I marked Remembrance Day by rather sadly reading through the two poems that, for me, most tragically encapsulate the significance of the day. John McRae’s In Flanders Fields and Alfred Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade describe different wars – In Flanders Fields refers to what was then optimistically known as the Great War, but was later to be called World War I, while Tennyson wrote about the Crimean War – but “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row,” seems the natural consequence of the scene so memorably immortalized by Tennyson: “Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volley'd and thunder'd.”
On Remembrance Day, the Saudis were still clearing the wreckage from the terrorist bombing that arguably represented a pivotal moment in Middle East history. Here, for the first time, on a scale so lavish as to be unmistakable, Arab Muslim terrorists had targeted other Arab Muslims within an Arab Muslim country.
With a sense of gentle irony, I remembered the smug reaction of Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on American soil. The story is memorably recounted by then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who brought the prince to visit Ground Zero. Despite the prince’s generous offer of a $10 million donation to the Twin Towers fund, “I thought there was a smirk to his face, which seemed to carry over to his entourage,” wrote Giuliani in his book, Leadership. Giuliani had brought many world leaders to the site – Vladimir Putin, Gerhard Schroder, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair among them – but Prince Bin Talal “was the only visitor who seemed unmoved by what he saw.”
The cause of those smirks was a mystery not long in unraveling. “We must address some of the issues that led to such a criminal attack,” stated a press release issued by the prince later that day. “I believe the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause.”
I wondered if the Saudis were indulging in similar introspection now that they were on the receiving end of the same kind of treatment.
Giuliani, demonstrating how he earned the sobriquet “America’s mayor”, figuratively flung the $10 million check right back at Prince Bin Talal, with admirable disdain for all those zeros.
In those dark days following 9/11, Giuliani was to directly draw inspiration from Winston Churchill’s leadership during the Battle of Britain. Leadership quotes at some length from Churchill’s rousing 1941 Dunkirk speech, the most famous excerpt of which is, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Incidentally, that passage almost exclusively features short, stirring Anglo-Saxon words, the sole exception being the unthinkable “surrender” – which presumably only a Latin would do anyway.
Winston Churchill, the orator, was the happy union of Winston Churchill, the writer, and Winston Churchill, the statesman. What all those Churchills had in common – besides a love of drink – was a grand, sweeping vision of human history, and a legacy that encompassed both World Wars – and beyond. In fact, Churchill’s own regiment, the 4th Light Dragoons, was among those immortalized by Tennyson’s poem.
Leadership inspired me to embark on some further reading, including The Birth of Britain, the first of the series on the History of the English-Speaking Peoples, written by Churchill himself. It is obvious to even the casual reader of his works that Churchill was a man born to cut a dashing figure in wartime, a man full of romantic notions of the warrior-king variety. One has visions of all his restless energy bottled impatiently in peacetime, to effervesce uncorked at the moment of the onset of war. In a reversal of the same process, while basking in the adulation of the public during wartime, Churchill was unceremoniously voted out of office almost immediately after the conclusion of the Second World War.
In Leadership, Giuliani effuses about the book Genome, by Matt Ridley, which also happened to be the last book I had read. Interestingly, Genome also mentions Winston Churchill – in connection with eugenics, the movement to sterilize the mentally unfit that gained a popular following in the first half of the twentieth century. Churchill was a sponsoring vice-president of the first International Eugenics Conference, chaired by Lord Balfour in London in 1912, and was on record as saying that “the multiplication of the feeble-minded” was “a very terrible danger to the race”. In saying so, Churchill would have been echoing the opinions of his later foe, Hitler.
Churchill also pioneered the tactic of the “double blow” in the bombing campaigns against Germany, mimicked years later by Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel. It was used to devastating effect in Dresden, home to over half a million German refugees. Once relief crews had converged on the city after the first wave of bombings had subsided, the second wave would begin. According to historian Paul Johnson’s account, there were scarcely enough able-bodied survivors left to bury the dead. Goebbels himself sniffed that the carnage must have been “the work of lunatics”.
Democracies work because even heroic statesmen like Winston Churchill can get voted out of office. Autocracies like Saudi Arabia’s, in which power is vested in the hands of a tiny, all-powerful elite, don’t, because even heroic statesmen like Winston Churchill are deeply flawed.