Geoffrey Wheatcroft: When leaders lie, children die

A sense of patriotic duty made Rudyard Kipling send his son to fight - and die - in the First World War. How can politicians, with no experience of battle, ask the same today?

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"Have you news of my boy Jack?"

Not this tide.

"When d'you think that he'll come back?"

Not with this wind blowing, and this tide...

Nothing Rudyard Kipling ever wrote was more moving than the poem that begins with these lines, and whose title, "My Boy Jack", is borrowed by the moving, glossily cast television drama shown this Remembrance Sunday evening. The tragedy of the Kipling family was a vignette of the horror of the Great War.

But this morning, at "the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month", with the two minutes' silence followed by "The Last Post" to mark the moment when the Great War ended in 1918, that story is also a reproach to our own age, which, though far from abjuring war, has forgotten the meaning of duty or sacrifice for another year.

Shortly after he became prime minister, Tony Blair said: "Ours is the first generation able to contemplate that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war."

His words acquired an ironical ring after 10 years in which he took this country into more wars than any premier before him.

And yet there is a sense – a most repellent one – in which he was right. A New York Times story on Thursday carried a headline: "2007 is deadliest year for US troops in Iraq". The story subsequently related that so far this year 805 Americans have been killed in Iraq. Today, we are supposed to be dismayed by that – but what would they have made of it in the days when we fought real wars, and suffered in them?

Even those who find Kipling displeasing or disturbing should recognise that he was not only a great but a far-seeing writer. His biographer, David Gilmour, puts it well: "Pessimists and reactionaries make the best prophets because they can see behind as well as beyond contemporary viewpoints."

Kipling predicted Afrikaner racial tyranny in South Africa decades before apartheid, just as he foresaw Hitler and another war, after prophesying for years before 1914 that Germany would plunge Europe into war.

Having warned against German militarism, and preached resistance to it, when the war came, a sense of duty told him that his family must not be exempt from any sacrifice. John Kipling – his boy Jack – weedy and severely short-sighted, failed more than one Army medical. But his father, the great bard of Empire and friend of the mighty, pulled every string he could to see that Jack was commissioned in the Irish Guards.

Jack was killed, of course, almost as soon as he went into action at Loos, in the autumn of 1915, less famous or infamous now than the Somme or Passchendaele, but an appallingly bloody battle.

In another intolerably poignant verse, Kipling wrote:

My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew

What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.

Far from laughing, there is no reason to think that Jack was anything but painfully wounded, blinded by rain, and terrified.

To make it worse, Jack was "missing". His bereft parents scoured army hospitals and interviewed dozens of soldiers for more than two years until they accepted, for certain, that their son was dead. Which is to say that Jack Kipling was one of an awe-inspiring total of 300,000 British soldiers of that war who had no known grave. It was to commemorate them that one unidentifiable body – the unknown warrior – was buried at Westminster Abbey, while the myriad graves of unidentified soldiers bear the inscription, again by Kipling, "Known Unto God".

Those missing were among a total of 750,000 British dead in the First World War, to be joined by another 300,000 in the Second World War. And those figures put into startling perspective "Coalition" casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq – remarkable not because they are so large but because they are so small. By the time the war has lasted five years, next spring, American fatalities in Iraq may have reached 4,000, and British 200. At Loos and on the Somme, and at El Alamein or on D-Day, hundreds of British solders were killed not within years or months but within hours or even minutes.

As Sir Max Hastings writes on page 40, the scars – mental and physical – of today are felt every bit as much as they were in the past. Norms are different. We have changed, and in a most significant way. During the Kosovo campaign, which saw the bombing of Serbia accompanied by a marked reluctance to commit Western ground forces, one French general bitterly wondered whether we had bred a generation of soldiers ready to kill but not to die. Another asked if we had now reached the age of wars in which only civilians were killed.

That was indeed more or less the case, and Iraq is the perfect Blairite or New Labour war. British dead are measured by the hundred, while Iraqis killed are numbered by the hundred thousand. And this is a political necessity, since if anything remotely like the casualties we sustained during the wars of the first half of the 20th century had been expected in Iraq, then we would never have embarked on the war at all.

What's true of us as a nation is especially true of our political class. The present government comprises more than 100 men and women, not one of whom has any kind of military experience whatsoever. Compare them with their predecessors: in the First World War, no fewer than 22 sitting MPs were killed in action, and every one of the four prime ministers from 1940 to 1963 had previously served as an infantry officer in that war.

As Orwell said in 1940, the traditional ruling class may have been selfish when it came to surrendering property or power for the good of the nation, but not when it came to laying down their lives for their country, as you could see by the number of aristocratic names on the casualty lists. In fact, the rich made a disproportionate sacrifice in both world wars, especially 1914-18, if only because casualties among junior officers such as Jack Kipling were so high. Of the men who went up to Oxford in 1913, 31 per cent were killed over the next five years. How many Oxford graduates are serving in combat now?

In America, this has been much debated, as in the recent book AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service – and How It Hurts Our Country, by Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer. Notoriously, the Bush administration is composed of "chickenhawks"– men who, like the president himself, used a well-known ruse to avoid active service in Vietnam, such as Dick Cheney, who had "other priorities" when he should have been drafted for that war.

At the time of Vietnam, "it is inconceivable that a system designed and operating the way the draft did could have produced a true cross-section of America in the military". That was the verdict of Donald Rumsfeld, and he should know. Remember those one-in-three Oxford undergraduates killed, or my own old Oxford college whose 1914-18 memorial in the chapel bears the names of 228 men – and another 135 in 1939-45 – and remember another figure: just 12 Harvard men died in Vietnam.

But the question is even more pressing here. Only one member of either house of Congress, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, has a son serving in Iraq; how many MPs do? In the Great War, 85 sons of MPs were killed – quite apart from their own military experience, or lack of it, is there a single Labour MP today with a son or daughter serving in the armed forces? In the war in which Kipling lost a son, so did two prime ministers, Asquith and Bonar Law.

While Tony Blair trots the globe looking for new ways to make money, it's worth noting that he has two sons of his own who are of military age. Does he ever suffer from Kipling's sense of obligation and guilt? When asked, he said that he would be delighted (what else could he say?) if one of his sons were to join the Army and serve in Iraq. The fact is that neither has done so, and there is little reason to think that there was much paternal pressure to join the colours.

But then, as I say, this day of all days reminds us that we do not live in a sacrificial age. Our politicians have shown a truly impressive fortitude when it comes to contemplating vast death tolls directly or indirectly inflicted by us, as long as they are in distant countries and among people who don't vote here.

One last epitaph for the Great War by Kipling was the most bitterly self-reproachful of all:

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Change "fathers" to "rulers", and that has never been more true.

Further viewing: 'My Boy Jack', starring Daniel Radcliffe and David Haig, is on ITV1 tonight at 9pm

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