Un-comfortably Numb

I often think back on what were the best things I gained from my year in the Pallottine Fathers Seminary, in Dublin, Ireland, 1984. Sure, I saw my first rock concert (Elvis Costello), played on a professional basketball team with Alvis Rogers (1 day), learned to make a wicked Irish Coffee (and the concomitant skill required to hide a bottle of Irish Whiskey in the ceiling of my seminary dorm room).

And yes, my year of intensely studying and questioning my faith ironically led me toward becoming the non-religious person I am today.  But above all else, my experience of Ireland is one of music, particularly the long mournful ballad sung in lilting brogues simultaneously dripping a world-weary resignation that “Trouble’s been had, and trouble’s gonna come again.”

I write this on Veterans’ Day, 2018, because two songs I first experienced in Ireland speak so powerfully to me about the human cost and insanity of war.  The degree to which we are inured to Government murder done in our name* might be undone if we’d just take this much time to reflect.

Both of these songs are history lessons unto themselves, and if you take the time to listen fully to the lyrics, and research the references, I am sure you’ll find the depth as intoxicating as a stiff cup of black coffee, sweetened by Demerara sugar, leveled up with a shot or two of Jameson, topped with a dollop of stiff whipped cream.  Only, perhaps, more bitter.

Both hearken back to World War I.  Remember?  “The War to End All Wars”?  I think there was dark optimism about the end of war, because never had people been forced to endure its horrors so close-up, for so long, in such miserable, mustard-gas-filled, muddy trenches.  The technology to allow us to ignore “remote control” wars would take decades to arrive.  By then we could all forget, and see renewed hope that there would indeed be more wars; see those Gloomy Guses of Europe for the defeatist sad sacks they were.**


Joe McLaughlin, in red sweater, seated on a pile of dirt to the left of me in the photo.

The first song, “The Green Fields of France” laments the war’s losses from a British perspective. While I’ll always remember it being sung by Joe McLaughlin, the rosy cheeked Harry Potter-esque, deeply earnest seminarian from the Irish countryside, you can find dozens of versions on You-Tube that will coax as many tears down your face as you’ll allow.  The one I leave you here is faithful, and a minute shorter than others, at a still healthy 4:48.  (No one said a war dirge would be short!)

The second, “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” rues the slaughter of Aussies at Gallipoli. If an eight minute song isn’t enough, watch the spectacular, Oscar winning Peter Weir film (starring a very young, early-martyr-complex Mel Gibson) “Gallipoli.” The version of “…Matilda” I link to here has extra meaning to me, as I only recently learned/remembered that the Pogues were the opening band for Elvis Costello that September night in 1984, at the Irish National Stadium.  I paid them no mind, those legends.  I simply didn’t know.  Only in sober, intentional reflection did I recover what I missed or had forgotten.

It is my fervent hope that you, dear reader, can join me in that sense of recovery — that through focused contemplation on these songs and stories — on the insanity of our war machine — we might come together to prevent the writing of another long, sad ballad about the horror of Man’s Inhumanity to Man; that we might rouse our selves from this uncomfortably numb torpor.

“Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Hmmm… maybe the end of glaciers WILL also mark the end of wars? Not because glaciers are so important to war, but by then humanity will likely have already signed its own death warrant.


*I’ll be the first to defend a right to self-defense, but I’m hard pressed to see anything other than empire-building in the United States’ use of military, since WWII.

**sarcasm in service of dark humor may not work for all.


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