But…’Twas A Famous Victory
Humans are supposed to learn things from their elders, and use the knowledge to forge a better life.
Yeah, right. News accounts of Gaza Strip residents dancing in the streets to celebrate their “victory” because Israel agreed to a cease-fire says to me the odds of this happening are slim and none.
When I read about Gaza “victory” celebrations, I automatically said: “But what good came of it at last?” quoth little Peterkin. “Why that I cannot tell,” said he. “But ’twas a famous victory.”
Thousands of unguided missiles raining down on Israel, whose air force counter-punched with deadly accuracy. Most of the thousands were intercepted. Not all. Some Israelis died too. One hit was recorded in the hometown of a woman I will never forget. In Paris 55 years ago she taught a 22-year-old male virgin how to be a man before she went home to Israel.
For decades I worried about her every time the Arabs acted up. As the years rolled on I once saw a young IDF captain on TV talking to the press at the scene of an atrocity. She could have been my American daughter’s twin, and I did wonder. (Hope?) Then came the internet and search engines; my first love had a certain celebrity over there. Lou Gehrig’s disease had killed her before a terrorist could. A grim enough ending. No unaccounted-for daughters.
Since then, Israel is just another headline with no personal connection. But each death, whether by illness or renewed violence, is a tragedy to those who love the victim, regardless their religion or politics. Remember your apocryphal Stalin: one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. The brutal cynicism of the anecdote attributed to the USSR’s “Uncle Joe” is to me reflected in Hamas calling the Gaza cease-fire “victory.” And called to mind Little Peterkin.
“What are you mumbling about?” my last love asked.
“Just a fragment of an old poem.” I repeated it. “Len Deighton used it in the frontispiece of a spy novel about the Cold War.”
“But what does it mean?”
Ah well, nobody shares my peculiar memory. Or view of things. Her question moved me to look for Little Peterkin. Found him in a poem by a man named Robert Southy. An excerpt:
She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round,
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found…
Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by…
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
“Who fell in the great victory…”
“I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
The plough-share turns them out…”
“The country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby, died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory…”
Which led Little Peterkin to ask his elder:
“But what good came of it at last?”
And his elder’s reply:
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’twas a famous victory.”
So elders evidently don’t always impart wisdom to the young. The “famous victory” of the poem was in 1704 at Blenheim, Germany, after war between Austria and France broke out in 1701. History says England and The Netherlands lined up with Austria. So did Portugal. Bavaria and Cologne, still independent principalities, supported France. So did militant Prussia and Hanover and other German states. Obscure political alliances that probably seemed as compelling then as obscure alliances on either side of the Middle East conflict now.
A cynic would conclude humanity is incapable of learning from the past. It’s gotten so irrational that one set of combatants declares “famous victory” just because the other side ceased fire. Maybe, in Orwellian rewrite, the Japanese will now celebrate their famous Iwo Jima victory. Three hundred years from now— assuming mankind makes it that far, given its lethal toys — who will remember, or care? Or be able to answer Little Peterkin’s question?