In the days following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, embattled British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith wrote grumpily to his lover Venetia Stanley about the jubilant reception of the King by crowds in Trafalgar Square. “War,” he grumbled “or anything that seems likely to lead to war is always popular with the London mob.” Now, as Russian troops close in on key strategic locations in Crimea, Ukraine arms itself and the world holds its breath, whilst it might fall far short of excitement, who among us can deny a tingling sense, at least, of bearing witness to something significant?
The stakes are high. The UK, the US and Russia itself are signatories to a treaty enshrining the sovereign rights and the borders of the nation state of Ukraine. Although it may not be legally binding, there seems to be a moral imperative at least for the West to get involved. Obama’s rhetoric of ‘costs’ suggests that relations between Russia and the West are set to deteriorate even further, even if it falls short – as it surely will – of outright war.
I remember listening to the radio on the morning of 7th October 2001, hearing that airstrikes had begun against targets in Afghanistan. Whilst I, like everyone else, had expected it, and greeted it, therefore with the grim acceptance and the sadness that it deserved, I can’t deny that I also felt a strange sense of relief. Finally, I thought to myself, something is actually happening. The shock of the attacks on the world trade centre, I remember, was so total that it almost didn’t count. I couldn’t conceive of it as a coordinated act with a purpose and a meaning. It felt, in my teenage mind, like a disaster, a calamity, an act of God. The sleek flight of the jets, however, and of the missiles, told me something about our nation, our civilisation, and our determination to defend its values.
I was naive. Was it the stagnant air of those times? Was I charged up with the nationalist rhetoric of Bush and Blair? Had I seen too many war films? Was I simply bored? Whatever it was, somewhere deep in my soul, I bought it, but I don’t buy it now. If I feel now a stirring of that same relief, that same tingle of history in the making it is because of this:
Everything is changing. The uprisings we have seen all over the world, and at home are testament to that, as is our own deep sense of dissatisfaction. Not to mention the weather. The events in Ukraine, the belligerence of Russia, whatever power is deployed by other nations to contain it are all part of an elegant dance, the steps of which are known only to the most powerful. The forces that they have at their command, the complexity of their scheming are unthinkable. To see the unfolding, even of Putin’s ‘little schemes’ in Crimea and Georgia before it inspires a kind of awe: a few figures of the dance brought out into the open air.
For all its elegance, for all the drama of its unfolding, the end, of course, is always bloodshed and destruction. Rifts and scars that rarely heal completely. If only I could still believe, as once I did, that there was a purpose and a meaning behind it. If only these people did not die, were not dispossessed, imprisoned, raped and tortured in vain. If war were philosophy writ large I might, just might, be able to support it; but, although it’s presented to us with stirring rhetoric and moralising, do any of us really believe it anymore? No. Rather war, any war, is a piece of a much larger puzzle. A flashpoint, a rising bubble in the pot of geopolitics as it nears the boil. And the heat beneath it all increases. It is out of our control.
This, I think, is exactly what excites the mob. This that kindles, as we watch these dramas unfold, that darkening spirit in all of us who have never lived through war: Chaos. Deep inside ourselves we are sick of this relentless order. Sick of being the cogs in someone else’s machine. Sick of dancing to a tune that we can hardly hear over the thudding jackboots of progress. We want, in short, the world to be a better place, even if we get there through a trial by fire.
We believe, of course, that we ourselves will not get burned. For those of us sitting in comfort in the West, the so-called ‘lines of powder’ those lines of racial, religious and cultural division along which conflict tends to flare provide, in our minds at least, the battlegrounds on which our moral uncertainties are played out on our TV screens. The Art of War, the dance on which we’re lead is in convincing us of that myth; or else in blinding us to the truth, using our sense of drama to kindle support with stealth, sleek hardware and lies.