Friday, August 7, 2009

Wisdom From A Soldier of the Great War

Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier of World War I living in the United Kingdom, was buried in England yesterday; John F. Burns covered the funeral with great sensitivity for the Times. The ceremonies for Patch had a New York connection--the singing of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" by Pete Seeger of Beacon--and even greater resonance for all who are willing to learn about war from a soldier who experienced the slaughter of the trenches.

Patch was past his 100th birthday, Burns reports, when he finally started to speak about his experiences in World War I. Instead of resting on his heroism, he talked about death and the common humanity of soldiers on all sides. The band Radiohead recorded a haunting song based on Patch's that you can hear on the BBC site.

Burns' piece memorably recounts how,

A Belgian diplomat read an excerpt from Mr. Patch’s 2007 autobiography, “The Last Fighting Tommy,” in which he described an offensive during the battle at Passchendaele, the bloodiest chapter in the Ypres fighting, when he came across a fellow soldier “ripped from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel” during a British assault on German lines.

The episode reinforced in Mr. Patch, a devout Christian, the belief that there is a life after death. “When we got to him, he looked at us and said, ‘Shoot me,’ ” he recalled. “He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy.”

He added, “I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day, I’ve always remembered that cry, and that death is not the end.”

Patch's pacifism fits better with World War I than World War II, but it is well worth recalling in the United States today, when military planners talk earnestly about endless war. Those who think along these lines should remember the words of my late friend Irving Weissman, a native New Yorker and a proud veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and the US Army in World War II: "war is the ultimate obscenity."

Harry Patch would certainly agree. And if there is a world to come, as Patch deeply believed, I hope he runs into Irving Weissman. I'm sure they'll have plenty to talk about and wisdom to share.

1 comment:

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