Friday, November 2, 2007

“If You Know Of A Better ‘Ole…”

For those who don’t recognize it, the title above comes from a British cartoonist of the First World War, Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, and was used for what is probably his most famous cartoon. The cartoon pictures a shell hole in no-mans-land on the Western Front, in which two British soldiers have taken shelter from the still ongoing artillery barrage over their heads. One soldier is apparently responding to the complaints of the other by advising him that “If you know of a better ‘ole, go to it.”

This First World War reference seems apt as we approach November 11, originally the Armistice Day ending that conflict which we now commemorate as Veterans’ Day. That war is also on my mind because I recently read Stephen O’Shea’s outstanding “Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I.” The author’s description of his walking tours of the Western Front battlefields and his accounts of what originally happened there brought home again in an especially strong way the truth that we apparently learn nothing from history.

At this time in 1917, British and French forces were just winding up their costly Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. Russia was confronted with the revolution that would take it out of the war and lead to the failed experiment that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Italy was reeling from the successful Austro-German offensive that was the battle of Caporetto (aka Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo) that would cost it 40,000 killed and wounded and a further 275,000 prisoners as they retreated. This offensive rescued Austria-Hungary from the collapse that had seemed imminent after the Italian success of the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo in late summer, a collapse that was in fact merely postponed until 1918. The United States had only been in the war for just over six months by this time, and its forces in France would not see serious combat for almost another six months.

This year, November 11 falls as we are half way through the fourth year of the conflict in Iraq. One aspect of life inside the Washington DC beltway is the abundance of institutes, think tanks, and policy advocacy groups focused upon every subject imaginable (and a few I would have never imagined). Remember ‘the surge’ in Iraq? In August, it seemed that it was all that the news media, Congress, and these think tanks could focus upon. Now the greater danger seems to be of a Turkish ‘surge’ into Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish PKK forces, an ironic echo of the one bright spot for the Allies some ninety years ago when Allenby defeated Turkish forces on October 31 at the Third Battle of Gaza/Battle of Beersheba (the latter battle recounted in the excellent Australian film “The Lighthorsemen”).

But in the wake of General Petraeus’ and Ambassador Crocker’s successful defense of the surge and the ensuing drumbeat regarding reduced U.S. casualties, everyone in Washington seems to have gone in search of that ‘better ‘ole’ in the form of some other issue such as immigration, including many of the politicians seeking election or re-election. The Washington Post recently featured a story on the developing plans for the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq proposed to begin at about the middle of next year. However, I can’t help but wonder if the simultaneously reported decline in U.S. casualty rates and in attacks on U.S. forces might reflect decisions by the competing Iraqi militias to hunker down in their own ‘’oles’ and wait for the real contest for the control of Iraq that could begin as the last U.S. soldier is walking up the ramp of this generation’s homebound ‘Freedom Bird.’ Score one for the White House, it seems, or at least score one for those who haven’t left the White House in search of their own ‘better ‘oles’.

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