It doesn’t take much scratching at the surface of the British culture to uncover some kind of reference to the first, or more prominently, the second world war. In many ways it was the last great act of this nation played out on a global scale.
The ingredients were perfect. Europe was conquered by the Nazis, who embody everything that is thought of as evil in the world, and all that stood between England and this unstoppable force was a thin stretch of sea, a relative handful of troops, and a sense of community that refused to be broken by bombing and propaganda.
Obviously the entire war wasn’t won by the British. Our American allies joined ranks after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, and Hitler’s decision to invade Russia, thus splitting his forces (and being beaten by the harsh Russian winter that had already defeated Napoleon’s attempts to extend France’s kingdom), played a massive part in the eventual German surrender. But, for that brief time of 1939-1941 the nation stood alone against the forces of evil and declared ‘they shall not pass’.
Now, 65 years later, it seems the war has left a different kind of scar than those usually administered on the battlefield. It’s said that victims who’ve lost limbs sometimes feel iches where the arm or leg used to be, and I think that Brits have that same feeling, although it’s not a limb that’s missing but rather a sense of importance.
Imagine if you’d spent your childhood being taught that your country was the most powerful on the planet. That at one point in the not too distant past you had built an empire that was greater than any in history (Rome, Greece, Mongol – mere windowboxes in comparison) and which had lasted for over a century. That your tiny country effectively owned the world.
Then you read on, and a pattern emerges. Slowly the empire rebels against their unwanted rulers and piece by piece the markings on maps turn from pink (why did they choose pink to mark the British Empire? That’s just embarrassing! Did they think it made our colonisations look more friendly?) back to the chosen colour of the now free country.
In the end you’re left with a handful of willing commonwealth countries, proud of their association with us, but to whom it is nigh on impossible to emigrate to. All of a sudden England feels like what it is….an island.
Now it would be unpalatable to hark back to the days of empire, mainly because the countries involved were essentially slaves who we’d beaten into submission. But the War, now that’s different. Here we can revel in our strong military history and remind ourselves of the underdog (another strong British trait which we will explore in a later post) winning against the odds.
So we do. Frequently.
It appears in our sports headlines where any football game of importance with the Germans is always surrounded by some kind of war-like rhetoric, usually spouted by those too young to have had any involvement in the horrors themselves. In fact as we’ve managed to fight with almost every country in the world at some point (Argentina, France, Holland, America, Scotland, Ireland etc…) it can find its way into many national settings.
The problem is our stories have all gotten old. Rather than celebrate intellectual achievements in the fields of science, art, and literature which still occur today, we’d rather tub-thump about how we whopped the Krauts all those years ago. Sometimes we must sound like that old drunk in the bar that no-one wants to talk to because all he’ll do is tell you about how he boxed when he was young…and that he was good.
Thankfully there is hope. A new Britain is finally trying to emerge, one of incredible ethnic and ideological diversity that sees the future as an undiscovered land full of possibilities and is freeing itself from the clutches of its parents’ glory days. They’re not interested in owning the world, but rather contributing something to it. That kind of optimism and idealism will be needed to overcome the classic British pragmatism, but I have to say that I feel good about this. Maybe now we can emerge from the shadow of our past and become something new, more colourful, and…better?
I for one will be rolling up my sleeves and preparing for the hard graft ahead. I hope we do well and forge something, as Tolkien said, ‘Worthy of a song’.
Will you join us as we ride out to meet a new and brighter dawn? A new history awaits…
11 thoughts on “Don’t mention the war!”
I don’t think Britain is alone in this. Many Americans believe the last war we could take any pride for participating in was World War II.
For us, it was the last war where we had an ethical reason to commit and the outcome wasn’t a foregone conclusion, regardless of the cost.
Great post, but where’s my biscuit?
I think since World War II, America politically has always wanted to feel like they were at the forefront of fighting evil. Last time, we failed to go to war when we should have, ignoring the signs of Nazi evil, and instead waiting until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor to get involved. Ever since, we’ve been trying to get in on the ground floor of the fight against people with designs on mass destruction. The “pre-emptive strike” against evil, if you will.
The unfortunate conclusion, I think, is maybe we DO have to wait for evil to strike first. Maybe we DO have to wait until some new despot HAS an atomic weapon before we do something to nip his aspirations in the bud.
The good thing is, we will never know whether Saddam Hussein would have eventually had an atomic weapon. He had chemical ones and yellow cake uranium, and children in prison. To me, that is enough justification for our fight there. Now the Iraqi people own their country and its destiny, not some thug.
It’s easy to look back on something like World War II and discuss its successes. It’s easy to look back on something like Viet Nam and discuss its failures.
Like Martyn, I want to see Great Britain assert itself once again as a world power, with something invaluable to contribute. Too often Western peoples get overcome with guilt over the mistakes of previous generations, but in large part, America and Britain are noble nations and peoples who need to believe once again in their own nobility.
The question is, what will we contribute? Biscuits?! But seriously, I’d love to see a clearer sense of identity and a love for our country- it sometimes feels as if the things which mark us apart from the rest are also the quirky eccentric things such as queuing, and keeping our emotions suppressed. I DO think we do quite a good job of tolerance- a Nigerian friend told me recently she had only experienced racism in Nigeria (she was called a black dog), never since living in the UK… well maybe it’s a start…Any other ideas?
No centrally governed culture that has expanded beyond national boundaries has ever lasted more than about 500 years. So we can expect that western society in its current form is pretty much on its last legs. Even within the last 60 years – and notably after the various empires of Germany, France and England had effectively been dismantled – the entire stability of our civilisation was threatened by the conflicting ideologies of capitalism and communism, which at times brought us to the brink of nuclear confrontation. Both these expansionist world-views have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and it is surely time to consign their excesses to the dustbin and seek a new way. The age of empires is over, and I look forward to a peaceful and co-operative nationalism that will grow up and take its place. The winds of such change are already being felt – in the Balkans, in the former Soviet Union, and even within the UK with the devolution of governmental authority to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies. And if we, the English, feel a certain loss of sense of identity as a result it is only to be expected, but we should remind ourselves that empire never was our natural inheritance. For that we should look to those uniquely English qualities that our long history has forged within us – our tolerance, our sense of fair play, even our endless fascination with our rather uninteresting climate which ensures that there’s always something to talk about with a stranger at the railway station. We have a rich and deep past, the remembrance of which has been allowed to wither on the vine for the last half-century or so, but which is not yet altogether dead. I for one am immensely proud to be one of those happy breed of men with the great good fortune to inhabit this little world, this precious stone set in a silver sea, this blessed plot, this earth, this England.
“the entire stability of our civilisation was threatened by the conflicting ideologies of capitalism and communism, which at times brought us to the brink of nuclear confrontation. Both these expansionist world-views have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and it is surely time to consign their excesses to the dustbin and seek a new way.”
I’ll keep my capitalism, thanks.
Another angle to consider:
I think that television also plays a major role. Quite simply, war is an endeavor that comfortable people don’t have the stomach for, once they can see it. World War 2 was the last war we didn’t see in something approaching real-time – and that makes it a lot easier to see it in black and white terms.
Back when only soldiers knew what war was, it was much easier to think of it in terms of a valiant heroic crusade. The confluence of modern technology both on the battlefield and in the newsroom has, over the last 80 years, stripped the cultural continuity from our warrior culture and we haven’t yet figured out what to do. It’s not surprising that it leaves us flapping in the breeze a bit — a strong warrior tradition has been central to every enduring culture in history.
Thanks for the fabulous post — you had me cheering by the end.
Interesting point about the outcome of WW2 being uncertain. That certainly does make it different to every conflict since.
The biscuits return next week, and every other week for the next month or so. 🙂
I know that the pre-emptive strike strategy was one of the main reasons that so many people here were opposed to the Iraq invasion. It’s a strange ideology that we have in the west which asserts that we’re fine to have nuclear weapons but that other countries shouldn’t be allowed.
From our point of view it makes sense, as why would you want to arm possible enemies, but from a global perspective it’s more a means of maintaining our status as the lords of the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not someone who sleeps easy at the idea of Iran, Iraq, North Korea (insert anti-west, questionable government here) being capable of launching missiles at us if they get upset, but to think they would do so on a whim (which is the usual media spin) seems too simplistic. After all, most people don’t want to die, and in a nuclear exchange it’s pretty much guaranteed.
Biscuits would be a fine start. 🙂
Hopefully if we can shed the weight of our past (I mean we STILL bang on about winning the world cup in 1966 as if it was a current event!) then maybe we can change or expectations.
We have that classic British ability to taint every victory with the pessimism that ‘well, enjoy it now, we’ll lose next time’ – something I think is subconsciously linked to our ‘we were big once’ history.
I mean look at Scotland. Tiny country, but somehow (fired along by their history of occupation and subjugation to the English) have gone on to produce a seriously impressive collection of winners (in sports for example they have Andy Murray, Alex Ferguson, Stephen Hendry, David Coulthard, Liz McColgan, Chris Hoy etc.) and they’re tiny! Now we have a fair collection of stars ourselves, but whereas the Scots seem to believe in theirs to overcome the odds and endure at the top, we’re always waiting for them to fail.
Maybe just supporting those who strive to achieve, without the caveat that they’ll probably (like our nation) eventually lose, would be a good start. We can at least all have a crack at it.
I was thinking about this the other day.
All empires fall, eventually, but the idea would seem like lunacy during the stronger part of their reign.
The west has had its hands in the cookie jar for a long time now, while slowly letting things like manufacturing slip away to our eastern cousins. Is that the same thing as the reassertion of independence that our former colonies exerted one by one?
China fascinate me at the moment, as they pursue capitalism with a communist workforce – now that’s a formidable alliance, although not one I’d like to live under.
I’m utterly convinced that England has much in it that is noble, inspirational, and groundbreaking – if only we can get everyone to see it then maybe our finest hour still awaits.
The televising of warfare has no doubt had a huge impact on how we conduct our combat. I remember reading General Sir Peter De La Billiere’s account of the first Iraq war, and how they were in a race to reach Bagdad before the pressure from the media (in the wake of the ‘Highway of Death’ report) and citizens back home called an end to the slaughter.
It’s strange though, as I remember reading ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen when I was at school, and how his descriptions of the inglorious nature of warfare were often misrepresented in the press.
Funny how times change…
To read the poem click on the link – http://www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Dulce.html