Friday, 18 November 2011
Dad What Did You Do In The War?
Why nothing of course son.
Merely through the circumstance of being born in the UK in the second half of the twentieth century. A country free from invasion, aerial bombardment and which maintains only a professional army rather than a conscripted one, augmented by weekend soldiers who also only did so voluntarily.
Mind you, having said that, British armed forces have been involved in bloody conflict every single year since the end of World War Two, save a handful.
Yet, while never having been exposed to a battlefield, war has still exerted a distant recoil on me.
The community I grew up in was concerned with the Middle East. I remember my parents donating blood to help the Israeli war effort during the Yom Kippur war in 1973. After that war our family housed injured Israeli soldiers for a holiday in Britain. Our first was a conscript who's war lasted 20 minutes until his tank was hit by a new hand-held anti-tank weapon supplied to Egypt by the Soviet Union. He'd suffered severe burns and bore skin grafts all over his body.
And yet even at whatever tender age I was then, I couldn't buy into the mythology of the Middle East's goodies and baddies as I was supposed to. I think I just wanted to keep my head below the parapet, since I knew I couldn't voice any dissenting opinion within a community that was fervently parochial. Also, I was a bit more struck with a war occurring on my doorstep, relatively low level as it may have been.
Images on television of armoured cars, soldiers in camo with automatic rifles, patrolling eerily familiar streets, with the same makes of cars bearing the same number plates and obeying the same road signs as existed just outside my window. Northern Ireland always seemed way more relevant to my life, than Middle East colonial wars by proxy between the US & the USSR. Northern Ireland really, really troubled me for the familiarity of its settings, and this was way before I was aware that occasionally it did actually spill over on to my London streets. And yet no one, save the Republicans, talked of it as a war. It bothered the hell out of me every day, even if it didn't seem to bother anyone else in mainland Britain (outside of Glasgow).
The same thing happened with the Falklands Conflict. Not a war mind, but a conflict, due to the legal nicety that the UK hadn't declared war on Argentina and had no stated intention of invading the mainland (which would have scaled it up to a war). I remember throwing darts at the dartboard in my bedroom thinking that 6000 miles away, my country was fighting a war and yet the birds outside were singing, the cars were driving past. Everything seemed normal and undisturbed. It felt completely schizoid. I couldn't make sense of the detachment all around. The lack of televised coverage made that far away war seem even more remote.
I became politicised by the war that never happened. The third world war and mutually assured nuclear destruction. That's where I did a lot of reading and conversing and formed my world view. It was when I really turned my gaze outward from my domestic realm of school and play. Around the same time was the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia falling to the invading Vietnamese. I had been dimly aware of the Vietnam War, but I hadn't elected to invest my interest in it despite the bombardment of Hollywood movies on the subject. But the Cambodian situation, perhaps because it was so extreme, I very much did. It seared itself into me and I still religiously read any gobbet of information on that period even today. It took me 30 years to write my fictional response "1979 Gothic" to that horrendous period of history. Why did Cambodia move me and yet the wars of the Middle East, Israel and Palestine, not so much? I have no idea.
I assume there are some people who invest energy in opposing or at least taking an interest in following every single war. I'm not one of them. But I'm struck by the fact that I'll be moved by some wars but not others. Am I any different form the global media, who beat the drum for some wars, while others burn away virtually unreported.
This year, two of the best books I've read - and bear in mind I favour fiction over non-fiction- have been written by two men either side of the Russia-Checheyna conflict- sorry WARs- from the 1990s. Again, wars I was dimly aware of but unmoved by in the sense that I didn't follow them. And yet here, 15 years on I pick up 2 books by combatants in those wars and am utterly swept up (can't say blown away) by them. The first was Nicolai Lillin's "Free Fall", quite simply the best book from a battlefield I have ever read. One that updates the scene from the plethora of Vietnam memoirs, to account for the infinitely more destructive power of weapons and moves us resolutely into the 21st century. It was a dirty war, becoming elided with the global War on Terror as the Russian Federation claimed it was fighting Al Qaeda and Islamic Fundamentalists within its own borders. The other book may not even be non-fiction at all, so mesmerising and hallucinatory is German Sadulaev's book "I Am A Chechen". In truth it doesn't focus all that much on the war, but gives the contrary view of a minority culture struggling to assert its own identity. But it packs no less a punch for all that.
Again, apart from my happenstance of coming by these books, I am curious as to why now, a decade after the end of those particular wars, these books suddenly come into the light of the market. Both were published within the last year. Before that was it too soon? Not for an English-speaking audience unlikely to have had any personal stake in that conflict. Maybe it took that time to throw off the PTSD, for the combatants to rebuild their lives enough (and in exile) to feel able to write. I don't know, but the book market decided somewhere along the line that 2010-11 was the time to look back at this war. We had a spate of African child soldier books a few years back, but commercially that bird now seems to have flown. Wonder which war will be thrown up next for the literary market?
So my thoughts on all of this are just, well conflicted. Yes we make money from misery, but I am unsure as to how and why we decide on which wars to patronise (myself included). I'm glad those books have come out. They certainly had an impact on me. And yet they are unlikely to change anything of course, for all their brilliance. Wars will still be fought. Populations on the outside will still shake their heads at the misery and awfulness of them. They may even donate money to help refugees. And future generations may or may not be influenced by observing such wars being covered by the media.
Dad, what did I do in the war? Nothing son. Other than the privileged freedom of getting utterly confused and not having to pay for my ignorance.