Once upon a time there was an Emperor who thought that the war he had started was exciting, albeit troublesome. He thought that running a war was “hard work,” and thinking always made him tired. So, he decided to take another vacation and visit his castle in the provinces, where he could relax with his vassals and nobles seeking his favor and not have to think.
Nearly all of the vassals and nobles, like the Emperor himself, liked war very much, although they didn’t like to personally participate. Many had cleverly avoided their own involvement in wars when they were young. For instance, the Emperor’s chief vassal, Sir Dick, loved war nearly as much as life itself, but had been a champion at getting deferments from participating in war as a young man. In this way, he could live to grow old and send new generations of young people to war.
A problem arose in the Emperor’s realm when a grieving woman whose son had died in the Emperor’s war decided to visit the Emperor and ask him what purpose her son’s death had served. She traveled to the Emperor’s castle in the provinces where he was relaxing from the “hard work” of war. She sent a message to him, which said, “I have lost a son who was most precious to me and I wish to know from you that his death was not in vain, that he died for some greater purpose. Please come out from behind the walls of your castle and let me know how my son’s death has been for a noble cause.”
One of the Emperor’s vassals approached him, and told the Emperor that he had a message from a grieving mother of one of the Emperor’s fallen soldiers. After reading the message, the Emperor turned to the vassal and asked, “Why do you bother me with this, the words of a simple woman, when I have an empire to run and am relaxing from the hard work of war? As you know, tonight we have more riches to gather, and I must be in a mood for gaiety.”
The vassal bowed low and backed away, apologizing, “I’m sorry,” he said, “I thought that her encampment before the castle might stir up trouble among the people of the realm.”
“Leave me,” said the Emperor imperiously, “My loyal subjects know better than to speak ill of me.” The Emperor was supremely confident in the knowledge that his subjects, and especially the scribes, would not speak ill of him.
But the woman’s message had put the Emperor in a bad mood. He thought it impertinent of this woman to send such a message. He had an empire to run, and no time for explaining to a grieving mother why her son had died. It should be obvious to her that her son died because that’s what soldiers do. They die in battle. If they cannot avoid the military, like Sir Dick had done, or at least stay out of war as the Emperor himself had done, then they die in battle if they are unlucky and then are replaced by other soldiers.
The walls of the Emperor’s castle were high, and the Emperor knew he was safe from this grieving mother and her kind behind them. He and Sir Dick knew best what the empire needed, and he knew that now was the time to relax so that after some weeks he could return to the “hard work” of war.
But while the message of the grieving mother encamped in front of the Emperor’s castle did not move the hard heart of the Emperor, it did indeed miraculously resound through the empire, and the populace did indeed begin to question with her whether her son had died in vain and whether the Emperor’s war had been no more than tragic folly.
All fables have a moral, and the moral of this one is: If your son or daughter has died in war and you are a grieving mother, know that while your words may not move the Emperor to come out from behind the safety of his castle walls, your pain and courage may still stir a revolt across the empire and save other mothers’ sons and daughters as well as the innocent citizens of far-off lands.
DAVID KRIEGER is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and author of a recent book of anti-war poetry, Today Is Not a Good Day for War.