After 40 years of watching “real” war, I obviously have strong views about the fight which statesmen and politicians and liars – the three are, of course, interchangeable – regard as their “war” against coronavirus. Both “real” war and viral war (the Covid variety) produce casualties. They produce heroes. They demonstrate human endurance. But they should not be compared.
For a start, such parallels can prove embarrassing. When Matt Hancock first compared Britain’s struggle against Covid-19 with the Blitz, he was grotesquely conflating what was then a mere handful of UK fatalities with the massive Luftwaffe killing of around 40,000 British citizens. But now that the figure of UK virus fatalities stands – including the uncounted dead, of course – at more than 44,000, and perhaps much higher, those Second World War comparisons are beginning to look a bit worrying.
What’s the next historical trick that the Brexiteers will play on us? That the total British dead of the Second World War of more than 66,000 shows what our grandparents endured? But by then, Covid-19 fatalities in the UK may very well outrun even that grisly statistic.
We humanoids are not going to be faced with this catastrophe when our current “battle” has ended – if it does end, of which more later. When we open all our front doors, our human losses may be great and our economic losses may seem unsupportable, but our physical world will be much the same. Our great institutions, our parliaments and universities, our hospitals and town halls and railway stations, our airports and road and rail networks, our water and sewage systems, our very homes will be untouched. They will look exactly the same as they did a few months ago. We will have been spared the national suicide of “real” war.
Johnson and Cummings and their Brexiteer school chums – along with the gruesome scientific crew they have on board (for the moment at least) – can still play at war, but must not emphasise the difference between this and the real thing: the fact that the world outside the front door looks very much the same as it did in February and March.
That’s why so many people have found themselves willing to break the house arrest rules which have been laid down for them. It’s not because they are all bent on suicide, or selfish, or crazy; it’s because they have taken a look at the great outdoors and have found it much the same as they remembered it. Little by little, they are prepared to risk danger to themselves and others because they can – this phrase is quite deliberate – somehow accept this.
So here – and now I drop the quotation marks– we must return to real wars. One of the most remarkable phenomena of these terrifying conflicts is that ordinary life continues amid the bloodshed and imminent annihilation.
During the Beirut battles and during the most fearful moments of the present Syrian war, I have attended marriage services. A Muslim couple in Beirut and an Armenian couple in the northern Syrian city of Kimishle – when the nearest Isis front line was scarcely 12 miles from the front door of the church – decided to marry, and the appropriate clerics performed the services. I watched, as they say, in awe. In Lebanon and Syria, I have friends who have bought and sold homes during their respective wars. Their lives were in danger but they still needed property documents, banking funds and lawyers. Amid anarchy, the formal bureaucracy of the law must take its course.
All this – the marriages and the property transfers – had to continue because, in the oldest of cliches, life must go on. Just as it does in the global virus war. Our marriages today have few guests, property is bought and sold by email attachments, and funerals – an essential part of normal “life”, I suppose – are still necessarily performed, albeit without the next of kin seeing the dead or even standing close to their coffins.
But there is something else I have noticed in the real wars I cover: that the civilians who suffer amid the fighting also have an extraordinary ability to endure the losses around them. It’s something to do with the idea of society; the idea that it is possible, however appalled by one’s personal circumstances, to understand pain and death as something which approaches normality. Real wars, you see, also move towards what might be termed a “new normal”. Friends and relatives are killed. I know nobody in Lebanon or Syria who has not experienced this shock. But shock is also relative.
During the Northern Ireland conflict, the British home secretary Reginald Maudling – Priti Patel’s long-forgotten predecessor – referred in 1971 to what he called “an acceptable level” of violence. This was inevitably condemned by those who believed that any violence was unacceptable, but his remark made ghoulish sense. This was a war which I also had the cursed privilege of reporting, and I recall how journalists understood exactly what Maudling meant: that the toll of death and bombings in the six counties could reach a point where they became normal.
This happened in Lebanon. During ceasefires, or even without truces, Beirutis would go to the beach to sunbathe or swim at weekends. One appalling afternoon, Christian Phalangist guns in the east opened fire on west Beirut and their shells fell among the sunbathers on the beach below the Mediterranean Corniche. The carnage was frightful. The front pages of the next day’s Beirut newspapers were filled with photographs which would never be printed in Europe or America.
A week later, the beaches were full again. Many Lebanese had consented to an “acceptable level” of death. This was in one sense inspiring – human beings can show themselves unconquerable – but in a different way it was also deeply depressing. If civilians – the public, to use our very western expression – could become inured to death, then the war could go on indefinitely. And this, remember, was a war caused by the same human species who were dying in it.
But here I reach a troubling thought. We all know that the current mass European house arrest of millions of people cannot go on forever. Sweden never really embarked on such a curfew. Germany and Italy and Holland are now slowly and carefully shaking it off. Even the cocktail of boobies around Boris Johnson know this is true. And, much more to the point, Britons – with or without the Little Brexiteers in Downing Street – will decide for themselves when the lockdown should end. They will not wait for Sergeant Plod to tell them so.
And we all know that the current Covid-19 virus will not “end” in the traditional sense that a war comes to its conclusion. There will be no last casualty. But when the figures become lower, and if there is no second visitation from this dreadful thing, Britain will reach, I’m afraid to say, an “acceptable level” of death. When the daily statistic moves from the hundreds into the dozens and then to the tens per day, there will be no more Downing Street briefings, far fewer earnest thoughts from our health experts and, alas, less remembrance of the sacrifice of nurses and doctors. We may even take bets on when the next round of Tory cuts will be imposed on the NHS.
But the point is that we all – save for those mourning the men and women they loved – have a capacity to absorb death. When the UK government believes that moment has been reached in this present crisis, they will open the doors and the roads and even the restaurants. The economy must survive.
Johnson and his acolytes will announce victory, but this will be untrue. Britons will still be dying. But their deaths will have become normal – like those of cancer or heart attack patients or road accident victims – and thus, in Johnson’s deplorable phrase, those who are lost “before their time”.
And in this way, the British will not need to enjoy “herd immunity”. With or without protection from this virus or the next, with or without a vaccine, they will have become a “herd” in a different sense of the word. They will, as the government ultimately wish them to become, a herd which is immune to the deaths of others, one which will have absorbed an acceptable level of death amid their own people. They will all have become a little more indurated – a good Victorian word – to the infliction of such suffering, and they will stop squabbling about the UK government’s failure to prevent this outrage.
And they will – let us use the disgusting mantra of all politicians – “move on”. They will have “come to terms” with the virus. As the government did a long time ago – and will continue to do.
And we can forget any expensive planning for the next visitation. Until we come across Covid-20 or Covid-22 or Covid-30. Or it comes across us.