We used to celebrate the 4th of July here at Wyken. Out would come my collection of pure cotton flags made in the USA not the Walmart nylon ones made in El Salvador. Hot dogs (Gloucester Old Spot), hamburgers (Red Poll) and lobster (Scottish) rolls were served, complete with potato salad, watermelon and peach ice cream. One year, we even gave away copies of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the revolutionary pamphlet that became the cornerstone of the Declaration of Independence. I liked the idea of reading Thomas Paine and drinking ice-cold Liberty Ale as the author was born a few barley fields away in Thetford. By the time the evening sky turned indigo and we lit the fireworks, I’d be feeling as corny as Kansas in August, as blue as blueberry pie.
But that was a few years back. For the past couple of years, the flags have stayed in the attic. No hot dogs, no roman candles like bombs bursting in air. I can remember another time in my life when red, white and blue patriotic hoo-haw got on my nerves. It was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the war in Vietnam. Perhaps I don’t celebrate well in wartime and that’s another thing that gets on my patriotic nerves: nobody acts like we are at war. It’s a topic confined to the opinion pages of news-papers, a brief death count on the evening news. Bring up the war at a dinner, and the conversation hits a certain lull: ‘a disaster’, ‘a quagmire’. Nobody says ‘we’re doing a lot of good over there’, but, glasses filled, few of us sacrifice anything for the war. Few of us worry about anyone in Iraq or Afghanistan. Few of us know anyone who is there.
This makes it different from other wars. A week of reading about the futile slaughter of the Battle of the Somme reminded me of a time when everyone in the country was connected to someone on that fatal battlefield. So did Alistair Cooke’s American Journey, as he crossed prairies and arrived in small towns to find that every man in the town under the age of 30 had been drafted the week before. Even in my privileged Ivy-League world during the Vietnam war, we all knew someone who had burned their draft card, someone who’d disappeared into Canada. We also knew someone a brother, a cousin, a friend, a friend’s son who was in Vietnam.
An old friend, who was in Vietnam (drafted), emailed me recently that he’d begun to wonder if a volunteer army was in the best interests of a democracy. A man with four grandsons, he now believes that a president or prime minster would think twice before fabricating intelligence, before allowing himself to be ‘duped’ by intelligence personnel in order to justify war. ‘If there’d been a draft, this war would have been over two years ago or never started.’ In six months’ time, my son will be 18, what we used to call ‘draft age’.
The thought chills every atom in my soul. But I share my friend’s fears. When few citizens sacrifice anything for the outcome of the war; when they don’t have a clue what the war is about; when too few people feel the pain of war no one holds the politicians accountable. To rephrase Jeannette Rankin, we can no more win the war in Iraq or Afghanistan than we can win an earthquake. As long as our politicians do not have sons and daughters on the battlefield, as long as the only faces we recognise are the reporters, we won’t demand answers to the questions: When do we win? What do we win? When do we leave? And I, for one, can’t hang out the flags
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on July 13, 2006.