PADDY Ashdown, or, to give him his proper name, Jeremy John Durham Ashdown, is best known for having once been leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, and leading it to a significant General Election result.
Some may also know that he was a former member of the SBS,(the Special Boat Service), an exclusive part of the British armed services. Others may know him as a man proud of his Irish, and Ulster, ancestry and upbringing.
Much more can be learned about Mr. Ashdown from his recent autobiography, ‘A Fortunate Life’. Indeed, sometime we learn too much, about his own early romantic encounters, and the bodily functions of his fellow-soldiers!
But we also learn things that justify the tribute paid to him by a ‘Times ‘ reviewer, that he is ‘a principled man’. Reflecting on the atrocities committed during the Balkans conflict, his mind went back to the notorious My Lai massacre, perpetrated by American troops during the Vietnam War.
He reflected that the troops under William Calley did not leap to terrible violence at one bound, but that as rules were gradually bent and disregarded, horrors resulted. He likened the progress of evil to that of the bilharzias worm, a parasite which carries a tropical disease, and spreads it venom by entering under the nails, and then migrating through the body to the blood-vessels of lungs and liver.
Ashdown writes: “Evil, it turns out, is not the great beast of myth and legend. Rather, it imitates the bilharzia worm, slipping in imperceptibly between your compromises, to start its long progress to possession.
“If leaders do not have the courage or alertness to stop the relatively small transgressions against accepted values, then they are initiating a chain of escalation which can end in horrors that would never have imagined or tolerated when it all started.”
What is true of the body politic and military, is true of the human soul.
In the task of building character, we must beware of the equivalent of the bilharzia worm. The great Dr. Johnson advised parents that children should be scrupulously taught honesty.
If, in relating a story, Johnston contended, the child says erroneously that an event took place at a certain window, rather than at another one, even that small error must be corrected.
Otherwise, the tendency to trifle with truth can spread with baleful effects.
The great poet, Alexander Pope, recognised the same truth:
“Vice is a creature of so frightful mien, as to be hated needs but to be seen
“Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face, we first endure, then pity, then embrace”
But is evil develops in that way, so too can virtue. As the children’s hymn states about the battle against temptation, ‘Each victory will help you, some other to win’.
The growth of goodness was once put in these words, “You pay your bills, you keep your word, you wash your front porch, you take care of a dependent aunt, you do these things year by year, and finally you have a reputation”.
The same writer advised: “Create a habit of doing the hard thing. It may enable one, when some crisis comes, to thrust aside a temptation that would master the man too fatally accustomed to doing things in the easiest way.”
Let’s learn the lesson of the bilharzia worm!