Don’t mention the war

A rosy-hued invocation of the Blitz spirit was a hopelessly misguided metaphor for the Covid pandemic


This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I recently published a book which would have been very dangerous if anyone had read it. It was called The Phoney Victory, though quite a lot of the few people who bought it wrongly think it was called “The Phoney War”. I can only assume this is because they have wholly missed the point of it. I conceived of it perhaps ten years ago and finally delivered it in the spring of 2018. It had two aims. The first was to question the myth of the Second World War — which has become a British national religion and the prism through which almost everyone now views foreign policy. I especially wanted to explain why the British action of deliberately bombing German civilians was wrong and unjustifiable under Just War principles. I examined the common beliefs about how and why the war began, and about how it was conducted. 

The second aim was to somehow undermine or weaken what I correctly suspected was a drive, in the worlds of politics, diplomacy and the media, to bring about a completely needless and stupid war between the West and Russia. I thought such a war would be terrible and futile. I saw back then that a key part of this effort was a noticeable drive to portray Vladimir Putin as not just a sinister tyrant in the league of Turkey’s Erdogan, China’s Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia’s “MBS”, but as a new Hitler. If so, that would make any sceptics of such a war into appeasers, doomed to the dustbin of history before they even opened their mouths. So it has proved.

It was very easy to misrepresent what I had said. If my show trial before the People’s Court ever takes place, that book will be part of the evidence against me, not what it actually says but what my enemies will claim it says. And — as anyone troubled by an independent mind will know — any precautions you take against having your meaning twisted will be overrun by the massed armour of your enemies. 

I say in the book specifically that Britain should have fought Hitler’s Germany and that Churchill’s greatest action was to refuse to make peace in 1940. I said it again when I spoke about the book to a gathering of highly-educated people, including a man I had known for 40 years and regarded as a friend. He then rose from his seat to ask me how on earth I could write a book that said we should not have fought Hitler.

The nearer you get to the true desires of the powerful, the less free you are to think or speak. If I had not hoped (absurdly, as it happened) to influence events, nobody would have bothered to abuse me. And, apart from a particularly blithering review in which I was weirdly accused of taking a “Eurosceptic” view of Neville Chamberlain (is this even possible?), hardly anyone did.

And then the great Covid panic struck. And within a few days the World War Two cult was in evidence again. How on earth could it be so? What had a respiratory disease to do with Hitler and the Nazis? A virus is not a foreign power, is not sentient, does not know or care what we say about it. 

The first response I received on social media was someone claiming I was the sort of person who would have opposed the blackout during the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids on Britain. It had genuinely never occurred to me that anyone might make such a tangled connection. Yet it seemed to have come naturally. Others, apparently independently, made the same claim. More important, on the free market of opinion which is Twitter, it swiftly outweighed my tedious protests about civil liberty and proportionality. It was what a lot of people wanted to hear. Attacks prodding me into line with cries of “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” earned multiple retweets and likes. 

By contrast, when I pointed out in response that my parents had not endured the losses, fears and privations of the Second World War, as they did, in the expectation that their children would meekly give in to authoritarian government, it seemed as if I might as well have written these words in Latin, for all the good that they did or for all the interest or support they gathered. 

World War Two’s true virtue, its moving defence of liberty at almost any cost, is apparently not the thing that has made it the British national religion. The element most people like is the collective effort, the conformist humour, the comfort of shared peril leading to a warm acceptance of benevolent authority, bully beef sandwiches and strong, sweet tea consumed in a gun emplacement, looking out to sea in case Hitler comes. 

I must confess I find this idea rather appealing myself. Dorothy Sayers, after Dunkirk, wrote a surprisingly moving bad poem “The English War”, which I think encapsulates this rather well. After opening: 

Praise God, now, for an English war / The grey tide and the sullen coast, / The menace of the urgent hour, / The single island, like a tower, / Ringed with an angry host, 

Miss Sayers uttered what many thought but few openly expressed. She rejoiced that we no longer had any annoying co-belligerents to worry about, especially those blasted Frenchmen: 

When no allies are left, no help to count upon from alien hands, / No waverers remain to woo, / No more advice to listen to, / And only England stands. / This is the war we always knew,

Which is to say, the war which was mostly fought far, far away and did not come to our shores except in the form of bombing. Of course there was the blackout warden, running about the streets like Wee Willie Winkie in a tin helmet, chiding the delinquents. Had I in fact misunderstood English history completely? Was it the case that for most people Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the ban on standing armies, Habeas Corpus, Jury Trial, the adversarial Parliament and the unarmed modest police, were all just pretty background music, part of a sort of Arthur Mee mythical England of tree-embowered villages, ancient churches and men dressed as playing cards at Coronations? 

Was the real England instead a cosy urban beehive of collective millions, longing for the strong embrace of the Defence of the Realm Act, rejoicing at our sea-girt peril (and secretly sure it would never come to invasion or defeat, as it never had before). George Orwell dreamt wildly of Red Militias being billeted at the Ritz. He got his revolution, but it was a suet-pudding revolution fit for a country of misty skies and trams. Nobody stormed Buckingham Palace. No Red Militias were required. 

The reality of wartime was willingly-accepted regimentation, pointless identity cards, rationing, British restaurants, “Is your journey really necessary?”, gasmasks, busybodies, official fusspots and buff forms. Much of it never went away. Some of the fiercest aspects of it survived until 1951, and only ended thanks to Labour’s very narrow election defeat that year. 

The complexities of defeating one evil regime by allying with another are politely forgotten

The aspect of the war that fills me with exhilaration and admiration, the lonely courage against the odds, the lifting of normal people into heroism by the ultimate need to defend liberty, seems to have little resonance now. The complexities of defeating one evil regime by allying with another are politely forgotten. The single most astonishing diplomatic event of the twentieth century, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, is little-studied and, I suspect, no longer a common reference point. The major works of fiction in which the war is honestly portrayed, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (and its forerunner Put Out More Flags) and Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies are, I suspect, increasingly unread. 

As for foreign policy, it is now absolutely forbidden to consider the British national interest, which might as well have ceased to exist. All foreign policy must now be idealistic in nature, and so all wars (even if this is not true, which it rarely is) must be portrayed as battles of good against evil, in which nuance, historical knowledge and anything of that sort are as unwelcome as common sense and proportion were during the Covid panic. 

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