War of the World

19th July 2017

As teenagers just out of school, I and four friends cycled across France and a bit of Switzerland. We had two tents, one map-reader and no money. It was a great trip.

I was never much interested in the route we would take. We left that to Mark, who, true to his orientational instincts, would later become a professor of astronomy, helping map the stars that flame above us.

Another of our band, Eamonn, proved to be a most excellent cycling companion when the going got rough. I recall arriving into random village after village in the parching afternoon heat, and Eamonn crying out to anyone who would listen: ‘Ou est l’eau potable? Ou-Est-L’eau-Potable?’. A drinking-well seemed always to appear.

Because the essentials were thus taken care of, and because the times didn’t yet permit me to devise strategies to meet attractive men, I was left to indulge in another interest: war memorials.

It seemed that every French village, no matter how small, had a monument to its war dead. I soon discovered that 36,000 such edifices were built across France between 1920-1925, and were mostly funded by voluntary contributions, despite the economic hardship after the Great War. Each took the same obelisk form, and was cared for in the same respectful manner.

My teenage self found the wording on these monuments poetic, wistful and vaguely melodramatic: ‘À nos enfants, morts pour la France’.

Below the bleak headline, there would come a list of names. The appearance of three, maybe four, members of the same family on one village’s monument would always stir something in me. Worse still was the addition, hastily engraved, of the further catastrophe in 1939-1945.

Historians mostly agree that the ‘War to end all wars’ did precisely the opposite of what it advertised, making the Second World War all but inevitable. So the lists, and the bravery, and the suffering and the glory grew ever longer.

As I make my way through the south of France today, I am no longer of an age with those fallen soldiers. At a ripened 52 years, I am the vintage of their fathers, if not their grandfathers. The change of perspective, one of the many rewards of no longer being young, makes me see urgency where once I suspected melodrama.

In the beautiful village of Pierrevert, in the Luberon, I am awaiting friends and find myself beside the community War Memorial. This time, the passionate words of Charles de Gaulle are affixed to its western elevation. The General’s declaration, sent from London in 1940 and addressed to all French people, decries the chaotic surrender of France to Nazi invaders, calling on the French people to rise up against their oppressors, to maintain hope, to believe that the forces of evil would be overcome, and that the glory of France would once again be renewed.

I stand, momentarily transfixed by his words. Now that we know the story’s end, de Gaulle’s words feel fully prescient. This is not melodrama nor romantic brouhaha. What emerges most clearly is the utter humanity, dignity and resolve of a problem clearly named, and a people loudly called to action.

That was then. This is now.

Here in 2017, in a global society obsessed with the pursuit of individual happiness rather than collective meaning, it is less easy to discern the enemy at the gate. It does not fly flags on our government buildings, nor march down our cobbled main-streets. But the enemy is here nonetheless, because the developed world has ushered it in.

Just last week an iceberg a quarter the size of Wales broke free from the Antarctic ice pack. Just last month, President Trump broke the USA away from the Paris Accord on climate control. Just yesterday, a Swiss couple, missing in the high Alps since they disappeared tending to their cows during the war years, was discovered mummified, their bodies laid bare by a rapidly shrinking glacier.

We know that we will be prepared to die for our nation if it is placed in peril. History has taught us this.

But who is prepared to fight for the world? Who will sound that clarion call? And who will be left to build the monuments and, alas, engrave the lists?


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