'Another ward?' I said; I was always taught to humour old folks, but deliberately mishearing just to annoy them is a weakness of mine.
'War, my boy,' he said. 'Think of all the benefits. The military-industrial complex would blossom, the stock market would boom. Buy at the sound of guns, and sell at the sound of trumpets, they used to say. There would be more employment, and all those unemployable yobs could be sent off to the front line, where they could receive training to make them useful and productive members of society.'
'Training in how to kill people, you mean?' I said.
'But most of all, think of the health benefits,' he said.
'Lots of people being killed,' I said. 'They aren't immediately clear.'
'Take the broad view,' he said. 'Of course we regret the individual tragedies, but consider the effects on the health of the whole population. Our efforts at health promotion are risible, but in a war, fuel would be rationed, so people would have to take more exercise. Food would be rationed, so people would eat less and be forced to grow their own; think of it, every house with its own little vegetable patch. Many of our modern epidemics, coronary heart disease, stroke, obesity, type-2 diabetes, would be significantly reduced, with added benefits to the public purse.'
'So we could buy more guns?' I said.
'You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs,' he said. 'After the Second World War, West Germany was in parlous condition. The first post-war case of adult-onset diabetes was diagnosed in 1956, and was welcomed as a sign that the days of austerity were over.'
'I take it you wouldn't be fighting yourself,' I said.
'As Wilfred Owen wrote,' he said, '"When I am old and fierce and short of breath/I'll sit with scarlet majors in the base/And send young heroes up the line to death." No, wars are for the young, I'll be back here, directing things from behind.'
'And I'm sure you'll do a great job,' I said, stirring a small spoonful of arsenic into his next glass of port.