10. August 2006 · Comments Off on The Fire Next Time · Categories: General, GWOT, War

Connie Willis wrote a haunting novelette, ages ago, called “Firewatch” postulating a future where students of history could actually go and do their finals as a practical exercise, in the past. The hero of “Fire Watch” finds himself in London in 1940, as one of the cadre of volunteer fire watchers, sleeping in the crypt of St. Paul’s , and working feverishly during air raids, to protect the great church from bombs— not the high-explosive, but the incendiary kind, defending it with buckets of sand and stirrup-pumps— all the while haunted by the knowledge that seventy years after his practicum, St. Paul’s has been atomized by a terrorist with a nuclear weapon. In his own time, all that is left of it is part of the memorial stone, dedicated after the Second World War, honoring the work of the firewatchers:

“ “Remember men and women of St Paul’s Watch who by the grace of God saved this cathedral.”… Part of the stone is sheared off. Historians argue there was another line that said, “for all time,” but I do not believe that, not if Dean Matthews had anything to do with it. And none of the watch it was dedicated to would have believed it for a minute. We saved St Paul’s every time we put out an incendiary, and only until the next one fell. Keeping watch on the danger spots, putting out the little fires with sand and stirrup pumps, the big ones with our bodies, in order to keep the whole vast complex structure from burning down. “

So it appears this time we are saved, from the horror of airplanes falling out of the skies, spilling their contents prodigally over the earth, or as it seems to have been planned, over the ocean. Saved by watchfulness, and luck and dedication, saved by good policing, saved by those who know in their soul that we are at war, that there are indeed those few predators amongst us who are planning to kill, and kill and kill again, sating themselves with oceans of our blood, and the assurance of an eternity spent in the hereafter, rewarded as the clients of a particularly well-stocked celestial whorehouse. Perhaps this was the one big action, promised or threatened ever since 9-11, and perhaps it will take another five years to bring the next one to full and ghastly fruition, with another dozen small and ugly murderous actions in between. The saying is that the terrorists only need to be lucky, once… those who defend against terrorists must be lucky, over and over and over again.

We may continue to be lucky, and dedicated, and go on putting out all sorts of little fires with the equivalent of sand and stirrup pumps for many nights and for many years, but deep in my heart, I know that eventually there will be the day when we will not be lucky, and stome time, and in someplace… someplace that I may know, or someplace that I have only read about… will be gone, with nothing but a few blasted foundations left of it. Connie Willis wrote “Firewatch” in 1982, when the Cold War was cooling down, before the Wall fell, and it could still be barely credible to imagine a Communist as the villain, a nihilistic terrorist setting off a bomb to destroy the church of St. Paul’s, twenty years before we watched the towers fall in a shimmer of debris and a great cloud of smoke and fire, inspired by a terrorist of another horrifying and more potent ideology.

“We saved St. Paul’s every time we put out an incendiary, and only until the next one fell.”

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