Ours but to do or die

Friday, 28 August 2020 00:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Unenlightened brigade – in the dark about COVID-19 – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara 

I think it is an old idea: senior generals serve civil society best when they’re civilians at heart. The classical Greek civilisation and Roman republic before Augustus grasped the mantle of the Caesars abound with examples. Modernity is much less teeming with such paragons of virtue. But we make do with beribboned retired field marshals, bureaucratic ex-staff officers barking orders at military and market forces alike, and declawed field commanders of modern nation states under the boot of COVID-19.

The army commander of our island republic is perhaps such an exemplar. If you will play flâneur with me – after a moment invested looking it up in Oxford or Chambers, or even Roget – you will see what I mean. And in town hall and village circle alike, Gen. Shavendra Silva’s stern warnings ring fair and true in every ear. Under his clarion-call, citizens of our democratic other Eden quiver and tremble, but obey. Only those ‘Covidiots’ of a Stateside stamp would ignore this stalwart’s sterling admonition to ‘ware the virus! 

Sorry to note however that citizens – more equal than others, maybe? – have found it incumbent on them to flaunt his daunting cautions to wear a mask wherever we may roam. These range from street vendors hawking their wares on the main roads to half-past-six chaps on the campaign trail. I see from social media outrage that even the Mikado and Grand High Poo-bah have not been exempt from such folly on occasion.

However divine their protection or deified their personae, “you too are mortal, O Caesars”! That’s the undeniable truism that slaves in the train of the imperators would whisper in the emperor’s ear – at the very instant of triumphal procession. The commander-in-chief must not only be above suspicion, but seen to be above approach too, and also under the law. In an emerging nation-state where the new social contract – ‘one country, one law’ – is soon to be constitutionally guaranteed, it behoves the Gracchi (look it up, and interpret with understanding) to trample the grass on the primrose path they would have the rest of us tread.

Therefore let us condemn the praxis of a brace of Covidiots of the first water. In daring to defy the army commander’s express orders and appear in public sans the handy surgical mask. This was a legal and law-abiding requirement previously expressed by no less than the then acting inspector-general of a police force that was compelled to turn a blind eye on the shenanigans of hooligans on the campaign trail. There has been, it would appear, merit in the axiom that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. For no less than the highest law-enforcement mandarins in the land have been culpable of negligence in this respect. At the time of being sworn in to their new and exalted offices, promising that justice would be done. But seen to be done? Not so assuredly it would appear!

In this respect, the sundry lackeys and bureaucratic flunkeys who were pleased – or constrained – to flank the ministers being sworn in, sans masks or any other facial adornment save strained smiles – remind one of the plight of the ‘noble six hundred’ in Tennyson’s memorable and moving poem. In ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, the rank and file were thrown willy-nilly into the mouth of cannon-fire. Today, a decade after our criminal war ended and several lifetimes after the Crimean War did, people are no less cannon-fodder to the ignoble ambitions of politicians and their worshipful generals and slavish camp-followers.

Then, as now, it is equally the fault of the political pundits in Westminster and the craven civil service in Whitehall, as much as that of the Lords Raglan and Cardigan, that people are exposed to death when cannons and coronavirus ‘volley and thunder’. Also, now as then, there is no excuse except the grace and saving-face of death or dismissal for those who blindly follow orders under the imprimatur ‘ours not to reason why; ours but to do or die’. 

Yes: the old lie is still ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ – it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country. But not so ignobly as to ignore ‘cannons to the left’ (as in the fury of all-seeing political masters) and ‘cannons to the right’ (of the folly of blinded private citizens). And none so ignoble – six hundred or sixteen million – that they would break the law to please someone else’s ambition rather than safeguard their own health and well-being.

So the crimes of Crimea or Colombo, be they as they may, I for one will continue to wear my mask and wash my hands. Not to please the army commander! Although I’m sure the good general would be chuffed at my sense of civic duty. But because the right and responsibility of the republic’s vim, vigour, and vitality lie in my hands – washed in private – as much as anyone else’s – washed off all blame in public? And if we really mean that it is to be truly ‘one country, one law’ (constitutionally as much as in our personal and collective conscious, as well as consciences), someone had better see to it that those Covidiots do so too.

I am simply scripturient about it. One country, one law! Someone else please take charge of the firing-squad...

| Journalist | Editor-at-Large of LMD | Writer on being a flâneur | Scripturient |