War – what it is good for? – absolutely nothin’.
So sang Edwin Starr in the 1970s #1 hit single which added to pressure on the US Government to withdraw its forces from Vietnam.
But the simple appeal of the idea that War is ‘good for nothing’ really is simplistic.
As Jimi Hendrix said “Of course war is horrible, but at present it’s still the only guarantee of peace.”
That present has moved on with a rapid decline in war deaths since 1945, but as the conflict in Ukraine shows, War remains an ever-present threat…
And the Ukraine War is not just a War in Ukraine but a Civil War of the West with terrifying possible consequences for all of us.
I am not so sure that War can guarantee Peace, but many who have fought in Wars that we now commemorate did so with that belief.
Technology has moved on too, so that now War is far more deadly, more visible, and more focused than ever before.
War is obviously good for arms manufactures, for technological development, and often for boosting an economy.
Henry Ford made millions supplying truck engines to both sides, the Allies and the Germans in WW2, and he was one of many that profited greatly from War.
There are always some big winners in War, but most of us are losers.
We are here today to commemorate those that lost their lives, their healthy bodies, and sometimes their healthy minds to the horrors of War in defence of our peace and our freedoms.
My first of 3 recommended books today is #1 Van der Kolk’s ‘The Body Keeps the Score’.
Van der Kolk is a professor of psychiatry at the Boston University of Medicine and his insightful book gives telling testimony of Vietnam War veterans’ traumatic experiences and how mentally damaged some are as a result of horrific War experiences.
The old saying ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is obviously untrue as psychiatry begins to unpack post-traumatic-stress-disorder and other by-products of War.
We should ask ourselves to consider how attitudes to War have changed, and use ANZAC DAY to reflect on War and what We can learn from past conflicts.
My personal view of War has been very much shaped by my Grandfathers’ War experiences in Holland, and my Father’s experiences in Indonesia – Holland’s version of Vietnam after WW2.
My paternal Grandfather was a wealthy building contractor before WW2 and had 4 spec houses on the go when War broke out, but he only managed to sell one of them.
His reaction to the outbreak was to buy a whole trailer-load of Havana cigars as he was ‘not going to sit through another War without his favourite cigars’.
The War, loss of fortune, and privation made him so miserable however that hardly smoked any of them and in the third bitter Dutch winter of the War he traded the whole trailer-load of cigars on the black-market for a pan of fat.
He had to hide my then 16 year-old Father from the Germans who would have conscripted him for the army or munitions manufacture, as they did with most able Dutch males. The well-disciplined occupying Germans generally left the females alone.
They used to do occasional dawn raids on homes and rush into bedrooms to check how many beds were warm, and how many females there were in the house. If there was an extra warm bed they would tear the house apart to find the hidden male. I have wondered what effect years of sleeping in one of his sisters’ beds would have had on my pubescent teenage Father. Perhaps that explained why he never talked about sex.
I was named after my maternal Grandfather Lieuwe Bylsma, who was a conscientious objector in WW1.
He refused to kill anybody, and was consequently sent to the front line trenches where he was forced to peel potatoes with bullets and shells blasting all around him. Miraculously he survived.
The best book I have read describing the horrors of WW1 trench warfare is # ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Remarque. The movie doesn’t do the book justice unsurprisingly.
By the time of WW2 my maternal Grandfather had a transport business and had taught himself fluent German, so was able to convince the occupiers that he was a Nazi sympathiser and was prepared to distribute hospital supplies for the Germans if they let him keep two of his trucks.
With no petrol available he modified his trucks to run on wood gas and amongst his wide range of contacts he knew a master forger who was not long out of jail. With these resources he was able to steal half of the German medical supplies for his extended Community around Utrecht, as the Germans saw no problem with half-empty trucks as long as the paperwork was perfectly matched.
At night-time he ran a kind of Secret Army using his trucks to ferry Jews and some downed British airmen to the coast to get them safely to England.
It was my teenage mother’s job to flirt with patrolling German soldiers at the front gate of their house so that they would not enter and search for hidden escapees.
It is hard to imagine the responsibility she bore, knowing that if she did not keep these usually young patrollers diverted and send them on their way that my Grandfather and Uncle Henk were waiting either side of the front door with lead coshes that would see them buried in the back garden that night.
My point in contrasting my different Grandfathers’ differing War experiences, is that the Financial Capital on my father’s side was of little use in the War, and his being able to buy anything he wanted in Peacetime made for a very miserable hungry War experience.
My Mother’s Father on the other hand, with his range of skills and contacts – his Social Capital, was able not just to survive the War but to be effective in saving lives and keeping his family and Community healthy.
War brought his Community together, everyone did whatever they could and real Trust in each other was vital to surviving the Occupation.
Uncomfortable memories were likely the reason my Grandfather did not volunteer talking about the War, but when I could wheedle some stories out of him it was obvious that he had reveled in those years of confronting adversity that had brought them all so closely together.
The potential to live an effective and even joyful life whatever the circumstances is forcefully brought home in a wonderful short book called #3 ’Man’s search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who survived Auschwitz.
The horrors of War cannot be overstated, but the power and riches drivers for making War should also not be underestimated.
‘War is hell’ as US General William Sherman’s said to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy in 1879.
The Hellishness of War has not been much of a deterrent for making War since however, and our attitudes to War have varied significantly over time and in different places.
In a more connected world our divisions now seem as deep as ever, and vicious Wars world-wide reflect the petty usually emotional battles we tend to indulge personally with each other.
‘There is nothing worth having that you don’t have to fight for’, but there are many different ways to fight for something, and physical battles are being superseded by emotional and psychological battlefields.
Artificial Intelligence will speed this process so that Wars are now more about ideologies, hearts and minds, rather than land or resources.
We should ask ourselves: ‘What do we really value?
And what are we prepared to do to keep the Peace and to keep what we really value?
What in fact are We good for?
Do Good and Be Good.
Thank you for your attention.
Storm of Steel, by a decorated WW1 German soldier, is also very good.
I think Eisenhower’s warnings on the military industrial complex is relevant. Although today the social engineering war has expanded onto domestic audiences: the bureaucratic industrial complex. The state and finance have allied to assault us all.