I remember that when I was at university there was one evening I was walking back to my digs with a friend. This was not that unusual; late night chat and board games was a common occurrence. But this evening was a bit different. There was a kind of buzz in the air. I would call it an atmosphere of excitement but that would suggest that it was a kind of positive buzz. It wasn’t really like that at all; if anything it was uncertainty, specifically a ‘what happens now?’ kind of uncertainty, the kind of uncertainty that is resolved with an answer you strongly suspect you will not like.
You see we had just heard that we were now at war.
It was the beginning of the 1990s and it was start of what was called Operation Desert Storm, intended, so it was communicated, to push Iraq out of Kuwait after the recent invasion. As students who were not politically motivated (unlike many of our fellows) we were less concerned that evening with the political and financial reasons for this war and more with the sudden thought ‘what if it goes on for a while? Will we be called up?’
It sounds both naïve and certainly selfish but I confess that this was, at least for a short while, a real fear.
We consoled ourselves by playing Super Power, a rather naff Old Games Workshop board game in a tasteless and entirely typical action. Some alcohol may have been consumed.
This is my only real brush with war (unless you count the season of London bombings we steadfastly ignored in the same decade). Before this the last time and active war was on the consciousness of this young man was the Falklands conflict in 1982, and to an 11 year old boy the distant and largely successful campaign was mostly like an extended drama that a real representation of the horror; at least until the tragic events surrounding the Sir Galahad and the Sir Tristram which still leave me cold.
In some ways I felt at least I understood some of the complexities of conflict. I had grown up with the Cold War after all. More importantly, I had a good reminder of at least the Second World War thanks to my late Grandfather. He had served as a gunner crewman on Royal Navy Destroyers all over the world – he was most proud of serving on HMS Warspite – and had plenty of photos and stories to illustrate.
He was very matter of fact about the bad stuff; on one ship during a battle the gun turret he was in suffered a direct hit; the rest of his crew were killed. He was pulled out and suffered – physically at least – only by a blasted eardrum.
There was another time when manning an ant-aircraft gun that he was told to stand down by an officer as a suspicious looking aircraft approached. Apparently, he was told, the incoming plane was friendly. As the bombs rained down on the deck, his side of the story relates that he reported to said officer ‘that’ll be friendly bombs that they’re dropping, I guess sir?’
He preferred to talk about the missions around Norway, where he had been enraptured by the fjords and talk less about the pain, all the friends he lost, and the strain of living with the knowledge that he could be next. I think he was positively nostalgic as the opportunity for travel was something he would never have otherwise had, and certainly never had after the war.
In all the remembrance commemorations this November it is my Grandfather that more closely brings home the whole tragedy of the war to mind for me. I do not understand what it like to be in active service and hopefully I never will. I would make a terrible soldier. But then I know a lot of young people who understand the true scale of the World Wars even less – and it will get worse – as future generations will not have the chance to talk to someone who was there and lived through it and may not have the energy to look up the recording. Even the Cold War is history now; maybe that is why I look at tensions in the Ukraine with such a nervous eye. We don’t want to go back to that either. And that is my biggest concern today once I think about the gratitude I owe for being able to sit and write this – as a human race can we really change our way we interact or will we keep making the same mistakes over and over again?