Editorial: A world of war outside my own
Reading Anthony Beevor’s The Second World War, I have been struck by how many ways there are to die in a war. If battle itself doesn’t claim you, through bullet, bomb, fire or water, there are the possibilities of disease, starvation, cold, being worked to death as a slave (industrial or sexual), being massacres as captives or being executed for a perceived shortfall in your martial achievements. Being shot in battle starts to seem like a luxury.
War and football were our two most perennial games at primary school. I grew up with films like Where Eagles Dare and the board game Escape from Colditz. I studied the causes of the English Civil War, and war poetry from Tennyson to Sassoon. I followed news reports from the Falklands and the Gulf.
I don’t suppose I have ever had any real idea of what war is. The relentless catalogue of horrors facing so many millions in Beevor’s account is appalling and depressing, but it is still only a book. I’ve finished it and moved on to the next one.
There are some excellent websites take images from the Second World War – bombed houses in London, German soldiers marching down Parisian streets – and superimpose images of those same places today. They fill me with a sense of utter unreality. The idea of Charing Cross Road or the Champs-Élysées being a scene of warfare is as surreal as Nelson’s Column being a cartoon or the Eiffel Tower coming to life.
But, of course, this is the reality that my parents and their generation lived through. Neither is there anything unusual about them. Peace may feel for me like the only natural or thinkable way to be, but the Conflict Data Programme at Uppsala University reports that there are at present 43 countries in armed conflict. The number of wars in the 20th century was greater than the number of countries in the world.
I suppose I have discovered yet another way in which I am in the class of the most privileged people in history, to have lived such a life that I find the idea of war impossible to imagine. I find it equally hard to imagine living in serious poverty, losing my children to preventable diseases, or facing real persecution for my beliefs. Reading Beevor’s book, I feel as if I caught a glimpse of a world outside my experience. Now I’m wondering how long I can keep my eyes open, and whether it will make any difference.
This article was published in the February 2015 edition of Reform.