Lyndon Hood - kept man, Lower Hutt

Monday, April 05, 2004

I've just finished reading a strangely fascinating book, which was given to me by a friend who is even more of a war geek than is currently fashionable. The Mammoth Book of Soldiers at War (it's not really that big) is a series of firsthand accounts of a number of actions between 1800 and 1815: the "Age of Napoleon". The time has come to talk of cavalry and muskets (and in the case of one Russian horse division, bows and arrows), of red coats, and of battles where the gunsmoke so thick you can't see where you're shooting.

Mention is also made of endless forced retreats where 90% of your army die of exhaustion and starvation, of crippling and deadly outbreaks of dysentery, and of uncontrollable looting on the capture of fortified cities.

In the face of the gigantic waste of human life described, one is tempted to derive some grand moral, some lesson for all time. This urge runs up against the fact that most of the glaringly appalling issues are no longer a problem of a decent modern army. Since the 19th Century, warfare has, if nothing else, become noticeably more efficient. Soldiers are paid and fed. They don't have to spend all that tedious and debilitating time walking to where the shooting is. Modern technology has removed almost all of the inconvenience that stands in the way of a soldier getting on with just killing the enemy (or whoever happens to be in the way).

War, then, remains hell, but is clearly a good margin nicer than it used to be. In the face of all that barbaric mess described I find myself almost feeling that, if those wars were fought today, hardly anyone would die at all.

At any rate, if we want to learn the lesson that War is a Bad Thing, and that if you must go to war then you should Have Realistic Plans Before Starting, we don't need to look back 200 years for more relevant teaching materials.

I digress.

By way of example, I feel I should mention the Battle of New Orleans (1815). At the end of the War of 1812 (Did you know that the Americans went to war with the British in 1812? I didn't. And for all you Americans out there, don't be so smug unless you can give me details on three major events that didn't involve the US. I know what they teach in History over there) some 6000 British infantry, many veterans from campaigns against Napoleon, charged the defenses of 3500 Americans: regulars, militiamen, and a mix of locals of all races that has failed to inspire ethnic unity on the south ever since. The defenders had also had assistance from the legendary Baratrian pirates. Arr.

The British force demonstrated their indomitable pluck on that foggy morning by keeping on charging until they achieved 2000 casualties, including almost all of the officers. British casualties, that is. The defenders lost 71 men. Apparently, only eight of those were dead.

In the Bumper Book of Bloodiness, our guide in this affair is Corporal Samuel Stubbs, who, at 63 years of age, dropped his plough to join the Kentucky Militia. In the course of various battles he is distinguished by his down-home prose style and his frustrated urges to scalp everyone he kills. And here's the thing: he actually does liken the British charge at New Orleans to a turkey shoot. He could, he claims with typical modesty, "have dropped them as easy as a flock of benumb'd wild turkeys in a frosty morning".

I can't help thinking of it as like one of those primitive first-person-shooters where figures slide back and forth across the screen while you take pot shots. The only explanation I've seen was that ladders the British needed to scale the American defenses were never brought forward. This kind of thing is technically referred to as a colossal fuck-up.

As it happens, the peace treaty had already been signed, if not ratified, at Ghent some days before. America remembers this as a famous victory that prevented the British demanding further concessions for peace. All I can think is, don't have wars. And if you do, bring ladders.

Oh, and the win at New Orleans helped make the American General, Andrew Jackson, popular enough to win the Presidency.

I think there's something in that for all of us.

Two completely unrelated notes: My public griping about unemployment has so far garnered two responses (keep it coming guys!) and I just heard the guy from Dawn Raid referred to on National Radio as a music industry chief executive.