War and development

This piece (subscription required) on The Last Enemy, “a minor classic” by Richard Hillary, reminds us of the cruelties of war:
The book records the author’s change in attitude to the war, brought about in part by his experiences in hospital. He started out with a brittle, cynical outlook. He did not join up from any motives of patriotism or to fight evil. He did so, rather, as a form of self development. Specifically denying any other or selfless motive, he told a friend: “I am fighting this war because I believe that, in war, one can swiftly develop all one’s faculties to a degree it would normally take half a lifetime to achieve.”
The end of the book is almost unbearably moving. On short leave from the hospital, Hillary takes a London taxi ride, but because of an air raid, goes for refuge with the driver in a pub, the George and Dragon. The pub is bombed, however, as is the house next door. As he and the driver emerge from the wreckage, a rescue worker says to them, “almost apologetically,” “If you have nothing very urgent on hand, I wonder if you’d help a bit here. You see it was the house next to you that was hit and there’s someone buried in there.”
A little child is pulled out, dead, and then the mother, still alive. Hillary gives her a little brandy from his flask. “Then she started to weep. Quite soundlessly, and with no sobbing . . . ‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, and took my hand in hers. And then, looking at me again, she said after a pause, ‘I see they got you too.’” She dies, and Hillary realises that self development is the least of it.

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