I was born 10 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When I was growing up the men in my family were away at war and I myself wore a little soldier suit that an uncle had bought for me. It was a replica of an officer's uniform, complete with Sam Browne belt. There are pictures of me in it--chubby, smiling and ready to go to war. I always thought I would have my chance.
It seemed that every generation had its war. My father's generation had World War II and my grandfather's had World War I, and when I was a bit older there was the Korean War for our older brothers and then, of course, Vietnam.
I was always either too young or too old or in college or in the Reserves, so I never went to war, but I grew up thinking I would, imagining what it would be like, seeing war movies not as entertainment, but as educational films, resenting this control government had over me, this ability to say: Okay, Cohen, no matter what else you are doing and what you might think, the time has come to go to war.
So I have given this question of war a lot of thought. I have been at it, man and boy, a long time now and I have noticed (and then questioned) the right governments think they have to send young men to their deaths. The Argentine junta surely thinks it has this right and so, apparently, does the British government. Together, they have been sinking each other's ships, sending men and boys to what the poets used to call a watery grave. The issues are sheep and sovereignty. The result is murder.
There are things worth fighting for. It is worth fighting for freedom--especially your own. World War II was worth fighting, World War I maybe not. Korea is a tough one, but Vietnam was simply a mistake. When it comes to mistakes, though, the Brits have it all over us. Their cathedrals and graveyards are full of young men who, as they say, "fell" in wars you never heard of, and poets found new words for dead. It all seemed so important at the time. The king was pleased, his ministers thrilled. Lessons were taught. Principles upheld. Just what they were is now vague. The empire crumbled anyway. So sorry. Our condolences for the dead.
I would have liked it if the British soldiers and sailors had balked, refused to go. I would have liked it if the Argentine soldiers had done the same. I think it would have been just terrific if the Argentines told the junta to go play with the lives of their own sons, to take members of their own families or themselves and invade the awful Falklands. It is, after all, a noble cause.
It would have been wonderful if the British soldiers had asked their leaders what in the world they were expected to die for. What is the principle here that is worth a single life? Is it the Falklands themselves? Surely not. Is it then this matter of sovereignty--the argument that if Britain did not stand firm in the Falklands it could lose, in addition to its pride, whatever possessions it has left?
But what would have happened if the British had refused to fight, if they had just applied economic and other sanctions? Would the Spanish then take Gibraltar? Not if the British made clear there is a difference between the Falklands and Gibraltar--that to them one is worth fighting for and the other is not. Not if you arm Gibraltar like you mean business rather than, as was done in the Falklands, ignoring the military buildup, giving the enemy every reason to believe you will turn your back as well as the other cheek.
Now, no matter what the outcome at the United Nations, young men are paying once again for the mistakes and vanities of their leaders. The Argentines are wrong. Their leaders are boot-clickers and killers, torturers and martinets, but their young men are just kids--innocent of the crimes committed by their elders. The British are better, but their fight is over islands they do not want and a principle almost without application elsewhere. For this, their kids are floating dead in the coldest ocean of them all.
It is not easy to scold the British. But they did not have to take the Argentine taunt, come barreling in hell-bent for war, declare a blockade zone and then sink a ship outside it, raising the stakes and spilling blood for islands that they know they will only have to give up anyway. There are, after all, greater principles than sovereignty. Among them is the right of young men to grow old.