The Dread of Drift

The Dread of Drift

Dedicated to my cousin-by-marriage,

now approaching his 100th birthday,

Sqn.Ldr. A C Gilbert DFC,

Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur

The first duty of a government is ‘to defend (the interests of) its people’. For as long as the world is carved up into ‘countries’ that will remain a government’s prime responsibility. ‘Carved’ may not be a delicate word but it is an accurate one. It is precisely what the builders of empires did. Grecian, Roman, Persian, Han, Mongol, Ottoman, Spanish, Dutch, East India Company, French, Russian, British and more. The empire builders were carving up (their part of) the world. They did it for assets, for gain, for wealth, for power, for slave labour, for glory – sometimes for the glory of one person, the leader. They did it when acquisition of another’s territory proved the point. They called it ‘colonising’ then. I’m not sure what they call it now – perhaps ‘one country’?

Not too many of us alive today were at the age of reason in the run up to WWII. Even to call it the age of reason was stretching credulity a little far – but no further than Christian Churches had stretched it for nearly two thousand years. Nevertheless, for the young the glories of war initially outshone the horrors. Bombing raids were mostly an excuse for a midnight feast in the air raid shelter.  The V2 was an over-in-a-minute successor to the lugubrious V1 for which all held their stopwatches – some even placed bets on when the engine would sputter to a halt.

But there were moments when horror peeked through, even to the young. So many mothers crying in church when war was announced; the awful realisation of the meaning of ‘atomic’ when applied to ‘bomb’; the gasps of disbelief at the discovery of the PoW camps and the Holocaust; a father who had to brief North Atlantic convoys of ships steaming at the pace of the slowest to try to avoid the jaws of the U-boats. And, of course, more poignant than all the others, the loss of a family member or a well-liked neighbour. Forgiveness, yes. Forgetfulness, never. Well, never as long as body and soul stay together, I suppose.

What were the signals that announced WWII for a child aged seven when it started and thirteen when it ended? Overwhelmingly, that the previous war – then WWI – had been the war to end all wars. Tanks had replaced horses and no lengthy war was possible with these track-laying titans, was it? Aircraft, largely out of range of land-based retaliation, made protraction of fighting inconceivable. Munitions were more ferocious, even at the start of hostilities, than could ever be contemplated for soldier to soldier conflict. By the end of the war even the most pugnacious were disgusted with destruction. War was killing for a deity who was claimed to be on everyone’s side.

Europe learnt that war was ruinous – of people, of economics, of heritage – but also that cooperation in a world of country dinosaurs was a prerequisite to improving everyone’s quality of life. Not a solution, and certainly not a panacea, but without it there would be skirmishes and small wars, always potentially leading to the real war to end all wars. And little chance of a planet capable of supporting 10Bn inhabitants. You’d think that message was truly loud and clear today. But some are prepared to flex muscles they don’t really intend to use – until they have to.

Forecasting is fiendishly difficult even for one’s own business let alone for other nations’ twists and turns. Responsible politicians play down the threat of seemingly simple encroachments lurching out of control. But I think that Albion M Urdank, Emeritus Professor, University of California had a point when writing for the Financial Times last Saturday. Some trends are well established and breaking them will not be a matter of waving a sheet of paper while shouting ‘Peace in our time’.

It didn’t work last time and there are quiet reasons why it may not this time either. If only reason was the basis of big political decisions.

When he wrote The Life of Reason in 1905, George Santayana put it even more bluntly. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, he said.

I hope that my great grandchildren will not be repeating that wistfully in twenty years time.