I am always surprised how little most people know about the Second World War. I find it strange that people don’t know the details of the most massive military conflict ever. I assumed that a basic understanding of Operation Market Garden or the Battle of the Atlantic was just a natural part of being British; information everyone absorbed through osmosis via our cultural obsession with the World War 2.
Dunkirk, the subject of a new film by Christopher Nolan, is a good example. I wonder how many people didn’t understand the scale of the evacuation of Normandy until they saw it on film. My knowledge is a product of the fact that I was raised on war stories. They formed a core part of the popular culture I consumed from an early age. From Saving Private Ryan to Medal of Honour, stories about the Second World War were a constant part of my childhood. We are not an especially military family, although dad is a historian, but through these stories I felt connected to something huge that was within living memory.
That connection to the actual lived experience of the Second World War is dying. The Normandy Veteran’s Association closed in November 2014 - the same year as the 70th anniversary of D-Day - because there are not enough Normandy Veterans left alive to sustain it. The war is becoming another collection of dates, battles and statistics, rather than something tangible that is a part of us via our collective memory. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing; it is just how time works.
As World War 2 has become history, something significant has changed. We have lost the direct connection to the people, the ordinary soldiers, who fight in wars. Help for Heroes is generously supported by the British public and we still observe the two minutes silence on Remembrance Sunday, but fewer people have or know someone who has a direct experience of war.
In the Battle of the Somme, 420,000 British soldiers died. The total population of the UK was around 42m people, so 1 in 100 people died in a single battle. Almost everyone would have known someone personally connected to the Somme. By contrast: 454 British soldiers were killed during the entire war in Afghanistan, out of a UK population of around 63 million. That’s 0.0007% of the population. This enormous shift is changing how we relate to war and the people who fight it.
The connection to war is fading partly because war has not recently taken place on a scale to touch everyone’s lives. The people who fight in wars are becoming abstract concepts to many, but recent conflicts are still woven through our popular culture. From Jarhead, in the cynical early 2000s, saying that there are no anti-war films to the Punisher’s origin story in the Netflix's Daredevil Series 2 being updated from Vietnam to Iraq (he could just have been a vigilante, but the story is more effective if the Punisher is a man of honour, scared while serving his country’s political interests overseas). War is still a big deal for our society, but we are increasingly disconnected from it.
This point was underlined recently when Amy Shafer from Center for a New American Security published a report highlighting: “the growing civil-military divide” in the US. Shafer’s report found that 60% of veterans under the age of 40 had a family member in the military, compared 39% of civilians. 25% had a parent who served. The report also found that geographical location is significant in the makeup of US armed forces, as 60% of recruits come from the South and West. 37% came from the South alone. Shafer said: “half of the states in the U.S. contribute more than their fair share, and half contribute less.” War is still a big part of society, but for most of us, war is something that happens far away and to other people
Strangely, this has not made war any less popular. Shafer states that: “60% of youths ages 18 to 29 supported sending ground troops to fight ISIS”. We are currently fighting several wars around the world and are deeply embroiled in a handful of other conflicts. There are fewer anti-war protests then when I was a teenager. The public either supports our current wars or is apathetic to them.
As someone who wants the country to involved in less conflict I find this interesting. Support for war remains high (certainly war as defined as bombing people in other countries, I am not sure the British public would want British boots on the ground anytime soon) despite the fact that war is isolated from us both physically and socially.
I don’t think it is good that only small sections of society are engaged with military service. If we are going to have an army (whether we should, and what we should use it for, is a different debate), then it should be reflective of the country it represents. However, getting more people into the army (either via the draft or national service) is not good for preventing more wars. It appears that our enthusiasm for war is not related to the size or structure of our armed services.
I am left thinking that if we understood history better, what wars involved and the devastation they caused, then maybe we would be more hesitant about dropping bombs from a great height on other countries. My education in war history (even though it was full of thinly disguised American pro-war propaganda like Saving Private Ryan) made me more anti-war, not pro-war. Do the 18 to 29 year-olds Shafer talked about in her article, isolated physically and socially from war, know about the history of recent conflicts? How many people died? The human cost?
The knowledge of war I am referring to is more than troop movements and casualty figures. It is the social changes that bringing women into the factories caused, or segregation in the US army. It is looking at the money spent rebuilding Germany after World War 2 and the denazification program. If we understood these things then more people might ask if we spent enough rebuilding Iraq after the invasion, or question whether we spent enough time on a new political settlement there. If those issues had been raised, then maybe the current situation could have been avoided. Mosul has been liberated from IS, but it has also been completely destroyed. Who will pay to rebuild it? Who is asking that question?
Britain is still a country obsessed with war and our past glories. But it is ironically a country that knows less and less about war and the people who fight it. As World War 2 moves further into the past and nature of our armed forces changes, being better connected to our history and understanding it is a way to prevent the experiences of people who live through wars fading from our minds entire.