Of Lice and Men

As the hard work of the Marja offensive shows, there is a rough and smelly continuity to war.

As Michael Howard once wrote, once we allow for contextual variation, ‘wars still resemble each other more than they resemble any other human activity. All are fought…in a special element of danger and fear and confusion. In all, large bodies of men are trying to impose their will on one another by violence; and in all, events occur which are inconceivable in any other field of experience.’

Or as a fresh account of the US Marines’ offensive puts it:

The fight to pacify this Taliban stronghold in Helmand province is grim and grueling. For all the talk of a modern war — of Predator drones and satellite-guided bombs and mine-resistant vehicles — most Marines in this operation have been fighting the old-fashioned way: on foot, with rifle.

They hump their kit on their backs, bed down under the stars in abandoned compounds and defecate in plastic bags.

“This isn’t all that different from the way our fathers and grandfathers fought,” said Cpl. Blake Burkhart, 22, of Oviedo, Fl.

Long after war is transformed and transformed again by the robotics revolution, the new media, the cyber dimension, we will still need people who carry weapons and fight to capture or shape the ground. We will need people – hard people, crazy people, self-sacrificing people, even mildly psychotic people -who are willing to sleep in the cold, shit in bags, walk for days, and take the flak.

When he volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell discovered the basic filth of the activity. This griminess is what unites all fighting men down the ages:

In war all solderies are lousy, at the least when it is warm enough. The men that fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae – every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.

Wars amongst the parasites, in fact.

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