The Pleasures of War

11/20/2007 03:33 pm 15:33:56 | Updated May 25, 2011

Ah, war, what's it good for?

Well it does make some people very rich. It does give the excuse for some heads of government to arrogate powers of tyranny to themselves.

And war does make for some of the most gruesomely enthralling reading around.

Man, oh, man, does it.

Take Lapham's Quarterly, the new baby of Lewis Lapham, former longtime, swashbuckling editor of Harper's. This magazine (online version mostly subscription, alas) is in essence a commonplace reader that sets out a juicy smorgasbord of excerpts from historical and contemporary writings, to illuminate a different theme each time.

"States of War" is the theme of the debut issue, just out.

And I've been mesmerized, for starters, by the hair-raising account of the Charge of the Light Brigade, excerpted from the 1953 classic The Reason Why by Cecil Woodham-Smith.

Everybody vaguely knows the incident from the half-remembered lines of Tennyson ("...all in the valley of Death rode the 600..."): a famous 19th century military action involving a suicidally heroic attack by British cavalry against overwhelming odds. Those dutiful heroics are even cited among the programs for knee-scraping fun in The Dangerous Book for Boys, with a battlefield map included.

But heroics ain't half of it. This gory chunk of glorious combat ("A feat of chivalry, fiery with consummate courage, and bright with flashing courage"- Benjamin Disraeli) was in fact an orgy of catastrophic boneheaded blundering. Warfare as Monty Python sketch -- but with cannon shot, flying spattering guts, the screeching hell-chaos of dying men and horses, all punctuated by preposterous parade-ground discipline.

The handiwork work of such a cast of blundering goofballs, it would rouse even the envy of Bremer and Wolfowitz and Rummy.


Put briefly, the awful ridiculous thing took place shortly before Halloween, 1854 (about ten days before the birth of John Phillip Sousa) as part of the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. The English and their allies were on the Ukrainian coast fighting the Russians.

The Brit commander, Lord Raglan, looked down at a battlefield valley and saw the Russians trying to haul away some abandoned cannons from the outer side of one the valley's flanking ridges. He sent a cryptic order below to his cavalry to get the guns.

But as Einstein pointed out, things are relative to your point of reference.

Down at valley level the overall cavalry commander Lord Lucan (nicknamed Lord Look-on for his dithering) couldn't see the cannons Raglan meant. The only guns he could see were the Russian ones pointing at him from the other end of the valley a mile and a quarter away. The order meant his men would have to ride directly into these cannons' fire, through a further gauntlet of fire from the two flanking ridges which the Russians still occupied.

This was militarily incomprehensible, an unfathomable warrant for suicide, a violation of all sensible military tactics.

What guns? said Lucan to the young captain, Lewis Nolan, who had galloped down breakneck with the instructions. Nolan was a brainy and arrogant fellow and he held Lucan and his dithering in contempt. Unfortunately for everyone he had been up with Raglan on his height and thought it was blithering obvious which the cannons were meant. Furious, he waved his arm ambiguously and cried, There is your enemy, there are your guns!

And he rode off in a huff to join a friend of his in the Light Brigade.

Miscommunication and emotion; they'll hurt every time.

Golden Boy & the Orders

The commander of the Light Brigade (meaning lightly armed cavalry, as opposed the more heavily armed Heavy Brigade) was Lucan's former brother in law, Lord Cardigan. Lord, how the two of lords despised each other! Cardigan was a magnificent specimen of Victorian soldierhood: handsome, headstrong, domineering, and fearless. "He had in addition to courage another characteristic," writes Woodham-Smith (elsewhere from the excerpt here), "which impressed itself on all who met him. He was, alas, unusually stupid; in fact [he was] an ass. The melancholy truth was that his glorious golden head had nothing in it."

Lucan showed the appalling order to golden-haired Cardigan, who pointed out stiffly the tactical situation, which was palpably insane (gauntlet-of-fire, cul-de-sac). Lucan agreed; but orders were orders.

And alas, that little phrase, so redolent with dark histories, put an end to debate and deliberation among the field commanders. Cargidan in his resplendent uniform saluted and went off with the murmur, "Well here goes the last of the Brudenells." (his family name)

The 673-horse strong Light Brigade had not yet seen action in the Battle of Balaklava. They were chafing. Without fanfare they mounted up and rode into the valley of Death--to go get the wrong cannons.

And so the horror show started.

C'est Magnifique, mais...

The excerpt in Lapham's Quarterly picks up the action here, with the Brits and their allies up on their height watching in dawning horror. "C'est magnifique," declared a French general, "mais ce n'est pas la guerre."

Things get off to a befittingly whiz-bang start. Capt. Nolan all at once seemed to realize the dreadful misunderstanding unfolding. He went galloping madly out front, diagonally ahead of Lord Cardigan, who was leading--a huge breach of etiquette which so infuriated Cardigan it was the main thing on his mind (sic) throughout all the horrors to come. Nolan waved his sword desperately overhead, shouting. But he couldn't be heard. The first Russian cannon shell burst near him and tore open his chest, exposing his heart. He froze in the saddle, dead instantly, arm still above his head though his sword dropped. His horse wheeled and went bolting back among the advancing Brigade -- as the corpse now sent up the most inhuman hysterical shrieking anyone had ever heard.

A Cassandra of the things to come. (Perhaps it can make the next edition of The Dangerous Book for Boys?)

The Russian guns began to smash into the British. Horses went down, oncoming horses frantically veered to avoid them. In the chaos parade ground-style orders kept going up, "Close in, watch your dressing, close in!" Devastation and chaos mounted: gruesomely mutilated horses, alone or bearing gory and mutilated riders, rammed back in a frenzy into their oncoming fellows. More shells rained down. The parade-ground-style instructions kept bellowing away.

Out front, golden Cardigan galloped on, resplendent and "steady as a church," never looking back (heedless of Nolan's fate). Eighty yards from the infamous cannons he and the Brigade's first line were engulfed in a point blank fusillade that threw his horse sideways and obliterated the world in black smoke. Somehow Cardigan plunged on, right through the line of cannons -- and emerged on the other side.

According to Woodall-Smith's excerpt, he now looked back over the hazy valley and could see hide nor hair of his men, other than the dead and writhing (the living were in fact now in the thick smoke, furiously hacking away at the Russian gunners; they actually captured the cannons!).

So -- and this attitude would fit with our own glorious men of war in their business suits -- considering his responsibilities to his men discharged by having led them into battle, fearlesss Cardigan simply turned around. And without further ado, no rallying, no inquiring, he made his way trotting back down the valley he'd come up.

Miraculously he went still unscathed, as he fumed, all the way back through the carnage, about Capt. Nolan's outrageous insubordination, his yelling at the Brigade. Back at British lines he complained furiously and scornfully, adding: "Imagine the fellow screaming like a woman when he was hit."

"Say no more, my lord," he was informed. "You have just ridden over Capt. Nolan's dead body."

Ah, that was what that was.


When the Light Brigade straggled back and regrouped, there were less than two hundred left in the saddle from the almost seven hundred who started. (Dead numbered around one hundred and fifty). Five hundred horses had been lost, many shot in the field to end their agonies.

Cardigan dined that night back on his nearby yacht. He refused any responsibility for the disaster. Returning to England a couple months later, he got a Victorian hero's welcome.

Lucan got the blame, though he furiously and publicly begged to differ. (He had by the way pulled the Heavy Brigade out of action to save it when he saw how badly things were going.)

Other Aftermaths & a Horse Named Reagan

Woodall-Smith, the author (who's a woman, despite the Cecil) wrote her description of the Charge itself in 36 hours straight, without food, refreshment or rest. This took roughly 100 times longer than the event itself. When she was done she poured a stiff drink and slept for two days.

Myself, when I read the excerpt in Lapham's Quarterly, I found myself offering a small prayer for the here and now: Dear Lord (I prayed), if you are indeed just, and there is such a thing as reincarnation, please bring back Dick Cheney and David Addington eventually, and reincarnate them, with Twilight-Zone abruptness, right there in the front line of the Brigade as they ride into that nightmare valley. Put Rummy and Wolfowitz ("Close in, Wolfowitz, close in!") and Douglas Feith and the other warmongers there too, in the stirrups in their business suits as the shells burst and the guts fly.

And out front, alongside Lord Cardigan for the battle ride, put our commander in chief in his flight boy suit and cowboy boots. Cardigan's horse was called Ronald (I kid you not). So seize the serendipity (I'm sure God doesn't mind heavy-handed humor, in a good cause) -- and call GW's mount Reagan.

Perfect, since this way Bush rides on the back of Reagan in any incarnation.

And no concern needed for our new arrivals' safety. Why, if anything grisly befalls them they'll just be reincarnated again -- back with the heroic Light Brigade, please. Forever and ever more.

Those who refuse to learn from history, they say, are condemned to repeat it. And those who cherry pick it, may they be condemned to taste the whole appalling shrieking insane harvest.

I made use of two excellent web resources for this piece: and

Appreciations to, where this piece appeared originally on my blog Brain Flakes.

Also at