any question why we died,
them, because our fathers lied.
of the War” by Rudyard Kipling (1918)
readers know this couplet well, but it may be that fewer are familiar
with Kipling’s poem “Mesopotamia.” That verse is so completely
applicable to our current situation (especially the title) as to
cry out to be heard again. The title refers to the British
campaign in the Arab lands during World War I. O so little
we have learned in some 90 years:
not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?
not return to us, the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?
shall not return to us while Day and Night divide –
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?
only threaten and be angry for an hour?
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?
they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To confirm and re-establish each career?
cannot repay us – their death could not undo –
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shall we leave it unabated in its place?
On the same
note, the epitaph immediately following the famous one above is
for the headstone of "A Dead Statesman:"
not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?
Up until the
war Kipling had glorified the British empire and army and wars in
many of his works. When the war came, he encouraged his son to join
the army, and even pulled a lot of strings to get him admitted despite
his physical disabilities. His son was killed in France in 1915,
at the age of 18. These facts lend added meaning to the epitaph
at the head of this column.
Kipling spent his early career glorifying empire, army, and war,
he has shown us that even such a one can sincerely (and unpopularly)
change his mind later in life. It seems to me that there is some
hope in that.
M. Montalbano [send him mail]
is a retired programmer/analyst in rural Oregon.