Sunday, 31 January 2010

All death in the Imperial War Museum

Clapping eyes on Blair's tanned and unrepentant visage at the Iraq Inquiry on Friday is still coming back on me, like bad indigestion.

Yesterday helped a little. But it might explain why this morning I'm aggravated enough to jump out of a warm Sunday bed and shout Get up! you are going to the Imperial War Museum and we have a damn train to catch!

I do not know what I was expecting in my children at this declaration of intent, like, Today you are going to learn about WAR.

I have not exactly prepared the kids for this. If I tot up the wars we have so far talked about, most are Plantagenet. Sure, I have introduced both world wars, but the words sound enormous and incomprehensible to me, coming out my own mouth, so goodness knows what the children have made of it. What? The whole world? Everybody? It's easier to divert myself back to the Wars of the Roses.

Probably for several reasons. One, mostly I prefer to talk about war in terms of power politics, agendas, factions and rivalries, rather than actual legs blown off or eyes put out. And the first and second world wars are just too close and well documented photographically, and my parents just a little too nearby in those conflicts, for me to feel capable and cool in this discussion. I have seen the photographs my father took in the Middle East, and I simply cannot relay to his grandchildren the actual bodily harm that war inflicts.

Anyway, in my experience, considering the minutiae of actual violence brings out a lot more grudges. Like if we think about the time Shark hit Tiger with a spade, then we must also recall the time Squirrel retaliated by hurling at Shark's head a puffin strapped to a bamboo skewer.

The second reason I shirk from battle talk is that I probably don't know all the fine print of those world wars: which campaign was spearheaded on which front by which general at which point. I know some people can do that, and I find it spooky and intimidating.

I like to justify my lack of fine detail in military history by arguing that wars have a social cost and a domestic impact. I am on safer ground there. Because if we are going to analyse a conflict at home, like, who stole what book, and who deserves a punch in the face with a cycle helmet, then I can talk about resources and consequence and how we can all go to the library and let's remember sharing time.

Then there's a third reason. I am obstinate, bloody minded, and a little difficult to handle. If you tell me the world is going in this direction, then I'll go in the other. Thank you very much. And I know that in school kids have a lot more focus on the world war stuff. I can say for a fact the local museum marches in the primary evacuation groups one after another during summer.

As schoolchildren, my kids would have notched up at least three evacuations, a blitz and a bombing in an Anderson shelter by the age of seven. So we don't want to do that. I think there is time enough yet for the world wars. While Tiger is interested in medieval armour, then we talk Edward III. Or the Hundred Years War. Or the Wars of the Roses.

Finally, I have a prosaic reason. I can talk about sex better than battlefield bloodshed. Sex is easy. Put your hand here. I don't want to engage with that idea for working out how to kill someone at close range. Physically, it's not a body experience I'm hoping to be invited to. And as for what happens in my head, I don't want to imagine how my body would react in a trench surrounded by death. I can simply find no decent fantasy to be made of pain and misery.

So I hope someone else can tell the gritlets about world wars. More than that. What can happen when the population is hoodwinked; what happens when people in power cannot step back; when war is treated as inevitable, and viewed from a position in power, desirable?

The gritlets are remarkably accommodating at the Imperial War Museum today, even facing up to a building rising from the bones of the old London Bedlam hospital, and now filled with killing machines, suffering, and hardship. And I am grateful to the museum curators for bringing issues to my children that I find difficult to explain. Not cases stuffed with dummies and uniforms, but video, audio, ways of feeling, ways of seeing, ways of hearing.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger can take from their experience today new ideas about conflict, more thoughtful discussions about power, questions about violence, issues of peacekeeping, and reasons for war. But not from me. And certainly not from Tony Blair.


MadameSmokinGun said...

I used to work in a shop that this old sailor chap used to pop into and talk and talk and talk - about pencils, the nice people at Mind and his wife but mostly about the war, and lovely as he was, after a while someone at the back end of the shop would have to ring the front end of the shop so I could excuse myself to take the call and he'd eventually work his way out via various other startled 'listeners'. One day he mentioned about being thrown out of The Imperial War Museum for talking to the visitors there about how war is a terrible terrible thing - not something to gawp at, glorify or congratulate ourselves on. I never again viewed him as a slightly amusing old fruitcake who was best humoured for a couple of minutes before escaping - I realised that here was the real thing. A real person with a real history and a real opinion based on real experiences. Bless him for keeping on.

sharon said...

My Dad was out in Cairo and Aden during WW2 and apart from that we knew very little about his Army days. He refused to talk about it and always said war was not for glorifying. We have a few pictures of him and some of his mates in their Black Watch kilts looking more like schoolboys than men out in foreign parts to fight to the death with The Enemy. He never collected his service medals either.

The politicians who decide War is the only option should lead from the front and actually get out there and fight, just like in the 'Olden Days'. Maybe then they wouldn't be so keen to unleash death and destruction on so many innocent people.

Nota Bene said...

I was intrigued by a picture of Gordon Brown who was helping up a soldier with artificial legs who had fallen over outside 10 Downing street, and wondered if he felt any sense of responsibility. Tony Blair certainly doesn't. Kids need to know about war don't they, as it appears it will continue to feature even though you'd have though humankind should have grown out of it...the Imperial War Museum seems to be getting better at removing the glorification of it these days

Minnie said...

My dad would never talk about it. either. He was just a boy when he was forced to fight by the Ruskies. age, is it? Mother said he witnessed true horrors. He was eventually shot and captured by the Nazis and oiked off to pow camp.

Mother used to tell us about her experiences... how she and my gran were forced into slave labour on a German farm. They were beaten senseless if they didn't work hard enough, shot at and injured and then bombed by the allies! The bombings were the worst...Mum used to hide with the farm animals...there'd be body parts all over the place afterwards, of course. Then there was the constant fear of being snitched on by trivial informers and carted off, never to be seen again. This fear made everyone the enemy. That's how it feels nowadays, too. The constant snooping by so called officials into family life and encouraging people to report this that and the other! Gah!! They tried to wipe out the gypsies then and they're still trying to do it now...and still people here don't see the parallels. Mother says she prays that we never have to go through anything like WW2. She thinks the state today is becoming too controlling and is as bad as 'Hitler'. She's lived through both periods so she's entitled to have her view and not be poo pooed as being paranoid! She is part of history, too. Dad and the others paid dearly so we can enjoy our freedoms. We must keep and respect them. They cost an awful lot.

Dad hated Labour and was a Maggie Man. His way of sticking two fingers up at the Ruskies & Co. lol

Sorry for rambling.

Grit said...

hello people, and thank you for your comments. i have many mixed feelings about the war museum; this is the first time i've visited, and accept it is a tough job they have to do. afterwards, i found it impossible to ask my usual question, 'did you enjoy the museum', but it gave us a lot more starting points to talk on.

i guess i hope in the end that the kids grow up looking for ways to calibrate the language of politicians and consider more fully the agendas they bring to an event.