Don’t Mention the War


My Dad didn’t talk much about the war and was not particularly heroic about it. Recalling his landing on the Normandy beaches he commented: “It was D-day – plus one – thank God!’.

But he did say this: “That I should point a gun at another young man like me and shoot him dead just because he has a different colour uniform on? Bloody stupid!”

This surely encapsulates just about as neatly as it is possible to do so, the sentiment that drove the continued rise of Internationalism in all its many forms and guises throughout the last century. After the horror of the first world war, and that of the second, enough was enough. Dad didn‘t want to kill Hans. Hans didn‘t want to kill him. It was not people that caused wars, it was countries – the government of one nation sending its young to kill the young of another.

The music of the sixties emphatically reaffirmed this view. Against the backdrop of Vietnam, Lennon wrote ‘Imagine’ (there’s no countries) – ‘just a brotherhood of man‘. Donovan and Dylan, too, held out the hope that by refusing to fight, the universal soldier could lay down his gun and declare a new world order of peace and harmony.

And it was above all Internationalism that provided the political and emotional surge of energy that resulted in the creation of the EEC and eventually, today’s EU. Friendly co-operation was, unarguably, better than war. And if there is one thing that explains the continuing hatred of remainers for the leavers (and it is, I think, as strong as hate) it is that they see the Brexit vote as a betrayal of that peace-loving internationalist dream. Remainers hate nationalism and are suspicious of pride in one’s own country because it was exactly that, they believe, which led to mankind’s lowest moments in the Somme, in Auschwitz, and in Hiroshima. Remainers do not just argue this. They feel it in their bones and know it to be true.

It is a heartfelt and compelling narrative, made potent by the extreme horror of what one nation, aided by technology, was found capable of doing to another. It is not however, a sound argument.

Noble and desirable though the aspirations of internationalism are, they are not, on the whole, practicable or achievable, and because of this, they can in fact be very dangerous. This is something leavers face up to and understand, and which remainers prefer not to think about.

The essential problem with love and peace internationalism is not hard to understand. It is simply that it is all very well us being peaceful, but if an aggressor comes calling to take our resources or liberty by force, it is no use the brotherhood of man holding flowers aloft until crushed by oncoming tanks.

In this context it is worth thinking about how and why nations come into being. Imagine our early ancestors, first a few families grouping together the better to co-operate in the hunt for food or the pursuit of agriculture – then small tribes. And to ensure that their efforts in these endeavours should be rewarded, they might also have to defend themselves against others who might be inclined to steal, or take by violence, the fruits of their labour. Finding safety in numbers, the industrious tribe enlarges, prospers, develops rules, and eventually suits to its skills and way of life to a particular geographical area. Note that the situation now is better than originally, when nations were less defined and individuals had to forage and defend themselves as best they could.

If the brotherhood of man worked, there would have been no need, no natural tendency to create nations. The inference would seem to be therefore, that even before maps were invented onto which borderlines of putative nations could be drawn, the brotherhood never did exist and could never exist.

These are not a new reflections. In the 17th century Hobbes said something similar about the impetus to nationhood in ‘Leviathan‘ as, a little later, did Locke, and Jean Jacque Rousseau. They coined the concept of the ‘social contract’ to describe the bargain between individuals and their states:  we surrender some freedom (and probably some tax) and in return the state helps us prosper and protects our property from anarchy and war.

And the nations that have emerged over the past 2000 years; what effort, what strife, what argument has been needed to bring them into being! For the UK there were invasions by Romans, Germanic tribes, Vikings and Normans, and internal strife between Catholics and Protestants, Scots and English, Lancastrians and Yorkists, Cavaliers and Roundheads.

But then, around 1700, we finally to hit the sunlit uplands. After thousands of years of struggle, we as a nation reached a kind of peace with ourselves, we all finally agreed more or less, on how we wanted to do things: what our dominant religion was to be, how we would work out how we should be ruled. Our hard-won stability and cohesiveness as a nation, the absolute envy of the world, fostered artistic creativity, technical prowess, and economic success such as the world had never seen.

Looked at this way, a nation is not a terrible vehicle of destruction, rather it is safe, stable and protective environment created by and tailored to its society and designed to enable it to thrive. As such our nation is a precious, priceless hard-won prize, not to taken for granted or squandered in a moment of pious boredom.

The EU, of course, was meant to be an even bigger, safer, better super-country, but as the history of each of its constituent countries shows, creating a country is a long, hard and bloody business, not realistically to be achieved over a few café noirs in a Maastricht brasserie. Such was the naïve confidence of the EU’s architects that they not only did away with democracy, they even forgot about the social contract – that crucial and basic driver of any nation state – the need to foster fair reward for its citizens’ efforts and to protect what they had earned.

Hardly surprising then that the flow of money to Greece and Italy from Germany, for example, or even from established EU citizens towards an uncontrolled influx of economic migrants, is busy destabilising this terminally naive institution. What we have now, thanks to the misguided efforts of the Europhiles, is a super-nation dangerously divided economically, religiously, culturally and politically. And as the populism in Sweden, Holland and Austria, or the slide to tyranny in one-time EU wannabe Turkey, shows, it has grossly overestimated the ‘commonality’ of its peoples and cultures.

Perhaps, one day, the EU could be made a genuine country of sorts. But who among us is up for the 500 years of bloody strife that might take?

So, yes, it was horrible that Dad had to aim a gun at a German and looked at from the point of view of the two individuals concerned it was also absurd and obscene. But his nation was protecting itself, its property, its children and its future against attack from an aggressor. Through its power, its cohesion, and its friends, it succeeded. As the rise of IS, or the belligerence of North Korea, has recently reminded us, there will always be aggressors – and that is why we will always need our nation.

Anthony Whitehead is a freelance journalist and copywriter based in Bristol.