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Between the crosses, row on row

"Some commentators note that back in England, philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell ended up in jail during the battle of the Somme, although he was immeasurably more sane and less of a threat to the continued existence of Imperial Britain than Haig."

Between the crosses row on row
Author: Phil Dickie
Date: 07 May 2002

One of the most vivid images of my life came unexpectedly upon me as a young teenage passenger in a van trundling down a country road in France early one winter morning. As the mist rose I became aware that the fields beside the road were filled with small white crosses. It was undulating land, and as the mist started to clear from the next rise, more lines of crosses appeared. And as the mist started to rise over a low and distant hill, those dreadful lines were still appearing out of the mist and disappearing out into the distance.

Thirty years on, my eyes still mist over at the memory of what that rising French mist revealed to me.

In the years since, I have never been able to precisely locate where I was. The Michelin mob do great detail on their road maps, but there are many roads in the area and most run past multiple cemeteries. Only some of the little crosses on the maps carry any further notation - Brit, Can, All. (German) or Aust. You presume that most of the unmarked ones are probably Fr.

Most likely, I was in the valley of the River Somme, where the British made their great push on the Western Front in 1916. The generals determined in advance that the Germans and all their defensive works would be completely demolished in a pre-attack bombardment that lasted eight days and could be heard in England. Accordingly, the troops were to climb out of their trenches, form up, and walk line abreast across no man's land. Cavalry were kept on hand to ride off in the direction of Berlin once the infantry had secured the trenches.

There were 20,000 Allied casualties in the first hour of the attack, 60,000 in the first day. British Field Marshal Douglas Haig persisted for about five months or 600,000 allied casualties. The deepest advance of the entire battle was a mere 12 kilometres, some of which was given back to the Germans after heavy snow. Haig, a former cavalry inspector noted for his view that "The machine gun is a much over rated weapon." got himself a memorial statue in London, astride one of the horses never called into play that day. Relatives of some of the thousands of allied soldiers ordered executed by Haig for declining to go over the top have for years run a fitful but futile campaign to have his statue torn down and melted into medals for the murdered.

This is just one classic example of the insanity of war. Some commentators note that back in England, philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell ended up in jail during the battle of the Somme, although he was immeasurably more sane and less of a threat to the continued existence of Imperial Britain than Haig. Other commentators note that the First World War was the last war in which the majority of casualties came from the military. Subsequent wars of the 20th century were to be waged as much if not more against civilians.

Which brings us to the war now most in the news, the semi-declared stoush between Israel and Palestine. It is hard to see that this is a war that can be won in any conventional sense by either side. There is no end in sight, partly because of the hatred being engendered and continually renewed in the continuing and escalating hostilities.

Most of the casualties, on both sides, are civilians and it is impossible to escape the conclusion that both sides are at least in part deliberately targeting civilians and civilian facilities. There is to my mind no moral or theological basis to waging war this way, but obviously this is strictly a minority view in those parts. Or, more likely, there are those who hold such views, but they have learned to hold them very privately.

Doing the blame game is pointless and gets you tangled up in the same motivations that keep the war going. In the long run, there must be peace; hopefully it will be peace with a viable Israel and a viable Palestine because the only other alternative is neither.

The initiative is going to have to come from Israel, the party with the most ability to wage war and also, the greatest ability to stop waging war. I don't believe it to be taking sides to note that Israel has by far the most to lose and is now well on track to losing a lot of it. Not through military defeat - the finest military machine in the Middle East isn't gong to be defeated, no way, even in the face of economic collapse, political chaos and social disintegration.

America might stop paying for Israel to have a guns AND butter economy. The Knessett may become even more hijacked by the lunatic insistence of the Jewish right to maintain settlements in the most provocative sites possible in Palestine. The best and the brightest of the Israelis continue to find that life is much more rewarding and much less risky somewhere ...anywhere...else. The Palestinians, on the other hand aren't risking much of an economy, or any viable political institutions or much in the way of social stability. Most Palestinians in the most belligerent age brackets don't actually have anything much better to do all day than throw lumps of street at young Israeli conscripts who probably believe they have many, many better things to do all day than serve as targets for lumps of flying street.

To get peace, Israel will have to make concessions and the longer it waits to start negotiating them, the larger the necessary level of concession is likely to be. A grand gesture of some sort always helps, and the West Bank settlements would seem the obvious candidate.

As peace escalates, hot heads on both sides who have a stake in violence are likely to try to derail the process by resorting to fresh atrocity, as they have done in the past in Palestine and as they have been doing in Northern Ireland, northern Spain and northern Sri Lanka.

I remember that Israel did once have a Prime Minister who recognised the path his country was on and had travelled some way down the path of peace. Inadequately perhaps, but you have to start somewhere. But Rabin was shot by a Jewish extremist. It is a fair bet that the only others celebrating that dark night were Palestinian extremists.