When will we ever learn?

Remember South Pacific? I’ve worked the show, seen the film, know most of the music, but had never read the book. Well now I have. If you’re creating a mass-entertainment musical for post-war America I guess you don’t want to include the book’s wartime reality of permanent fungal rashes, raw skin, racism, and rape attempts. Or the pervasive escapism of amateur warriors fighting stultifying boredom and real fear with alcohol-infused fake fun. Yes, I’ve been to a number of Michener’s islands, where half-century old military detritus still hasn’t rusted away. And the book triggered my own Green Machine memories of swamps, snakes, and seriously itchy full-body rashes in the days before steroid shots cured whatever ails us. And I thought of woolen redcoats and steel-clad conquistadors going out to conquer tropical people and poisonous plants. Remind me again, please. What were they – and we – fighting for? There are things you can say in a book that are harder to say in mass media – something to do with audience demographics. I understand now why it won a Pulitzer Prize.

I still don’t understand the need for war.

In the midst of reading I also took a day off to play tourist at a nearby attraction, Charles Fort in Kinsale. There’s nothing particularly outstanding its architecture – it’s a standard star fort, which was a fashionable design several hundred years ago. It let you greet people coming to your door with killing fire from two sides at once. A plaque points out how the fort’s designer not only designed great fortifications, but also designed means of attacking them. [Leonardo da Vinci did this, as well.] I guess that defence contractors have been pulling the same stunts for centuries. My understanding is that Cork’s defence contractors of the 1700’s used profits from outfitting his majesty’s fleet to culvert the river channels that are now Patrick Street, Grand Parade and South Mall, among others, including my own street. I will admit that it’s easier to walk across a street than row across it. Could we have done all this if Ireland hadn’t been a supply cog in the most powerful war machine of its day?

So tell me please, the cost of missiles shot into Syria – and compare it to the cost of feeding, clothing and housing Syrian refugees.

The Atlantic Ocean, from Charles Fort. Built to protect Kinsale, its garrison surrendered when attacked from land in 1690. The fort’s last British commander turned it over to the Irish in 1921. The same man also commanded Singapore when the Japanese attacked from land, not sea, in 1942. He had armour-piercing artillery designed to fight battleships, not infantry.

Another plaque at Charles Fort honours a military band leader stationed there, who later composed the Colonel Bogey March, used in Bridge on the River Kwai. Music bypasses the logical parts of our brain, going straight to our hearts. In other words, it can be a very effective military morale booster. Aside from its film and jungle rot associations, I remember marching to its cadence singing, “Re-up, and get a brand new car…Re-up, I’d rather throw up …”

When you need to bribe people to stay in your killing machine, something’s wrong with your business plan. And with your economy, too, if there’s nothing more productive for your people to do in civilian life.

Oh, and more trivia for you – Oscar-winning River Kwai was written by two of Hollywood’s blacklisted screenwriters. Their widows were permitted to accept belated awards 27 years later. And band leader F.J. Ricketts spent time as an IRA captive.

There’s another five feet of this 18th century cannon barrel buried in what once was a big muddy riverbank on Cork’s Grand Parade. I think making it a traffic bollard is a huge improvement over its past use.

So…where am I going with this? Damned if I know. Can we excuse censorship, profiteering, greed, mass suffering and old men sending young men to die in the name of “just wars”? Or are greed, fighting and warfare simply a part of the human condition – one of the reasons we signed up for a tour of duty on this planet in this consciousness?

When we look at history, all that remains are symbols of power, not people. We see the ABC’s – another bloody castle or cathedral – and lots of military emplacements designed to withstand previous eras’ attacks, but not their own era’s ingenuity. But we honour their builders and those who died there.

After all, it’s just war.

If you missed the last one you don’t have to wait long for the next.

The story of FJ Ricketts, composer of the Colonel Bogey March.

2 Comments on “When will we ever learn?

  1. Thank you for this. At a peace rally recently I heard a Vet say something like “can anyone tell me how weapons that blow human bodies to small bits are somehow better than chemical weapons?”
    The insanity of endless wars. That said, I believe history also contains acts of kindness and justice and beauty and while we needn’t excuse cruelty we humans are capable of choosing to live together in peace. Maybe, maybe not but I’m trying to stay open to the possibility. Especially since it’s becoming increasingly obvious that our survival depends on it.

    • I hope you’re right. Military-type weapons have no place in civilian life – and if you know what an M-16/AR-15 can do to its target you’ll realize that calling it a “hunting” weapon is totally disingenuous. If you actually hit Bambi after your three-round burst bounces off tree leaves there will be nothing left to eat.

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