I suppose it is only one of those vast cosmic coincidences that mil-blogger Andrew Olmstead would be killed in an ambush in Iraq at about the same time that George Macdonald Fraser died of cancer in his 80s. On the surface they would seem to have had nothing much in common at all – save for being writers and having similar terminating dates on their memorials. Different ages, nationalities, different professional experience and all that… but one similarity – they both were soldiers and wrote about their experiences in uniform in a way that people who weren’t military could connect to and begin to understand something about what motivates men (and women, too) to take up a lonely position on the walls.
It’s one of those elemental and primal things, I suspect – almost the first obligation of a citizen to a community is to take up arms and defend it. Most Americans, or Brits or western Europeans have lived so long in relative safety that most people feel this duty can be farmed out to specialists; no need to serve in the same way as all adult male citizens of ancient Athens served as their cities army, or the Colonial militias, or rangers on the Texas frontier needed to defend their own isolated communities. The downside to this specialization is that most citizens – most especially our political and intellectual elite have little to do with the military, or that part of their community from which the serving military is drawn. Andrew Olmstead and other military bloggers have tried over the last five years with some success to bridge this experience gap, to convey to people half a world away what it is like at the point of the spear in this war.
G.M. Fraser is most famed as the creator of Flashman, the Victorian era rogue-hero, who managed to participate in just about every important 19th century event and meet up with every prominent personality of the time – usually unwillingly and glimpsed over a shoulder as he fled with great speed, buttoning up his trousers. His memoir of his own time as a soldier in WWII. Quartered Safe out Here or the adventures of his alter-ego Lieutenant Dand O’Neill in the post-war British Army as related in the McAuslan Trilogy, is a little less known than the flamboyant and fictional Flashman but very well worth reading. The O’Neill-McAuslan stories especially are a peep into the world of a military that if you take away the superficial trappings, the specific-era technology and the very specific slang… is timeless as it is familiar.
I kind of picture Fraser and Olmstead, sitting quietly together with a bottle of especially fine Scotch in some otherworld officers’ club, swapping stories and memories and eventually getting quite merry. For they had quite a lot in common, and one of them – to judge on what they wrote about being soldiers would have been agreement with this sentiment;
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods,
Thomas Babington Macauley – Lays of Ancient Rome