Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

March 7, 2014

Another Cold War? Welcome, Lucy, to a world short on reason

— — As this is a personal column, I offer some good news that perhaps may shine a ray of light through the dark clouds of disturbing events: My second granddaughter, Lucy Gilpin, was born Feb. 28 to my daughter Allison and her husband in Sydney, Australia.

Lucy’s sister Tillie, age 2, is very excited. Mother and baby are doing well. As for the world in which infant Lucy has been born, well, not so much.

What a strange quirk of history that the Crimean Peninsula should again be the center of a dispute between the world’s great powers, as it was between 1853 and 1856. Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and, of course, Russia were involved.

The reasons for the Crimean War are obscure to the present age and no doubt were to the average person back then. The war was cooked up as a stew from the timeless recipe: bluster, national pride, jingoism, military ambition, alliances, failed diplomacy and a big seasoning of folly.

To the extent that the Crimean War is remembered at all it is for two things. One was the Lady with the Lamp, Florence Nightingale, who made the nursing profession respectable in Victorian England when women caring for men seemed indecent.

British military hospitals of the day were terrible. In the way of care, you might get a cup of tea if you were lucky but there was probably more chance of an English orderly telling you: “Keep the moaning down a bit, please, people are trying to die in here.” With her fellow nurses, the lady with the lamp made the rounds of the sick and wounded and changed the world one ward at a time. Every modern nurse walks in the light of that lamp.

The second historical artifact of that war was Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which commemorated a real event that was equal parts extraordinary courage and shocking stupidity.

Written in the cadences of the hoof beats of the British cavalry charging the Russian guns, it is a poem that once heard always echoes in memory: “Half a league, half a league, / Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death, / Rode the six hundred.” And then the chilling lines: “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die ...”

Tennyson was honoring the heroes of Balaclava but to modern ears, ringing with the slaughter of many later wars, the poem suggests the sorrow of war, the pointless loss. Maybe that’s better for our time. Maybe it’s a salutary warning.

By the way, Russia lost that war. Don’t think for a moment that Russia has forgotten. The Crimean Peninsula is in Russia’s backyard and the Russians have a naval base there. It was part of its actual backyard when Russia was the presiding state in the old Soviet Union of recent history. That complicates the situation in Ukraine immensely.

So does the fact that many Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Crimea would appear to have welcomed the Russian invaders of their sovereign nation. While my sympathies remain with those Ukrainians who want to break free of the embrace of the Russian bear, certain stubborn facts can’t be wished away.

If this were our backyard being destabilized, what would we do? Well, actually we know; Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada, ostensibly to rescue American medical students, but really to stop it from it becoming another Cuba.

Moral equivalence? No, logical equivalence. I think we are the good guys and Vladimir Putin is a weasel, but good guys and bad guys all have their reasons. It is necessary to understand those reasons if we are to act sensibly.

Instead, those who loved the Cold War are delighted that it’s back and more delighted still that President Barack Obama is made to look weak. Woo hoo! Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin were right about Mr. Putin! Hurrah! Yes, they got one thing right.

Funny, I get the feeling that some Americans care more about that than they do for the poor Ukrainians themselves, who are broke, dependent on Russian gas to heat themselves and otherwise beyond our help.

What would any of the critics have done differently and do differently now? Have America and its allies charge like cavalry into a new valley of death? Politics to right of them, politics to left of them, volleyed and thundered.

Oh Lucy, what a world you have been born into. Theirs was not to reason why; ours is — but we haven’t yet got the trick of it.

Reg Henry is deputy editorial-page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Readers may send him email at rhenry@post-gazette.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

 

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