they come looking for him under some pretext which, by its very abstraction, is beyond his comprehension. It used to be that they gave him a glass of beer with a shilling at the bottom and, having taken the king’s shilling, he was the king’s man. Nowadays they use a card with a number on it, which turns him into a possession of the state.
He is taken from his valley or his plain, given schooling in injury, put into the proper suiting and sent off to confront other young men of like bewilderment. He is re-named ‘our brave boy’ and is the subject of much oratory by powerful men.
He is, usually, both terrified and slightly outraged by the confused disruption of his existence. Occasionally he admits to it. Shakespeare had him say, before the battle of Agincourt, “I am afeared there are few die well that die in battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument?” In his other, contemporary version, I have come upon him doubled over his own, mangled gut on a muddy road in Vietnam, weeping like the child he barely is not, because it hurt so much and because he was afraid he was going to die. He did.
When dead, ritual sets aside a day for him and some of the more impassioned survivors make songs that wonder where all the flowers have gone. But he has had the last, best word on himself. Lying dying at the battle of Chancelorsville, he was recorded by a witness as saying, “it had nothing to do with me.’ Indeed, it didn’t. It never had and it never will. He never made the wars. He only fought them.
This is Rod Macleish in Washington. Radio report 20 may 1969