Thursday, 3 September 2009

Still mentioning the war

Born in the mid-60’s to parents who were teenagers at the time of the Second World War I seem to have grown up in the shadow of that conflict. And not just because of family war-stories. I think everyone of my generation grew up with the Airfix kits, reading “Commando” comic books, playing ‘war’ in the playground and watching the black and white films on a Sunday afternoon.

Even today, 70 years after, turn on cable TV and I can guarantee that at just about any time of the day or night there will be a couple of documentaries on the war. And in the week where we celebrate (?) the outbreak of war, Vera Lynn is back in the charts.

Why does it have such a strong hold on us?

Well it wasn’t just the movies that were black and white. Like no other conflict before or since it seems like a ‘just war’. Historical context* will quite correctly qualify that with Britain’s attempts to cling on to empire in the East, and with the cynical division of Europe as a prequel to the Cold War. But Nazism and the Holocaust are the trump cards that make it a war that had to be won. And won not by professional armies but by entire nations.

This makes it unique; the Great War before it had something of the same character, but few can now see any moral basis for the conflict - so when we remember it we do so only as tragedy. And wars since 1945 have been scary Cold War spill-overs like Korea or last throws of empire like Vietnam (or the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan). In any case whatever their morality, the nature of modern warfare is now such that it is unlikely we will ever see mass-conscription and People’s War again.

Perhaps it is precisely because of this we still hark back to the Second World War; with the ambiguities and ideological vacuums of own times the war years provide a more certain moral compass. That, and the living memory of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

NB * If you want this context - have a look at this piece by Peter Taafe or the debate over at Socialist Unity - what I am taking about here is our enduring perception of it as a People's War - which is in many senses as important as the reality.

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