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I grew up with WWI. Lacking a father, my grandfather was paterfamilias in our house, and he had fought with the cavalry in that appalling war. He was stationed in the Somme, which was not a battle, but rather a series of battles scattered over a wide area. It is hard to imagine horses in a war with such novelties as tanks, poison gas, and cannons the size of sewer pipes. I was only four or five when Granddad told me some of his stories, so the details are dim, but the horror is not. The piles of bodies stacking trenches knee-deep in mud; the confusion and lack of communication with generals, safely ensconced in comfort far behind the front lines; the death-agonies of terrified horses, some floundering wounded in barbed wire. My grandfather went out, like many a young man, convinced that he was saving his country from a dreadful foe. He returned disillusioned, certain the war had been unnecessarily prolonged, and had been about nothing. He loathed the monarchs and politicians responsible for it, and for the fifty million slaughtered, not to mention the millions more crippled, limbless, and terminally shell-shocked (the mot du jour for PTSD). He remembered the Christmas truce, when Germans and British exchanged gifts, like tins of bully-beef, and celebrated together, before returning the next day to the business of killing, all of it to gain a useless hill or copse. He remembered the bitter cold, when, if a horse died, soldiers would slit open its belly and stick their boots inside the steaming guts to warm their frozen feet. He remembered the orders to charge through six-foot gaps in barbed wire, the men in lines of three, and easily mown down by enemy machine-gun fire, as the officers still ordered them on. He remembered how unpopular officers were often shot by their own men during a battle – although he never said whether he had been such a shooter. I remember his scorn for the Treaty of Versailles, which, he said, dealt unfairly with the Germans and caused the rise of Hitler, along with the next war, which he did feel was necessary, and he was even dismayed to find himself too old to serve in. I expect that he spared me the worst of his memories, but, nonetheless, I gathered that this so-called ‘war to end all wars’ was a hell on earth without any justification. He cited the many poets and intellectuals who had openly opposed it, calling for an end as early as 1915, and often imprisoned for their pains. “If you don’t think a war is just,” he often told me, “then you are morally obligated not to fight in it, and to oppose it, no matter what the cost.” I have never forgotten those words, and still feel obliged to separate the just from the unjust wars, and state my case in writing. Just because our technology spares us the muddy Hades of trenches, it still does not mean that war has become sanitized. It destroys worlds and lives on both sides, leaving the labour of ages in rubble, and once-healthy minds shattered. Our soldiers still come home in pieces, mentally and physically. They still often feel their sacrifices were for nothing. The lessons of history are clear: war, and the means to wage it, need to be eradicated from this planet; and anyone opposing such an idea ought to be regarded as an antisocial criminal, in dire need of rehabilitation. It is never too late to build a better world. With love,

Paul William Roberts

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