An American friend was asking me the other day about Halifax, a town with which I am reasonably familiar, but he had just passed through. “An odd town,” he called it, “but strangely charming. Is it?” “She is charming when she is asleep,” I told him, “and she sleeps for decades. But in wartime, she comes to life, and then she is among the world’s most exciting cities.” It is not the custom, in journalism today, to speak well of war.
And I must admit, as Thomas De Quincey admitted about “the fine art of murder,” that it has its weak side.
One cannot reasonably advocate blasting and bombardiering as an end in itself, when the targets are living people, whether in or out of uniform.
De Quincey’s essay was on the aesthetic aspects of murder, a rich field he had found almost unexplored, and perhaps I should explain to those who never read him that, as a writer, De Quincey could be rather droll.
By contrast, the aesthetic aspects of war have been carefully investigated, and documented, and the works of war artists banked away in many museums. Yet even aesthetically, I can think of several arguments against war, for war’s sake.
To the modern “gliberal” as I call him (a liberal who has lost all purchase on reality), one has to explain that we do not fight wars as ends in themselves, and that the person who thinks we should tends to expose himself as either a humourist, or a psychopath, or both.
At least, this is the Christian view. I have no authority to speak for any other religion. So let me specify, for the benefit of the many gliberal readers I seem to have, that I am against starting wars promiscuously.
Yet, “wars happen,” to adapt a popular saying from the ‘80s, and when they do, it has long been the genius of mankind to make the best of them.
There are certain aspects of all the Christian virtues that enjoy a special scope in wartime, and I think faith and fortitude lead the way. (Or, shraddha, and titiksha, if my reader is a Hindu; we must not assume an understanding of the virtues is restricted to Christendom.) Good, moreover, often comes of evil, and the bringing of good out of evil is the very genius to which we are called, in any adversity. Thanksgiving, even and perhaps especially for good found within the prison of evil, is also something to which we are called.
How can I speak against war, when I owe my very existence to it? For Halifax is where my own parents met, in the middle of the last official World War—he a smart young officer in the Navy, she a capable young nurse, with long red hair.
Conveniently for them, they got to meet over sherry aboard papa’s ship, instead of over a hypodermic in mama’s hospital ward.
Let no one forget, in this season of Remembrance, Rudyard Kipling’s lines evoking Halifax, which remain the city’s motto today and forever: “Into the mist my guardian prows put forth, Behind the mist my virgin ramparts lie; The Warden of the Honour of the North, Sleepless and veiled am I.” Think of that for a minute, or more if you need the time: “The Warden of the Honour of the North.” Perhaps I am strangely old-fashioned, but that line does for me what A.E. Housman said poetry should do, while shaving. It makes the hairs of my chin bristle.
Honour: what kind of word is that? It is a word that may be easily misconstrued. It could be applied, wrongly, to dishonourable things. It could be applied, rightly according to definition, but in a circumstance so imprudent as to make it wrong. And yet there are moments when it is applied rightly to circumstance, and it commands our action.
And it is then the guardian prows put forth, from the virgin ramparts. Poetry, including the poetry of war, by its very power to inspire us, also reminds us of a moral order that is deeper than life and death.
The old men know this, for whom we wear our poppies, and the young men and women we have sent to Afghanistan know it still: what we mean by “The Honour of the North.” And we remember, today, so many things, but especially, that we must never turn our backs to honour.