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.