Working it out: There but for the grace of Lady Luck go I
One of Sebastian Faulks's earliest books was Birdsong, published in 1993, nearly 80 years on from the beginning of the war to end all wars. His description of life in the trenches leaves any male full of horror and dread. Plus the feeling that it could have been me. How would I have behaved?
The fate for those afraid to go over the top was firing squad. Before the order, they read the list of those who had been executed last time around. Would my name have been there? The punishment for falling asleep on sentry duty, or refusing to enter the claustrophobic tunnels reaching under enemy lines, was the same.
I have stood in the enormous graveyards in the North of France. I have been with a cameraman in Arlington lining up shots to show the immensity of the simple white crosses. Most of the dead were scarcely out of their teens and had I not been born on an insignificant neutral island on the edge of the Atlantic, it could easily have been me. Gay Byrne identified it in an emotional moment during the documentary on his grandfather's part in war. He was lucky.
As a child, I remember the excitement of looking at a relative's shrapnel wounds. He had been hit in the leg. I don't know what he made of his curiosity value. He was lucky.
As a student, I shared a house in New York with several people including a Vietnam veteran. I have met few people so damaged. Things came to a head when he assaulted one of the women. But after what he had been through there was a kind of understanding. He was lucky to be alive. And unlucky as to what he had seen in his life.
I was in Romania after Christmas 1989, and witnessed the excitement of the 'revolution' or 'coup.' I filmed the wounded, more likely dying, in hospitals. It was the first time I saw what bullets did. Later, I visited an orphanage and thought a bullet was too good for Ceausescu.
I left Baghdad the day Desert Storm began. Saddam had invaded Kuwait and by the time we landed in Jordan the cruise missiles had struck. I wondered if people we had spoken to, or eaten with the previous weeks, were dead.
I have met IRA men who, filled with a mixture of hatred, idealism and warped religion had done what they thought was right and I knew had I been born 100 miles away that could have been me. I am atheist because of education, timing, upbringing and, above all, luck.
I was born in this neutral country, still very glad that Western military might is on my side.
As we remember the war that began 100 years ago I think we are all surprised at just how many Irish people took part and gave their lives. I suspect I would have found an excuse and am not altogether proud of that.