Kipling's Regret: The Arrogance That Slew

If any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied.

~ from “Epitaphs of the War” by Rudyard Kipling (1918)

Many 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:

Mesopotamia by Rudyard Kipling (1917)

They shall 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?

They shall 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?

Our dead 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?

Shall we 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?

Even while 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?

Their lives 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:"

I could 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.

Well, although 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.

April 27, 2006