War Games: how we talk about war
Over recent years, the UK’s damaging war rhetoric has persistently reared its ugly head. We reflect on how we talk about war and why that needs to change
What is this country’s obsession with world wars? They are everywhere, all the time. We dreamed of one in early 2020, when a conflict between the US and Iran never quite came to fruition but lasted long enough for crazed armageddon rhetoric to grip the nation. During lockdowns, so-called Blitz spirit was invoked more often than public health policy, a sick nostalgia for a time of terror and making do. And now, ever since the invasion of Ukraine, my social media timelines are thick once more with hypothetical violence and newly imagined home fronts. There's a strange bloodlust in the air. World War III is trending on Twitter and people are joking about drafts and evacuations and I am so sick of it I could scream.
The UK does not have a healthy relationship with its past. Every time a fresh crisis occurs that might tap into whatever murky, idealised idea it has of its history, I am struck anew by it all: the delusions of grandeur, the desperation for heroism, the longing for meaningful violence – any kind of violence – as long as it does not arrive on our own shores. Perhaps it is unsurprising. British history has left so many bloody footprints on the world, with centuries of colonialism and extraction and coups, that maybe the only way to cope with the weight of it is to blot it all out, sink comfortably back into a time when we were heroes, good people, when we did the right thing. Remember when we protected Poland, remember when we drove out fascism, remember when we sacrificed everything – our young and beloved – for a higher purpose. Remember, remember, remember. If we say it enough, surely it must be true.
The problem with mythologising, let alone self-mythologising, is that it, by necessity, creates a rupture with reality. Yes, we sheltered during the Blitz, lived frugally on rations and purportedly pulled together. But wait – did we really? Black people were routinely ejected from air-raid shelters during the Battle of Britain; the Jewish parents of the children on Kindertransports were denied asylum and consequently died in the genocide of the concentration camps; and the efforts of soldiers of colour have been all but erased from every war film that has followed. Tom Moore may have walked for weeks to raise money for the NHS, but what was that but a gruesome protraction of the exploitation his generation faced – an entire country of men farmed out to fight and die, no structures of welfare or care in sight. What nobility is there in any of it? What kind of pure past are we harking back towards?
It all feels so utterly meaningless, and so utterly hopeless, because if we can’t understand or see the past for what it was, then how can we ever process the present with any sense of responsibility or, indeed, reality. The way the UK and the West fight wars has changed: the time of drafts and mandatory service is over, and this current warfare will likely not reach our lands. That isn’t to say that the anxiety and horror of human misery won’t affect us, but also – they won’t, not really, not in the same way. Not directly. We likely won’t have to flee our homes, we won’t have to count and bury our dead, our lives will not change overnight.
And yet, somehow, we can’t stop imagining it. Teenagers on TikTok are bantering about conscription and people are cosplaying military tactics by donating to the Ukrainian army's bizarre Patreon account and as spring creeps incongruously through the windows I wonder if we have all lost our minds. People die as missiles pound the air hundreds of miles away and here there is nothing but silence and the grind of the internet and newspapers guessing what the fallout from a nuclear attack on Glasgow would be. I wonder how far Western narcissism will take us, when its outer limits will finally be reached. How inwardly do you have to look before you eventually collapse in on yourself?
Everything has become a game, a joke, because it barely feels real. We have become very good at outsourcing our fantasies of violence and so violence has become entirely sundered from any kind of material reality; blood and bones and sheer, unimaginable horror. On the Thursday that the invasion begins I sit frozen all day, an acrid panic heavy in my stomach. I can’t stop scrolling. One Tweet appears again and again. “Men,” it tells me, “will literally invade Ukraine instead of going to therapy.” The conflict is barely hours old and already it is just a silly little gag. But what place does the meme-ified language of bad dating have in devastating international conflict? What new stage of feminism is this deliberately cultivated ironic carelessness? Which women are being helped? Surely not the women of Ukraine, or Russia, or Afghanistan, or Yemen. I scroll again. The next Tweet predicts World War III, that we will all die. Well, I wonder, which is it?
It sums it up really, the complete and utter insane paradox of it all: the illusion that we are just as vulnerable as those being bombed; the solid comfort of knowing that we aren’t. That we can make jokes, laugh, try and be the funniest person on the internet with impunity. I am certain now that this is how the world will go out. Liberalism and smug, flimsy feminism and solipsism right until the last ray of light. An understanding of war that only ever centres the West, and then maybe – just maybe – those that look similar. “There’s rumours of a thermobaric bomb,” a man from the news explains, in a clip that circulates again and again online. “Which,” he adds, “the US has used before in Afghanistan, but the idea of it being used in Europe is stomach churning.” I click off Twitter.
In the days following the invasion, a poem by Ukrainian-American writer Ilya Kaminsky goes viral, its screenshot from Poetry Foundation intermittently breaking up the rest of the internet’s savage shriek. “I took a chair and watched the sun,” it goes. “In the street of money in the city of money in the / country of money, / our great country of money, we (forgive us) / lived happily during the war.” I have been thinking of these lines often, every time World War III re-trends, every time I myself become preoccupied with the idea of possible nuclear holocaust where I am. We, so many of us, live in the country of money – we have always done so. Here, safe in the country of money, far from the shells and bombs, it is so very easy to fantasise about war.