Letter from London: War, Huh, Yeah, What is it Good For?

‘War is what happens when language fails,’ wrote Margaret Atwood. Or ‘Jaw, jaw is better than war, war,’ as Churchill famously said. When I was taken to film the Chief of Police in Helmand in 2008, both the perimeter fence of the police station and the corridors within had to be guarded by close protection officers. The US Marine I was with carried his own weapon and took it straight into the meeting. The Afghans didn’t like it. They knew of the visit but this was still their police station. Our presence was an aggressive reminder of how things in a war zone kick off. But after much tea, and with the Chief of Police more relaxed, everyone in the room was acting like the best of friends. Acting, I repeat. Real peace had been shot years ago.

In war, every day is a bonus. Except for the people who don’t want to live anymore. No one in war knows what is going on. Decisions are made, dangerous decisions, based often on assumptions, sometimes ridiculous assumptions, that have to be made quickly, and which few people know of. War was even a theme I woke up from last week here in the relative safety of London. A steaming metal teapot in the dream had been rattling away on a small stove in a bunker. The artist insists there is nothing more dull than other people’s dreams. Mine had a near-future twist to it. War had long been declared. People I knew were passing in and out, on their way to ever-diminishing freedom. It actually did not feel entirely dissimilar to how I know some people, not just me, are feeling in London right now. ‘He that is not with me is against me,’ was the bloodcurdling line from the front. That felt familiar too.

The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery ride through our neighbourhood several times a week. Each green-uniformed male and female rider controls a riderless horse each side. This is quite a skill, particularly in busy traffic. It could look like pantomime if it wasn’t for the fact their barracks also produced drummer Lee Rigby of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, killed in this very same neighbourhood just under ten years ago. His two slayers struck by a main road in broad daylight. Rigby was first hit by a car, then attacked with knives. They claimed it was to avenge Muslims killed by the British military.

What I mean is that violence really does beget violence, regardless of who and why and where. In other words, keep poking and people will have a fight on their hands. Some believe for example that the war in Ukraine is a result of having over-poked the Russian bear. After staring for a few moments at the petrol blue sky, I reached for my phone and scanned the news outlets, hoping for at least some good news. It is as though the world has never been in such need of melody and cohesion, and it feels like there are some pretty big guns being moved into position. One news story suggesting incompetence at the heart of our procurement process was about the mothballing of five UK military helicopters worth more than £35 million, none having flown ‘a single minute’. That still leaves a lot of kit moving to Ukraine, though.

I watch on TV the ex-military MPs in the Tory Cabinet and have to presume they are in regular discussion with serving military types while deciding on continued involvement. No doubt they also enjoy the attention of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Not a man with much experience of war — little outside of the world of finance, in fact, though I do confess to liking his bowling style in cricket — so one wonders who exactly the other wise men and women were in the room when we decided to avoid any kind of negotiated peace altogether and to keep pressing for military victory instead, despite the fact the Russians still hold 40,000 square miles of Ukraine. Was there any opposition to this policy?

Thirty years ago, I was drinking tea from a polystyrene cup in the old JNA barracks at Divulje near Split in the former Yugoslavia, on this occasion with a young British officer. As part of the soldier’s job was to offer armed escorts to UN humanitarian aid convoys, some of his units had been taking casualties. As he spoke, he was surrounded by freshly arrived weaponry. He was carrying a sidearm himself. ‘Nasty people,’ he kept saying, without irony, into his polystyrene cup. ‘Really nasty people. Nasty, nasty, nasty.’ I genuinely did not know which of the many actors in this particular theatre he was referring to. It could have been anyone.

I watched England play Ukraine recently at Wembley Stadium. It was an important football — soccer — match. There was touching praise from Ukrainian former Chelsea player Andriy Shevchenko for the English support. Russia had just been playing Iran at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran. Aside from a few cheering Russian families, western reports from there concentrated on the many Iranian women in the crowd, accusing them of being part of some ‘PR show’, which was possibly true. My point is, both matches had become stages for something else. I love the game of football for itself. It is a rules-based sport with regular successions of skill and emotion played out on a kind of drum-skin of time. I do not like war.

When I first went to Wembley to watch England, it was in a friendly against Denmark, the land of my paternal grandfather. I was with my late Lebanese friend Edward Totah and we both had this amusing feeling of everyone knowing something we did not. The home crowd kept cheering, and we just presumed we had missed something. Well, I feel exactly the same about this war in Ukraine. I do not know the words to the songs. As I told the British officer outside Split that day, it was the women by the side of the road with all their wild cutthroat gestures while willing their men on as they headed to the front-line that I couldn’t stomach. As if already a welcome part of the family, London-based players Mykhailo Mudryk of Chelsea and Oleksandr Zinchenko of Arsenal were in the Ukrainian line-up at Wembley, while Russian players are conspicuously absent from the English Premier League. The build-up for the game was like a love-fest. Even ex-SAS TV personality Bear Grylls appeared on the touchline to promote his new documentary on President Zelenksy, in which the Ukrainian leader does that famous walk of his around the streets of Kyiv. (Last week Austrian MPs walked out during a Zelensky video speech to their parliament, so it is not all love and kisses in Europe.) What operators these two men are, I was thinking, watching the documentary. No wriggle room for peace, only war. Such resolve, genuinely. Whilst this kind of parade can win it for you, you know as a consequence there will have to be a lot more blood, a lot more cruelty. And do we really know, hand on heart, what is going on? In the match, England beat Ukraine 2-0 — Saka scored a beauty — but in the war we don’t really know what is going on. I do keep hearing of quite a dance scene in Kyiv, though.

What have we learned? I was interested in what former MP Rory Stewart had to say in the recent two-part podcast on Iraq with former Blair spokesman Alastair Campbell. I met Rory in Afghanistan when he was working for a large charity. ‘When people produced intelligence reports saying Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, they were not approached with the scepticism that they might have been had people not assumed in the background he had them anyway,’ he complained to Campbell. As he spoke, I was wondering if there was a parallel here with the present assumption that by pushing Russia back across the border, it will mean an end to the conflict. Rory Stewart also highlighted what he called ‘the smugness of Britain’ by complaining that people were over-deferential towards intelligence officers, soldiers, police officers ‘and don’t like to challenge them,’ he said. He saw this as a mistake. I kept thinking of the absence of any challenge in the UK towards this war. To be fair, US and UK intelligence on Russia, unlike that from France and Germany, was spot on about the full-scale invasion. But it may be worth recalling that Britain and America in WWII believed — to the point of smugness — that Germany would eventually defeat Russia, even after German generals from as early on as the beginning of 1942 had already begun to believe otherwise.

Many years ago, a Jordanian soldier I was with in the desert capped his eyes from the sun. There was a peachy colour bouncing off the tall red rocks to our left, and his red and white kaffiyeh blew gently in the most welcome of breezes. ‘See that over there?’ he said, pointing to a small pile of stones in the distance. I could barely see them. I knew what he was going to do however because we had done something similar the day before. The stones were balanced on top of a giant rock about the size of a small car. I nodded, not wearily. With just the one hand he immediately fired his assault rifle and blew those stones away. I remember he playfully stroked the weapon afterwards. He caressed it. Weapons suck, in truth, as the approximately 130 mass shootings across the US already this year will testify. The violence in the US is deeply relevant. As Jeffrey St. Clair wrote at the beginning of his ‘Roaming Charges’ column in these pages last week, ‘The US is not going to solve its gun violence epidemic until it addresses its war violence epidemic.’ Ask any medic in a war zone what a body looks like after it has been shot up, and even they will squirm. With heavier weapons it is obviously far, far worse. I remember having to learn all about arterial, venous, and capillary bleeding before one trip, and felt like pulling out.

UK gamers are presently being asked in a new browser-based strategy game on how they might react if the UK got attacked. Is this to do with the fact Putin warned several months ago that London would be the first target to be hit by Russian missiles should a third world war erupt? Not very nice of Putin, I remember thinking at the time. I wonder how much history a gamer needs. Here in London there was the lesser known Battle of Barnet (1471); the famous Blitz (1940-41); two Battles of Brentford (1016 and 1642) plus one or two more if you ask Brentford’s Danish football manager Thomas Frank; there was Jack Cade’s Rebellion (1450); Cnut the Great’s invasion of England (1016), with his longships cutting off the Thames; the Cornish Rebellion (1497); the earlier, lesser known, German bombing of Britain (1914-1918); the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots (1780); the Iranian Embassy siege (1980), about which films are often made; the Second Great Fire of London (1940); the Oldcastle Revolt (1414); the Peasants’ Revolt (1381); the Siege of Sidney Street (1911); the Battle of Turnham Green (1642), which I always thought was a tube station; the London Uprising (1326); and — last but not least — Venner’s Rising (1657), before the Royalists captured and executed the rebel leadership. Not exactly a citadel of peace is dear old London. Even if today most of its battles are superficial and extend largely to social media where the super-rich — London’s ever-powerful 1% — are falling over themselves trying to pay for their ‘likes’.

The artist has just told me that Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong blames war lust on the lexicon of violence that we use with boys such as ‘you’re killing it’ or ‘you’re making a killing’. He asks ‘what happens to our men and boys when the only way they can valuate themselves is through the lexicon of death and destruction?’ Staying in America, I noted that Trump before facing charges last week opened a rally playing ‘Justice for All’ sung by a choir of men imprisoned for the US Capitol riot. Many of us here in London don’t know where to look at a time when Americans are for the first time genuinely facing two major nuclear powers. There is also the new war on the dollar, connected in part with the absence of an exit strategy in Ukraine. Not just from Russia and China do ill winds blow. They come from a Chinese-brokered re-connecting Saudi Arabia and Iran. They come from South Africa, Brazil maybe, India and Pakistan. The list goes on. I will defer to greater financial expertise on this but are we not now staring down the barrel of hyperinflation?

In short, war has consequences. Indeed, waiting for a flight back to Kabul from Helmand, a group of soldiers were gathered protectively around a young British officer with various tubes running in and out of his body. Camouflage webbing hung in waves above our heads. The gloom was matched by the mood. Two military policemen looked on. On the flight a good half an hour later, while flying in one of two Chinooks over a baked desert, I asked one of the soldiers, a middle-aged man, possibly in the territorial army, a reservist, what had happened to his comrade. ‘Nervous breakdown,’ he said. We looked at each other a few moments before looking away. He had nothing further to say. Part of one’s hostile environment training when we go to a war zone says that all good psychotherapies for PTSD focus on the traumatic experiences that have produced the symptoms, rather than on your past life. Today this feels like a metaphor. We are told that we can’t transform or obliterate what has happened. We can only learn to think in another way about things, about the planet too, and perhaps most importantly about our lives. I remember trying to take this all in over a few calm days in the English countryside. Sadly, though, it seems no one is educated on how to avoid conflict in the first place. Even Elon Musk accuses diplomats of having become warmongers. This may change, of course, as science becomes increasingly our means of understanding the natural world and our role within it.

As for the UK government, despite the country being party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Refugees since 1954, we now plan to end the right to seek asylum. War simmers, over there somewhere, then spits. Internally, we are all sparks and bangers. The inherent unpredictability of conflict has the capacity to make fools of us all. But we should know that by now. I do hope sudden peace proves me wrong. It seems unlikely as no one is talking. John Major on peace in Ireland once said that he would have ‘spoken to Beelzebub if it would have delivered peace’.

Peter Bach lives in London.