Saturday, March 10, 2012

Desire The Right (Dr Johnson's Thoughts On The Falklands and War)


A typical Falkland Island road scene

  It is wonderful with what coolness and indifference the greater part of mankind see war commenced. Those that hear of it at a distance, or read of it in books, but have never presented its evils to their minds, consider it as little more than a splendid game, a proclamation, an army, a battle, and a triumph. Some, indeed, must perish in the most successful field, but they die upon the bed of honour, "resign their lives amidst the joys of conquest, and, filled with England's glory, smile in death."  

Christ Church Cathedral with whalebone arch

  The life of a modern soldier is ill represented by heroick fiction. War has means of destruction more formidable than the cannon and the sword. Of the thousands and ten thousands, that perished in our late contests with France and Spain, a very small part ever felt the stroke of an enemy; the rest languished in tents and ships, amidst damps and putrefaction; pale, torpid, spiritless, and helpless; gasping and groaning, unpitied among men, made obdurate by long continuance of hopeless misery; and were, at last, whelmed in pits, or heaved into the ocean, without notice and without remembrance. By incommodious encampments and unwholesome stations, where courage is useless, and enterprise impracticable, fleets are silently dispeopled, and armies sluggishly melted away.

Penguins at Gypsy Cove

   Thus is a people gradually exhausted, for the most part, with little effect. The wars of civilized nations make very slow changes in the system of empire. The publick perceives scarcely any alteration, but an increase of debt; and the few individuals who are benefited are not supposed to have the clearest right to their advantages. If he that shared the danger enjoyed the profit, and, after bleeding in the battle, grew rich by the victory, he might show his gains without envy. But, at the conclusion of a ten years' war, how are we recompensed for the death of multitudes, and the expense of millions, but by contemplating the sudden glories of paymasters and agents, contractors and commissaries, whose equipages shine like meteors, and whose palaces rise like exhalations! 

Cruise ship and squid trawler, Port William

   These are the men who, without virtue, labour, or hazard, are growing rich, as their country is impoverished; they rejoice, when obstinacy or ambition adds another year to slaughter and devastation; and laugh, from their desks, at bravery and science, while they are adding figure to figure, and cipher to cipher, hoping for a new contract from a new armament, and computing the profits of a siege or tempest. 


I first read Dr Johnson’s remarkable words, published in pamphlet form in 1771, concerning the mooted war between England and Spain over the remote (from everywhere, really) Falkland Islands in Jonathan Dymond’s famous 1823 Quaker text, An Inquiry into The Accordancy of War With The Principles Of Christianity.  Dymond’s essay is reprinted in intergral form in Historical Writings of Quakers Against War, Glenside, Quaker Heritage Press, 2002.  It is well worth seeking out.  

My own (also remote) connection with the Falklands relates to my old friend Anna Fisher’s post-college sojourn teaching English there a long time ago.  I remember my fascination hearing about the skies, sea and sheep.  Obviously, amazingly, Dr Johnson’s words are still relevant, both in terms of our current large-scale wars (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq and the aborning Iran conflict), as well as today’s pre-"hostilities" skirmishing in the Falklands, resulting in the high-publicity deployment of Prince William to the scene.

Recent comments regarding the Falklands question, made by the very great Morrissey on tour in Argentina, the not-so-great (but he worked with two great guitarists) Roger Waters, on tour in Chile (remarks since withdrawn and recanted when he saw his figurative personal stock plummeting back home in Britain), and the ludicrous, hideous homunculus Sean Pennall confirm that talk is cheap, but not as cheap as celebrities who will do anything to promote their flagging careers

My personal experiences with war are remote (again) and limited.  A million movies (including Major Barbara, which seems relevant while reading Dr Johnson's words), teenage Vietnam War (as viewed from the US) backdrop, discussions with veterans throughout my life, 9/11 in New York City, and being kidnapped and held hostage at knife and gunpoint, blindfolded, with my wife overnight in Mexico City, which reminded me at the time of what it must have felt like to be captured in battle and presumably readied for slaughterQuakers, among others, talk about “breaking the cycle of violence.”  This seems like a good idea for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that it seems that the people you can count on least are your political leaders, i.e.,  the men “without virtue, labour, or hazard.”

San Carlos Water 

Falkland Island coat-of-arms


  1. Wow, you were kidnapped in Mexico City? That is really scary. Great post! I saw the Dalai Lama speak years ago, in NYC, and he said the same thing-how western myths glorify the hero, how good then wins over evil. But that modern war is a big bonfire on which we toss the bodies of our young men --yet we are so far away, so removed, we do not hear them scream.

  2. I like the Dalai Lama's description a lot. One valuable thing about Quakerism (especially if, like me, you are a "convinced", rather than a birthright, Quaker is that you're forced to confront questions about peace and war in depth (and most likely in real adulthood) in the process of becoming a member (rather than an attender) of a Quaker Meeting. Things seem clear for a while and then they tend to go all out of focus again. The Falkland pictures remind me exactly of my friend Anna's descriptions. A really confusing conflict, but it provides a great laboratory example of these issues.

    As for being kidnapped, it's a long story, but the good news is that the ordeal was finite in duration and we're alive. I wrote something about it here:

    and something else, possibly silly, here:

    The facts of the case are interesting. We love, love, love Mexico City, but I think it's far too dangerous to visit with any sense of confidence that things will turn out all right. I was back once after the kidnapping on business, and even that trip, where (believe it or not) I had a bodyguard, was not without incident.


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  4. Though I am a great fan of the Doctor, I'd never seen these powerful words before. Today especially they hit home for reasons I will describe to you privately.