Friday, April 9, 2010

Enemy action

The seemingly unstoppable flow of books, films and
television programs about the Second World War tells us
that, though it ended 65 years ago, it still casts a long
shadow over our lives. It might not even be an
exaggeration to say that, in a psychological sense, the war
never ended; it is still going on; the battlefields have
shifted, that is all—from physical locations to hearts and
minds. I think there may be three reasons for this. One is
the patently obvious fact that such a seismic event in
human history—the biggest war ever fought—is not going
to politely take its place in the history books as if it were a
building collapse or a by-election: it hugely affected not
only the people who lived through it but generations

Second, the war enclosed another event that, largely
hidden from the world at the time, has come in many
ways to eclipse the war itself—an event, if that’s an
adequate word, so horrific that the mind still balks at
grasping the entirety of it. It was Theodor Adorno who, in
1949, said that the idea of writing poetry after the
Holocaust was barbaric; and George Steiner, I think, who
had difficulty believing in the meaning of progress,
indeed, of history, after Auschwitz. I’m sure he’s not alone.
Certainly it was he who once wrote that we will never be
fully human until we can, without going insane, hold in
our minds simultaneously the two images of (a) smoke
rising from a concentration-camp gas chamber while a
few hundred metres away (b) supposedly civilized
Germans listened to Schubert quintets. It may be that
humanity wrote its own epitaph in the death camps of the
Nazi regime, and that whatever cosmetics we apply to our
civilization now, we are essentially lipsticked ghouls in a

Third, those of us whose fathers died in or survived the
war are now of an age when, more urgently than ever, we
want to know more about our parents’ generation, and how
they coped with the aftermath of war. Partly, by having us.
Partly, unconsciously, no doubt, by carrying on the war,
lest the peace corrupt them. The men, certainly, went on
fighting, because how can you live through what they did
and then just settle down overnight to tea and biscuits and
a nine-to-five routine? The diary of a New Zealand soldier
coming back from the war in 1945 concludes, after the
berthing of the troopship, the flags, the bunting, the bands,
the speeches, the women on the wharfside, the train
upcountry, the cheering crowds at every platform, the
arrival at his hometown, it concludes—and there is no
more after this—with the words ‘Tears etc.’

Coming back from the war
was like being lowered
from a hot-air balloon.
At first the view was tremendous—
we felt like kings, with so much
earth to survey—but the closer
we got to the ground,
the more things rushed up to meet us.
Fields became blades of grass;
the sky went back to where it was;
and instead of the smell of death
there were stations, and faces,
and children thrust into our arms,
the old life reclaiming us,
tea, cups and saucers,
the sound of a single car in the street,
a plate held out with the future on it,
looks; unbridgeable silences;
tears etc.

I may have quoted Dan Davin before, that observation of
his that, once the excitement of war was gone, ‘A man’d
soon have to start up again all the old fights within himself
that used to go on in the days when there was no danger
to his skin.’ Often, then, the enemy became the women
and the children in the ex-soldiers’ lives. ‘When their war
ended, our war began’—this, quoted in the British book
Stranger in the House by Julie Summers, was said by a
woman whose husband had been demobilized. Many a
wife lived life on the frontline for years afterwards,
perhaps for all her life; and many a child grew up to the
echo of gunfire and the imprint of barbed wire. The war
goes on, and the more books and films about it, the
better—because it shaped our world, and it made us. I am
not sure any of us will live to hear the last shot fired.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well written, thought provoking ..