Is it safe?

The torture of our new safety obsessed national psyche

Artillery Row

Both the mouth and eyes of Dustin Hoffman are wide open in terror as he is tortured with a dental drill by a man manically repeating “Is it safe?!”

It’s a question about which Hoffman’s character in the 1976 film Marathon Man doesn’t have a clue as to what it means or relates to—the audience are just as mystified—and hence can in no way understand or answer.

What a metaphor for the Covid-19 times we live in. That image of Hoffman strapped to a dentist chair comes to me on a daily basis thanks to endless commentators on the likes of Radio 4’s Today programme talking about how X will be possible “when it is safe to do so.” Every time I hear that dreaded word “safe” accompanied by matronly advice clad in sweet tones of sanctimony that then we can of course proceed, I feel a bit of that dread resounding in Hoffman’s eyes. What has happened to my country, what have we become or are becoming?

Covid-19 is an awful predicament and, as with anything that can kill you or the people you care about, something to be taken immensely seriously. But how did we become so fear soaked. That’s not how you beat something like Covid-19 or reclaim the type of life and society we cherish and are are so lucky to have after being built and safeguarded by the sacrifices of legions back through the ages (after participating in three conflicts—Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan—and spending four years living in a beguiling developing country but which was ruled by an authoritarian government—Ethiopia—I’ve had some glimpses of the types of physical and moral wastelands into which societies can descend).

And what has happened to the concept of proffering a modicum of selflessness in the name of public service, and the idea of putting others, or a greater good, before the need for your own welfare to be entirely assured. First the National Education Union—the former National Union of Teachers that merged with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers—pulling out every stop in the Covid-19 health and safety rulebook to argue why schools shouldn’t reopen, and then the Royal National Lifeboat Institution running in the opposite direction from the beach waterline, unfortunately coinciding with a sunny Bank Holiday Weekend during which people drowned.

Grow some backbone is a classic over-the-top military adage that I had cause to hear on numerous occasions when I was in the British Army—often needing to say it to myself when I was wavering—and that I have heard more recently from a number of fellow army veteran friends discussing the lockdown and the public reaction to Covid-19. What on earth has got into some people, has been the thread of their conversation, especially considering, they note, how for many of us the lockdown has been more than manageable in terms of physical deprivations, while also, if you haven’t had someone die, emotionally and mentally pretty straightforward, all considered.

Clearly, the British public has not voluntarily signed up for a tour of duty against Covid-19. But given the ready use of military metaphors during discussion of the pandemic—with talk of front lines, being in the trenches, doing battle with an enemy—I am going to continue with my military comparison here, because, as in both cases, such comparisons have validity. There’s the likelihood that some NHS workers will, as a result of their experiences during the pandemic, be left dealing with the likes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and moral injuries known to veterans.

“The military has it better in a way, as we get this break between deployments, whereas healthcare workers and first responders, like the police and firefighters, have to reset themselves every twelve hours and go back out on their next shift,” says Nöel Lipana, an Afghanistan veteran who after leaving the US military went into social work, including promoting better understanding of how moral injuries occur both in the military and civilian realms.

One comparison between the military and the current situation that you tend not to hear about is how many of us in the military never felt as alive and content as when we were on operations with insurgents shooting at us and threatening us 24/7. We were not at all safe—far from it—and we loved it.

“Most men who have been to war would have to admit, if they are honest, that somewhere inside themselves they loved it too, loved it as much as anything that has happened to them before of since,” William Broyles, a former platoon commander in Vietnam, wrote in his 1984 Esquire article “Why Men Love War”. “In war, all bets are off. It’s the frontier beyond the last settlement, it’s Las Vegas.”

War is about as risky as it gets and yet that can prove utterly life enhancing and weirdly and counter-intuitively life affirming, even if you are strafing Taliban behind a wall with an A-10 tank buster jet on a gun run.

“Without war we could not know from what depths love rises, or what power it must have to overcome such evil and redeem us,” Broyles says.

Civilian life, too, if it is to be fulfilling, needs risk, and an understanding and acceptance of the ultimate risk factor: the fact we will certainly die—it’s as simple as yin and yang. Roger Scruton put it rather beautifully in his book The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope:

“Mortality is inextricably woven into the human scheme of things: that our virtues and our loves are the virtues and loves of dying creatures; that everything that leads us to cherish one another, to sacrifice ourselves, to make sublime and heroic gestures, is predicated on the assumption that we are vulnerable and transient, with only a fleeting claim on the things of this world.”

But we seem to be under some sort of collective amnesia at the moment regarding this basic truth about the essential interplay of contradictory elements. We have lost sight of the wise words of the Jedi Master of paradox who preceded Scruton that was G.K. Chesterton.

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms,” Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, his wonderfully leftfield riposte to the secular and rational status quo. “It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it.”

Given our current predicament, it is best not to take Chesterton too literally when it comes to how close to get to the risk to be confronted. But the underlying lesson remains. Hence I would offer to those of a more cautious nature in the National Education Union and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution some risk assessment advice based on a poem I wrote after my Afghanistan tour that I spent relatively safe and sound in a Forward Operating Base headquarters, and which appeared in the well-intentioned but unfortunately named 2011 poetry anthology Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poet:

I move among the people eyes down
Carrying no visible scars for proof
Merely returned, blending into mediocrity.
I know how I remained secure while
Speaking to those playing roulette
On horrid, unforgiving Afghan ground.
I heard their destruction
Radios blaring anguished news,
Soldiers shouting, calling for back up.

This too shall pass, has become a popular saying in response to Covid-19 riding roughshod over everything we hold dear. It is indeed beginning to pass with the blessed easing of the lockdown. Once it has passed in the main, all sorts of things will be left: relief, mistakes, death, renewed hope, amended ways, quite possibly a rejuvenated appreciation for our wildlife and countryside, maybe even a touch of Bacchanal joy or Ballardian sexual perversity, all of which will be underpinned by the self-knowledge of how we behaved, especially toward others.

In a recent New York Times op-ed comparing Covid-19 and the 1918 outbreak of Spanish Influenza, David Brooks wrote that a puzzling feature of the latter was how when it was over, people didn’t talk about it; despite its colossal impact there were very few books or plays written about it.

“It left almost no conscious cultural mark,” Brooks says. “Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed.” He notes how in the city of Philadelphia the head of emergency aid pleaded for help in taking care of sick children but “nobody answered.”

Each of us should be doing our best and trying to answer during the lockdown and its easing—and I think the majority are—so that once this has all passed, you won’t have to move among the resurgent crowds with your eyes down (an even more unwelcome stance given the fact we will need to be more conscious of our surroundings and distance from others if we are ever to beat this damn virus, which won’t have entirely passed until there is an effective vaccine). Living a life of value invariably involves embracing risk and walking out the door, while realizing how lucky we are to have risk and even death.

“The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost,” Chesterton says.

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