Basically, War is Boring

AS this year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of World War II, there is a lot of reminiscing going on in the media, which simply loves anniversaries regardless of the subject matter, and, of course, among those of us dear old things who are alive to tell the tale. I was interviewed the other day by a young cousin who is practicing to be a journalist, and from a casual remark of mine had proclaimed herself so amazed to hear I was actually alive in 1939, but also old enough to have had ``experiences'' she would like to hear more.

I was rather amazed, too. Or, to put it another way, I was shocked that this perfectly adult creature, pad resting on petunia trousers, pen emerging from a sort of truncated kimono, one blue eye peering out from under a cascade of hair, had not been thought of, even in 1946.

Of course I wanted to make a good impression. Within the framework of British understatement, I wanted to paint for her as dramatic a picture as possible of what I, personally, had done during the war years to help keep my country free.

So I started off with some bomb stories, although as a matter of fact it was such a long time since I had told them, I rather forgot how they should go. But I muddled through somehow with a nice mixture of joviality and phlegm, describing in a nonchalant manner how I and a number of other noncombatant females had stirrup-pumped thin little streams of water from smallish buckets onto the rim of a blazing London street for hours on end, a dear corporate effort that was of no practical use whatever.

And I described, as light relief, how, on meeting a long-lost friend trying to put out an incendiary bomb in the attic of a house, so delighted were we to see each other again we absent-mindedly ladled the burning bomb out of the window onto his car.

I described the beauty of a blacked-out London, especially on a moonlit night, and the loveliness of the enemy's flares descending slowly like pretty candles to guide his bombs to their destination. And fire-watching, which as far as I was concerned usually consisted of sitting all night on the floor of an empty room in a derelict building, with a stirrup pump at the ready, a tin hat on my head, and eating potato salad. How potentially useful this was, my interviewer, I could see, had doubts.

And I expect I had them too, at the time, though this was not fashionable. In those days we obeyed all commands unquestioningly, however peculiar they might be, each one of us, presumably, carrying a patriotic flame within his heart which no questioning spirit could quench.

However, when my cousin asked me what, as a member of the Women's Voluntary Services, I had done when the bombs were not falling, when I was not pouring tea down the parched throats of foremen as they fought a thousand fires, when ... well, we really did everything, my child, I rather tetchily told her, and without us the war would most certainly have been lost! That is what I said to her, but I must confess, now that I look back on those years of ceaseless endeavor, of thoroughly arduous effort, I am a bit surprised at the strangeness of some of the things I did to win the war.

For instance, I found it quite hard to convince the girl that when I accompanied a goat, by train, from Sussex to Cornwall, changing twice on the way, it was a journey of national importance. I now cannot remember the purpose of this exercise - perhaps Cornwall was short of milk - but I know that after it was over I fully, but vainly, expected to get a medal. It was a ghastly journey.

Then there was the day when I had to drive a large truck to Bath, that most beautiful of English cities, and deliver its contents to some admirals who mysteriously, as Bath is miles from the sea, were stationed there. The consignment consisted of women's corsets and molasses. Mine not to reason why, of course, but one could not help wondering, sotto voce, so to speak, what the Navy was up to.

I told her about clothing depots and evacuating children to the country and making camouflage nets and eating odd things like rooks and all of us being so nice to each other, but I could see that for all her good manners my interviewer was not exactly impressed by my war stories.

The trouble is that the young will persist in believing that war, for all its horror, makes ``rattling good history,'' as Hardy said. It should produce heroics, glamor, depth of feeling, at any rate. And of course it does, at far-flung moments. But 95 percent of it is tedium, the negation of everything that is worthwhile in life, a postponement of living. If only politicians knew, or would care to recall, how crashingly boring war is, this would surely act as a far greater deterrent than the fear of death and destruction. But old men forget and the young do not listen.

Alas and alas.

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