As winter closes around us and we move into November we Brits embark on an annual voyage of nostalgia. Every TV presenter will wear a poppy on their chest and our collective mind will dwell on the sacrifices made in two world wars. Much will be made of those courageous generations. We’ll be reminded, if needed, of the cruelty, the hardships, the power and the glory. Once again a dwindling corp of elderly veterans will stand in the shadow of The Cenotaph; flags will be lowered; wreaths laid. We’ll reflect on our freedom and the price our forebears paid to defend it.
I confess to being a bit of a World War nerd. I was born just eight years after the end of WW2. My dad served in the army and my mum lived and worked in London throughout The Blitz. The recent victory over Nazism coloured my early years. I played war games on local bomb sites; sprayed imaginary Germans with my imaginary machine gun; lobbed imaginary hand grenades; died a thousand theatrical deaths from a thousand imaginary bullet wounds. Every week pocket money was spent on copies of The Valiant and The Victor, their comic strip cover stories featuring our military heroes and their medal winning exploits.
Conflict is part, some might argue an inevitable part, of the human condition. It seems that if there is ever a war to end all wars, the optimistic strap line once used to describe WW1, then that war will need to leave no human survivors. Our best efforts to live in peace with each other, whether doctrinal like The New Testament or multilateral like The United Nations and the EU, fall at the first hurdles of misunderstanding and cultural difference. Our framework of national sovereignty and identity requires protection from all manner of external threats. The fear of conquest is deep seated. Cultivating and maintaining enmity is so much less complicated and laborious than identifying common interest and working on compromise. In his latter years Winston Churchill observed that ‘..to jaw, jaw is better than to war, war’ and it’s a truism that all conflict is only lastingly resolved around a table. Unfortunately this truth is crushed as the very first of war’s victims.
So what’s to be done? Will armed conflict ever become something people used to do?
Well despite graphic and distressing media coverage to the contrary we are better placed to consign war to the past than at any time in history. The reality of our finite planet is a fact, a fact that all can appreciate thanks to the information revolution. There was a time when a war in Africa could play out without most of the people of Europe or America or China even being aware of it. These days such madness is witnessed, albeit indirectly, by anyone with a TV or a phone. A united perspective is no longer a pipe dream. We have the eyes and we just have to start believing what they’re seeing. As much as power, be it personified as a Communist party chairman, a Conservative defence minister or a fundamentalist Kaliff, seems to be pressing the switches, an interconnected humanity has the potential to short circuit the whole machine. We can all become individual engines of co-operation and understanding. We can draw up our own, personal treaties; initiate our own negotiations; be directly involved in cementing understanding.
Around war memorials across the nation people will bow their heads. The air will tremble to the tones of The Last Post; there will be solemn readings of Lawrence Binyon’s poem To the Fallen. But if “..at the going down of the sun and in the morning..” we really wish to honour their memory then we all need to recognise our contribution to conflict and our obligation to bring it to an end.