I was in England yesterday. After doing business near London, I happened to be driving along the same route to be taken by the returned bodies of five British soldiers killed last week in Afghanistan, where the British have been fighting alongside Americans since Tony Blair (since deposed, as was King George W.) anted up. And they’ve been getting killed, as well, right alongside Americans.
For what? So that the Taliban, which I have been told now simply employs mercenaries from Pakistan and elsewhere, can wage endless war and endlessly sell the fruit of the poppy unimpeded while keeping the population as poor, ignorant and downtrodden as ever.
But this isn’t about the Taliban, or mad King George W. It isn’t even about Tony Blair, who apparently justifiably comes in for a good share of derision on British TV humor shows. It’s about the horrific sadness of empire, and windowed hearses bearing brave dead men home in the pouring rain.
First, empire. On Saturday, Feb. 13, Michael Parenti examined the idea of empire in a column on CommonDreams.org. He wrote:
The purpose of all this killing is to prevent alternative, independent, self-defining nations from emerging. So the empire uses its state power to gather private wealth for its investor class. And it uses its public wealth to shore up its state power and prevent other nations from self-developing.
Sooner or later this arrangement begins to wilt under the weight of its own contradictions. As the empire grows more menacing and more murderous toward others, it grows sick and impoverished within itself. “
The United States is suffering this sickness and spiritual impoverishment. We don’t even see images on the news of caskets returning to the U.S. from far-flung outposts of would-be empire; Bush decreed it. Although King George W. himself was apparently unable to feel bona fide spiritual pain, he was dimly aware that the rest of us might still be able to, and he didn’t want a Vietnam repeat. He didn’t want the unavoidable truth — that young soldiers were being horribly sacrificed for the demands of empire — to be revealed. Nor for himself to be reviled; he lost on that one.
Mr. Obama decided that news organizations could, after eight years of being denied the honor by Mr. Bush, view and film the caskets as they came in to Dover AFB, Delaware. Despite that, there has been precious little news footage or that, or anything else that would make anyone understand that death is final.
Indeed, when one report recently showed the death throes of a soldier killed in Iraq, the outrage, as I recall, wasn’t that the dear young man was killed, but that it was indelicate to show it. That, friends, is an unmistakable hallmark of a society in serious spiritual decline. We weren’t outraged that a young man was killed before time and so horribly; we were outraged that we had to see it, had to recognize it for what it was, murder by our own society in our quest to acquire the goods another society owned. Sure, many people cited the soldier’s family as a reason not to show the news clip. Of course it was painful to them. Of course it was. But showing it was so needed so that it could be painful to those who will not feel, to those who might be swayed in future from voting for emotionally dead monsters like George W. Bush.
Soon enough, the footage disappeared and we could all pretend, like Mr. Bush, that enriching the top one percent of Americans is a clean and happy affair, with little more than an economic downturn to signal the dissolute nature of the empire.
There is probably not a single day that I do not consider the spiritual decline of America. There has not been such a day for the past ten years, or eleven if one counts my gut-paralyzing fear the day, sometime before Mr. Bush’s first travesty, that if he didn’t win it fair and square (a bad enough thought), he would steal it. And steal it he did. One doesn’t often like one’s worst fears to come to pass, but one’s certain knowings are different. They come to pass and all one can do is weep.
One can weep at the stupidity of a population that would elect the least of the contenders to gut the country and its Constitution for eight years. But even so, it is not the same sort of weeping one can do when presented with the incontrovertible fact of death. It isn’t weeping like the weeping I did for a brief moment yesterday when those British hearses rolled by me on a British road in a British town very near the British capital.
At several roundabouts (called traffic circles in the US) in Wiltshire near the Lyneham RAF station, groups of men and women stood in the rain. Among them were retired Royal Marines holding black flags honoring the unit of at least one of the dead soldiers. I admit to a warm spot for Royal Marines; one of my best friends is a retired Royal Marine, 85-ish now, who wrote the book Bugle Boy about his experiences at the deadly Scapa Flow base in Scotland in World War II.
On the basis of that friendship, as well as an enormous fondness for the people of Britain and Ireland, I was inclined to be very, very sad.
I slowed as much as I could out of respect, and mindful of the line of weekday traffic behind me.
Two local police motorcycles preceded the hearses, and a car or two.
And then the hearses rolled by.
Inside, the coffins, draped in Union Jacks (the same colors as the American flag but bolder, especially vibrant against the drizzle and gloom), passed by me on what we Americans would say was the wrong side of the road. And it was clearly the wrong side of the road; there is no right side when one is bringing back the mortal remains of immortally courageous people who wade into a war they did not start and cannot end because an ally asked their government to, and their officers passed on that command…as they had to. It was their duty.
Duty is still quite a strong incentive in Britain, from Queen Elizabeth down to the local bobby (foot patrolman) on the street. Despite our breaking our own empire away from theirs some two hundred odd years ago, Britain seems still to feel a duty to act in concert with America. And the result of that duty, yesterday, was on display to break the hearts of families, friends, other Britons of all varieties, and one transplanted American journalist.
The return of the soldiers’ coffins had been all over the TV and radio news all morning; indeed, BBC showed the soldiers’ faces for a lot longer than the brief 15-seconds of posthumous fame US TV gives our soldiers killed in action.
Perhaps it is because fewer British soldiers are killed that they get more time than US soldiers. But I think it’s more. I think it is honoring soldiers, any soldiers, who protect their nation, whether the threat is real, a was World War II, or imaginary, as this one. A soldier’s job is to follow the orders of the commanders, whose job is to follow the orders of the government. In both cases, in Britain and the US, the government is elected and can be unelected. In both cases, largely over the issue of sending young soldiers to fight so that the power elite might prosper, the government was unelected in one case, and his chosen successor defeated in the other. Tony Blair is history, and so is George W. Bush although disgustingly, his legacy lives on.
A much better legacy is one that transcends the cupidity and stupidity of George W. Bush. That legacy is the indelible picture of a deathly gray British winter’s day, lashings of rain at frequent intervals making puddles around the feet of mourners lining a cortege route to honor the Queen’s loyal soldiers who have left her employ in the worst possible way, leaving their loved ones behind, taking their unique personalities and skills with them, to the impoverishment of us all.
Five black hearses rolled along a route where farm wagons, electrical repair vans, families going out for pizza during midterm break, heavy goods vehicles transporting washing machines and wind-farm components customarily run. In some odd way, the five hearses sanctified the roadway, lifting it out of his humdrum existence and making it into a reminder of the spiritual cost of engaging in war, and especially in wars for which this — wringing tears from a jaded journalist weary of useless wars and lying politicians — is the major accomplishment.
RIP Lance Sergeant David Greenhalgh, Lance Corporal Darren Hicks, Kingsman Sean Dawson*, Rifleman Mark Marshall and Sapper Guy Mellors**.
A total of 261 British service personnel have died since Britain joined the US in Afghan operations in 2001.
* In the Duke of Lancaster’s regiment, a Kingsman is the equivalent of a private in the rest of the British army.
**In the British military, a Sapper is a military engineer who lays and disarms land mines and other field fortifications.