If Blood be the Price of Admiralty…

I’m not certain why the line never registered until I read Keegan’s book by that title. I’d read the lines before, but they had not sunk in.

We have fed our sea for a thousand years
And she calls us, still unfed,
Though there’s never a wave of all her waves
But marks our English dead:
We have strewed our best to the weed’s unrest,
To the shark and the sheering gull.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha’ paid in full!

There’s never a flood goes shoreward now
But lifts a keel we manned;
There’s never an ebb goes seaward now
But drops our dead on the sand —
But slinks our dead on the sands forlore,
From the Ducies to the Swin.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha’ paid it in!

We must feed our sea for a thousand years,
For that is our doom and pride,
As it was when they sailed with the ~Golden Hind~,
Or the wreck that struck last tide —
Or the wreck that lies on the spouting reef
Where the ghastly blue-lights flare.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
If blood be the price of admiralty,
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha’ bought it fair!

The poem is an excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Song of the Dead.”  Kipling may have been a Romantic in many ways, but he was clear-eyed and cold-eyed about the price of empire, as anyone who has read and really thought about “The Recessional” and “The White Man’s Burden” or “Arithmetic on the Frontier” well knows.

Today in the US we honor Memorial Day. While it has become an occasion for sales, and for cook-outs, and the unofficial start of summer, it is also a day of reflection and memory. The United States has fought wars against clear enemies, against ourselves, against others. We grew from a strip of 13 former colonies to become, at least for a few years, the masters of the two oceans. And we have paid the price for our admiralty, for our victories on land, and in the skies. We are still paying that price in Southwest Asia, and I suspect elsewhere.

Let us never forget the price of admiralty, and let our leaders not deny that price, lest they forget, lest they forget.

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