A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Last Post for Britain in Basra

The pictures of the British 20th Armoured Brigade playing last post and lowering the Union Jack and brigade flag in Basra today naturally evoke earlier scenes of the retreat of Empire. (Do watch the BBC video if you can, though when I first did I had to watch some English ladies discussing detergent before I could see the transfer of command. Perhaps you'll get a more appropriate commercial.) Given Britain's history in Iraq in the 1920s and again in 1941, their presence there always had associations that ours would not evoke. Iraqis are very conscious of Britain's history in Iraq, though I think many Americans were oblivious. The UK has now ended all combat operations in Iraq.

Off the subject of Iraq, but on the subject of that moving bugle call The Last Post, which is played when they run the flag down and is almost as sad as Taps: I'm always reminded of a modern folk song about the carnage on the Western Front in World War I by Australian singer Eric Bogle, variously called The Green Fields of France, or Willie McBride, or sometimes No Man's Land, and sung a lot in Irish pubs in America, the chorus of which runs:
Did they Beat the drum slowly, did they play the pipes lowly?
Did the rifles fire o'er you as they lowered you down?
Did the bugles sound The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?
For the 179 British soldiers who died in the Iraq War, it was the Last Post indeed, adding more red to that thin red line of heroes, who often died for the wrong causes. May the American flag be lowered with the same honor and as little shame as possible given some of the recent revelations, as soon as possible without jeopardizing Iraq further. And however we feel about the war, and I'm no fan of this one, let's thank Tommy Atkins for his service to Queen and Country. Today's British Army is a volunteer force that's come a long way since the Victorian era, but I suspect some of the men and women who fought in Iraq, with popular opinion at home usually against their presence there, may empathize with Kipling's verse:
I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls,
But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, wait outside";
But it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide,
The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide,
O it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide.
I think the British role in Iraq was always unpopular at home, and given Britain's history in Iraq, provocative in Basra, but that doesn't change the fact that once again the (increasingly thinner) red line fought well (and you have to look hard to find the red flashes on a British uniform today), occupied pretty humanely, and lowered the flag with the Last Post, to go back home again. May they never need to return. And may we follow as soon as possible.

Kipling again, the poet laureate of Empire, but this time in Recessional, understood that Empire has its limits:

Far-call'd our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!

Funny that Nineveh is in Iraq and Tyre in Lebanon.

It's time to play Last Post for Empire, I think. And Taps too.

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