Tuesday, September 12, 2006

War on War

Five years ago today I was ensconced deep in the bowels of Islington Town Hall putting together a vast batch of publicity material for a project I was working on. I came out mid afternoon and colleagues were gathered around a computer.

‘What’s happening?’

‘The World Trade Centre’s on fire.’

‘Oh right.’

My brain liquidised by sitting in a darkened room for almost a whole day with only Kiss Smooth Grooves 2000 for company, I thought they were tugging at my femur. I didn’t even go over to look, just walked out of the building and mounted the Number 30 bus. Everything seemed normal. No one on the bus said anything about it. I concluded it must not have happened. A triumph of rational thought. But it wasn’t. As soon as I got home I turned on the TV and didn’t turn it off again for about ten hours. It wasn’t something you thought could happen, except in movies.

I don’t know why I thought that day everything in the world would be different because something truly horrific had happened. There were no grounds whatever for thinking such a thing. To be more upset about the loss of 3,000 innocent people in America than you would 20,000 killed in an earthquake in Mexico, Turkey or China would be unseemly. Since that day over 50,000 have been killed in Iraq and 17,000 more in Afghanistan. Despite the inflated profile of ‘the war on terror’ life goes on as it always has, because it has to.

The movie Dam Busters consistently rates in top 100 lists of favourite films in this country. The real Operation Chastise in 1943 saw the destruction of two German dams and caused widespread flooding of the Ruhr Valley. Nearly 1,300 people were killed, many of them civilians and at least 500 of them slave workers from the Ukraine. It was an audacious and daring raid with very little chance of success – over a third of the crews were lost. A grateful nation, besieged on a nightly basis by German bombs, was thrilled at the time of this mission and remains enthralled by it to this day.

I find it possible to see the success of the 9/11 suicide mission from the perspective of the Mujahideen as something to be celebrated in the same way British people have always celebrated the achievement of the Dam Busters. I don’t find the ferocious nationalism of Iraqis or Afghanis surprising. When you are involved in a war, patriotism is as important an ingredient of survival as food, water and ammunition.

Nothing is to be gained by dehumanising these people and pretending suicide bombers are programmed robots. They are people who believe in something so strongly, they are prepared to face certain death. Is this so very different from World War II bomber pilots whose chances of survival plummeted to zero after their sixteenth mission? We are talking about two different groups of people who didn’t feel they had a choice. Simone de Beauvoir said, ‘It took a war to make me realise I lived in the world.’ I believe her and very much hope that knowledge remains a priori. We have got to stop doing this shit to each other.

This is way too serious for me, but it’s been one of those days when a little bit of context points to why you may be feeling somewhat reflective. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

Detail from Guernica Pablo Picasso

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