“If there’s anything I admire more than a devoted friend, it’s a dedicated enemy.” That’s a line from the film, ‘The Big Country’. I spent three wonderfully lazy hours, splayed on my mum’s sofa, watching it a few Sundays ago. The story, which I suppose is set in the mid-1800’s, goes like this: Retiring to the American West to marry his fiancée, Captain James McKay (played by Gregory Peck) enters a land-and-water feud between his future father-in-law, Major Terrill and the rough and lawless Hannassey family. (Oh, those crazy, wild, Irish settlers, spelling their name all funny when they move to America, and galloping around as if they own the place!) McKay, now allied to the Terrills, on account of courting the daughter, tries to pursue a path of peace between the Terrills and the Hannasseys. The Hannasseys repeatedly attempt to resolve the feud by the power of the gun – the only way they know how. McKay’s novel, non-violent approach angers his fiancé and her father, Major Terrill. In their world, a truce is not an option; peaceful solution shows weakness in the wild west. It all ends, inevitably, in a big gun fight: Major Terrill and the head of the Hannassey clan are both shot dead, McKay’s engagement is called off, and he gallops off into the sunset with a new girl. Typical gun-toting, swashbuckling, Western-fare, perfect for a Sunday afternoon. Even Charlton Heston is in it, not having to do much acting, he plays a snarly, hard-man, wedded to his rifle.
It’s only a movie, and an old one at that – it was made 60 years ago – but the lesson it preaches is hard learnt: stop warring and start talking. Today is Remembrance Day – 11/11 – the date marking the end of WW1 hostilities in 1918. A vile war that made people swear they would never go down that path again. Alas. And there was a while, when the world did feel like a safer place; when we had leaders who were talkers and thinkers, listeners and negotiators. But right now it feels like we’ve got a bunch of loud-mouthed Hannasseys, lawlessly galloping around on horses, goading each other into a world stage equivalent of the ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’.
So, who does one turn to for leadership if you feel your leaders are acting like cowboys? I turn to wise, dead people, because what they knew then, still stands true today. W.H. Auden, for one, who wrote on the dangers of buying into propaganda and not thinking for oneself: “For we have seen a myriad faces – Ecstatic from one lie.” And going back much further, Socrates had the measure of the loud-mouth: “When the debate is over, slander becomes the tool of the loser.”
On Edinburgh’s North Bridge, right in the centre of the city, running over Waverley Station, there is a huge war monument showing a group of four (over-life-sized) young soldiers in the Boer War campaign, all dressed for action. It is a memorial to those lost from the ‘King’s Own Scottish Borderers’. One is holding binoculars, two are holding rifles, and one has dropped to the ground, wounded. The inscription below remembers campaigns in Afghanistan (1878-1880), Egypt (1888-1889), Chin Lushai, Chitral and Tirah – India and now Pakistan (1888-1898) and South Africa (1900-1902). Places still synonymous with conflict today.
The war poets said it best of all, having lived it, and then died in it. Owen didn’t make it home 100 years ago, he died at the front, aged 25. I’m quite sure, in this poem and others, he was instructing us to drop our dedication to our enemies and find a better way.
‘Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.