What follows is a lengthy missive from Michael Wolff on the futility of war as remembered through the lenses of an 11-year-old.
He starts in the year 1944. It happens to be the very year I was born, and as I entered the world, a dreaded doodlebug exploded nearby.
I was, of course, unaware of what I had been born into, but Michael, on the other hand, was fully aware of what was going on around him, and the events have stayed with him all his life.
So grab a tea or coffee plus a comfy seat and read on: it is worth it.
It was Christmas 1944. I was eleven.
December that year was unusually cold. Vesuvius, one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, had erupted a few months earlier and I’d naively thought it nature’s response to the eruption of Nazism.
The second great world war, during which at least 80 million lost their lives, was, thanks largely to Marshall Zhukov and Russia’s overwhelming Red army, being won. Adolf Hitler was desperately trying to turn the tide.
I’d spent the last four years as an evacuee and an unhappy reluctant boarder in various unpleasant and xenophobic English schools. I’d become used to the frequent sad undulating moaning of air raid warning sirens followed by the droning sounds of the Luftwaffe’s Heinkels, as formations of several hundred of them flew overhead on their way to bomb London. After a while, there was always the reassuring steady, continuous and joyful moan of the ‘all clear’. We’d come safely out of a variety of air raid shelters and basements and saw all the frantic work being done to clear the human and masonry devastation of the latest raid.
I was spending my brief Christmas holiday in my parents’ house in Beckenham, a leafy suburb in South East London. Hitler’s ‘doodlebugs’, or V1 flying bombs, had been raining down on England and on London in particular.
I remember finding it hard to believe that when the particularly harsh, menacing and unusually loud growl of their engines cut out right above you, it meant you were safe because they didn’t fall vertically like ordinary bombs, they glided.
When their noisy engines stopped suddenly overhead, there was an uncanny and oppressive silence. I remember feeling a terrifying sense of anticipation. Even though I knew we were safe, at least, this time. But I still felt we were in extreme danger of imminent destruction and death
You could sometimes see these bombs, looking like flying torpedoes, glide silently and rapidly down in a smooth and elegant slope. Then, after just a few moments of fascinating and calm quiet, you’d hear the wrenching explosion as they destroyed homes, maimed and seriously injured hundreds of people and abruptly ended many lives. I can still remember feeling selfishly thankful that this time it was all happening some distance away. I didn't think of the poor people who were hit, I just felt relief.
Then, Hitler’s last and most desperate weapon, the V2 rockets fell on London. No warning growl or seconds of silence, but a terrifying whistling sound, almost a shriek and an instant explosion followed by the sound of falling masonry and the frantic consternation of grown-ups, people’s screams and the screeching wheels of vehicles.
I was in our Morrison shelter one night when I heard a violently loud whistling whine. I knew it was a V2. I felt its scream inside my head and was instantly frozen in terror. I remember trembling. The scream got louder and louder, lasting what felt like several seconds, and then there was a deafening, appalling and ear-splitting sound and the dreadful shake of a massive explosion.
It felt like an axe splitting wood, or the tearing sound of lightening striking inches from your head, almost inside it. I can still remember my throat clenching with fear. When I think about it now, I imagine that I was experiencing the bizarre slow motion of a car crash.
I particularly remember the strange and eerie silent pause, a peaceful prelude to the splintering sound of our windows blowing in and then the juddering feel of the blast shaking the whole house.
There were a few seconds of calm before the musical crumbling sounds of falling masonry, then a moment of silence followed by the more intimate tinkling noise of our crockery breaking.
Finally, I remember the reassuring and normal sound of our happy and unaware big floppy dog lapping up the spilled Haliborange Vitamin C syrup from the broken bottle that had toppled from the top of the Morrison shelter.
Somehow, despite the concert of horror, the dog lapping made things feel usual and normal. We started talking as we collected ourselves and felt safe and close – an ordinary family at least for the time being, with a dog, unaware of anything but our affections, and whose tail was wagging. It had all happened before the dawn and now it was over.
As the day lightened, I went out. The street was full of weary excitement as all sorts of uniformed men and women, stretchers and vehicles milled around. I heard screaming and sobbing and the words ‘over here’, ‘casualties’, ‘a goner’ and ‘dead’ I was eleven, and the word ‘dead’ meant little. But I distinctly remember feeling repeating waves of fear, elation, incomprehension, strange joy, helplessness and relief.
As the thought struck me, that we’re once again spending many millions of tax payers money on bombs that we should be spending on ending poverty here, and in the less fortunate nations in the world, all my little boy’s wartime experiences came flooding back.
I realised that we, us, our community, our nation are now bombing Iraq and Syria with the lust and relish of self-righteous anger, revenge and the illusion that this will turn the tide.
I’m realising that thousands of innocent children, some between seven and eleven years old, just as I was, and their parents, their grandparents, their babies, their pets, their guests and friends too, are experiencing a similar slow motion horror right now as I’m writing this.
There’ll be similarly torn human bodies, similarly abruptly stopped lives, similarly terrified families with grandparents like myself, parents too, their children and their pets becoming instant corpses, and very young eyes seeing body parts flying around like discarded debris or torn dolls on building sites licked by flames.
I feel a dull anger with the winning smiles of our political leaders and the normal shopping lives they lead, as they, and all the other self–righteous MP’s, few of whom have experienced carnage, voted to pursue a futile and jingoistic policy of bombing. It’s among our nation’s most terrible, shameful misjudgements and I think that’s how it will long be remembered.
Many thousands of innocent children in these ravaged countries will feel the same astonishment and terror as I did as a child, and many adults too will feel fury that all the British did, in the name of being proud patriots and staunch allies, was
to wreak more death, destruction and desolation.
No one in our community can fail to have been shocked and outraged by the tragic deaths of relatively few citizens in France, the US, the UK and increasingly other nations, or outraged by the murderous plans and deeds of a handful of the terrorists whose desperate behaviour we don’t yet understand. No one can fail to be horrified and mystified by the rapid growth of the wealthy and ‘medievally’ brutal, so-called Islamic state.
No one can doubt that, whoever ISIS are, their power needs to be annulled and quashed. But this is unlikely to be achieved by air or even by purely military means. You can’t bomb an ideology.
The misguided folly and bravado our politicians, and those of other countries have so far produced, will create nothing but more of the chemistry of terror, more prejudice, a tsunami of costly lead and, inevitably, new generations of increasingly determined, motivated and skilful jihadists.
Oh God, how I hope what I’m saying is stupid and wrong. But I doubt it. So far we’re ‘reacting’. But reacting will only continue to cause a reaction, and so we’ll continue to find ourselves where we already are – playing a grotesque game of tennis where the ball is many thousands of lives, the racquets billions of misspent dollars and the net, incomprehension.
We have to find creative solutions. The first step in any creative thinking is to admit that we don’t know what to do. That takes more humility than our current leaders seem willing to show us.
Only then, and with more open minds and imagination than our current political leaders appear to possess, will we find a way forward to the peace we owe to future generations.
I don’t know who reads social media posts or messages like this one from me, but if anyone in or close to our government reads this, please just pause for enough time and some thought, to understand why you disagree with me and if you agree, then have the courage to make a brave start by not knowing what to do.