Would a saint go marching in?

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The Independent Online
I WATCH the growing agony of what was once Yugoslavia with impotent shame, grief, anger and horror, as if turned to stone. There are heartrending pictures every day, but what can we do? Saddest of all, perhaps, was that poor little boy, weeping bitterly, running along beside that overcrowded truck, from which he had just fallen. He was in fact picked up. But did he find his mother again? There must be thousands like him who never did.

Most of us are daunted by the complexity of what has gone wrong there - look at the ethnic map of Bosnia, like a patchwork quilt. We are paralysed by fears of getting drawn into a mess that we can't understand.

Many of us are held back by memories (mostly false) of Yugoslavia's formidable military prowess in the Second World War: 30 or so German divisions bogged down there, and so on. We are haunted, too, by other memories of noble interventions (in Vietnam, for example) which did not turn out happily, well as they were meant.

We think and think. We feel and despair. I have found myself thinking often of Yeats: 'Things fall apart . . . mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned'. Has it not been the curse of our sad century to illustrate these tragic lines?

I have thought, too, of St Thomas Aquinas, read long ago. Didn't he teach that a war, to be just, must be winnable at proportionate cost? And, further, that it must end in a state of affairs better or at least tolerable for all, for losers as well as winners?

If so, what might St Thomas have to say about Yugoslavia? This, perhaps: that none of the conflicts now raging there is likely to turn out just. The cost is disproportionate, the resultant state of affairs possibly worse for all.

It is presumptuous to say so, but St Thomas might offer a dark hint as to how the West should proceed in former Yugoslavia. Some people are going to win. We might carefully judge who the winners are likely to be. We should not then feebly intervene to prevent or delay their victory. We should aid them to achieve victory more quickly, with less bloodshed and fewer tears, at proportionate cost.

Ah, but any conceivable victory is likely to be horrible indeed for the vanquished: vae victis is now translated 'ethnic cleansing'. Ah, but our aid must be conditional, to be withheld if no tolerable outcome is promised or likely. Moreover, our armed presence at the victor's side would give us at last some power to halt or prevent atrocities, to compel chivalrous behaviour.

To back the winner sounds appallingly cynical. It has, none the less, the merit of going with the grain, of aiming at the attainable rather than the ideal - as if any ideal were conceivable in a land torn by war and sundered by hatred. Not easy, I agree, to impose restraint on people who apparently view atrocities not with abhorrence, as an unwelcome by-product of war, but with favour as an unjust means to an unjust end. Not easy, I agree; but from our present situation of self-righteous weakness, it is not even possible.

One final point. For all his benign objectivity, I fancy that St Thomas would note that some of the people in Yugoslavia are Christians (or say they are) and some are not. Would this influence him in any way? I'm sure it would.

In his day there was a very real entity called Christendom. It expressed itself in the Crusades, admittedly in part a disaster and disgrace, but also in more laudable ways. There is still an entity called Islam, apparently growing in membership and fanaticism every day. In face of this, can we or should we forget entirely what we are or were?

A WEIRD advertisement caught my eye in the Daily Telegraph. It showed a prim and timid young woman in one of those uncontroversial Saturday bargain dresses (Look smart, save pounds pounds pounds s]); jumping up excitably all over her was a large, friendly dog. Her hands were raised in fear and horror (Down, Rover, down, mind my frock]). The main caption read: 'Highly strung and excitable dogs need CALM DOWN - herbal food supplement.'

A questionnaire followed: 'Is your dog highly strung, over-sensitive or just barking mad? Does the merest noise set your dog off barking . . . annoying both yourself and neighbours? Does it become nervous at the hint of thunder in the air . . . over-excited when seeing its lead at exercise time or anxious and pining on a journey in the car? To help dogs overcome these tendencies, CALM DOWN has been developed by pet food herbalists to offer a kind solution that eliminates scolding or beating . . . CALM DOWN could transform highly strung animals into quiet, well-balanced and normal pets.'

On behalf of our Jack Russell, William, I answered yes to all but two of the questions. He likes the car and sleeps happily in it until roused by the delectably rustic and organic smells of approaching home. No one could describe him as 'over-sensitive'. The Arts bore him, and he makes a beeline to lie and deposit white hairs all over the dark suitings of cynophobes.

As for being transformed into a 'normal' pet, we thought he was one - all too normal. His character is uncannily like that of his namesake, the later German Kaiser - aggressive, cowardly, affectionate, noisy, boastful, tactless yet with a certain intermittent but irresistible charm. Hohenlohe might have been talking of our William, as opposed to his, when he said there was nothing much wrong with him except that he wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding.

As for William's stentorian barking, emphasised by vertiginous revolutions to convey the impression that at least six Jack Russells are shrieking under the gate, it is as much terrifying as merely annoying. Were he a journalist, he would be the sensational tabloid type, with such headlines as: 'MYSTERY SHOCK - INTRUDER HORROR BID'. Aroused within, shaking with fear, we wonder what rough beast, the hour come round at last, slouches towards the front door. Genghis Khan? Idi Amin? Some dire pop group? The Stonehenge hippies? Tyrannosaurus Rex? No, it's only some sweet old lady collecting for the Prospect Foundation.

What puzzles me is why people affronted or alarmed by such disproportionate manifestations should keep a dog at all. Yes, I know there are big, pacific, sedate, judicious and calm dogs, rendered so by nature rather than by food supplements. Most are not, but are loved all the same.

William's rights and duties are much like those of the Queen, as defined by Walter Bagehot: to be consulted (about meals), to encourage (walks) and above all to warn against everything and everybody novel. Unlike William, the Queen performs her duties quietly. Perhaps she takes CALM DOWN.