Fighting Words

A Thousand Killed

What a little-known British poet named Bernard Spencer knew.

I went to bed on Tuesday night, pointlessly sickened by the news that American deaths in Iraq had exceeded 1,000. Why do I say pointlessly? Well, in the first place because one knew this figure was coming, and in the second place because if it had stayed at 999 one could hardly have taken any comfort from the fact. I woke up, as one sometimes does, remembering that there was a book of poems I had to consult. It’s a tattered thing on my shelf: an old anthology called Poetry of the Thirties that took a while to hunt down. The poem I was seeking is titled “A Thousand Killed,” and it reads like this:

            I read of a thousand killed.
            And am glad because the scrounging imperial paw
            Was there so bitten:
            As a man at elections is thrilled
            When the results pour in, and the North goes with him   
            And the West breaks in the thaw.

            (That fighting was a long way off.)

            Forgetting therefore an election
            Being fought with votes and lies and catch-cries
            And orator’s frowns and flowers and posters’ noise
            Is paid for with cheques and toys:
            Wars the most glorious
            Victory-winged and steeple-uproarious 
            … With the lives, burned-off,
            Of young men and boys.

In the dawn’s early light, the poem appeared even more uncannily fitting than I had remembered it: not just a few terse verses about a thousand dead, but about an election time, too. It was written by Bernard Spencer, one of those literary figures of the ‘30s whose reputation didn’t quite survive the decade. He is remembered for a certain personal elegance and febrile character, and for friendships with Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, and others of that retrospectively magical generation of “political” poets. The poem’s date is 1936.

I know quite a lot about this period and its poets, but I can only try to guess what Spencer was trying to convey. How, for a start, can he possibly be celebrating “a thousand killed”? The civil war in Spain began that same year, though there was no engagement where Gen. Franco’s invading troops, mainly Muslim Moroccans under Catholic command (and therefore “scrounging imperial,” all right) lost 1,000 men. Spencer’s father had been a servant of the British Raj in India, but there was certainly no occasion in 1936 on which 1,000 British colonial soldiers lost their lives, either. Mussolini’s 1935-36 aggression against Abyssinia—now Ethiopia—outraged the world by its cruelty and the indiscriminate use of poison gas, and Italian casualties had been well more than 1,000, so perhaps that’s it. The election that was held in Britain about that time was a solid victory for those who favored appeasement or, as it was called at that time, “nonintervention” against Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler.

It seems to me therefore that the poem was attempting to straddle the old historical problem of the British left (and also other “lefts”): the desire to fight and inveigh against tyranny overseas without giving any satisfaction to the arms manufacturers and jingoist patriots at home. People often learn the wrong lesson from raw and immediate history: By the mid-1930s it was an item of faith among enlightened types that the First World War had been both a crime and a mistake (which is to put it mildly) and that Britain had been deceived into an imperialist war in 1914 (which was true) and that therefore there should never again be a war with Germany (which in the immediate circumstances was a non sequitur). However, there had to be some kind of fight taking place somewhere, which is why I surmise the poem begins with a celebration and then flatly contradicts itself. Was Spencer, in other words, being antiwar, or anti-Nazi, or not? He evidently couldn’t decide. Indeed in the closing line he resorted to an old cliché: Of course it will be young men (and now women) who will die in uniform. The day when young men and women send old people off to fight will just never come. Nor, as far as I can see, should it be wished for. But then, I am conveniently middle-aged.

Spencer’s ambivalence is a reminder that there’s no reason to mock other people who are divided in mind and soul about casualties and the morality of war. I remember exhaling with relief when Saddam Hussein’s regime was taken down without the death toll on “our” side having much exceeded 100. Antiwar people had predicted many multiples of that. But I also thought it was a just war, which means that if I am honest I have to admit that I would not, or should not, have balked at a higher figure. And those who think it is an unjust or mistaken war should say that it isn’t worth a single life, and not hope that any “body bag” calculus will do their moral work for them. The greatest war poet and antiwar poet of them all, Wilfred Owen, spoke of the pity of war, and the poetry of war, and added simply that the poetry was in the pity. He threw away his own life in the last days of the First World War (his mother received the telegram just as the church bells were tolling for the armistice), but he had volunteered and then re-volunteered to do so. One just has to doff one’s cap at this point.

Nobody was able to say anything useful or memorable about the September day on which the American dead in Iraq passed the 1,000 mark. I shall not try to improve on this. John Kerry used the lame term “milestone,” which only shows the general inadequacy of words. There were some conventional remarks about “our brave men and women in uniform,” which could have been uttered on any day. I become irritated or disgusted only when anyone attempts to enlist these now voiceless dead for their own purposes. Respectful silence would be a far better response.