Franklin D. Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill discuss details of Germany's surrender in one of their last meetings at Casablanca. Both leaders agreed to seek the unconditional surrender of Germany. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Keep buggering on

We could do worse than adopt the twin maxims of the western world’s two wartime leaders

On a chilly March day in Washington in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, newly elected US President, delivered his inaugural address. “The only thing we have to fear…” he told the crowd, “…is fear itself”.

The soundbite was delivered in the depths of the Great Depression which had brought FDR to power in a landslide election. And although the new President’s sweeping New Deal programme failed for years to pull the US out of the slough of despair, psychologically his sunny optimism struck the right note with the majority of American voters, winning him an unprecedented four terms in office.

Ten years after becoming President, FDR found himself allied with another incorrigible optimist, Winston Churchill, in a global struggle against Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. Churchill’s optimism was of a more stoical type than that of his American ally, tempered by a longer experience of adversity. His philosophy was summed up in his personal motto: “Keep buggering on”.

Struggling in the toils of the second wave of Covid-19, and facing a darker winter than most of us have ever experienced, we could do worse than adopt the twin maxims of the western world’s two wartime leaders as our own response to the pandemic and the “war” that the lesser leaders of our own time are ineffectually waging against it.

A panicky response to the pandemic, which has dictated the policy of almost all western governments in the form of repressive lockdowns with no end goal in sight, is now having a disastrous effect on our economies, our collective psychology, and also our mental and physical wellbeing.

Decades of peace and prosperity since the Second World War has softened the robust spirit of our grandparents’ generation who weathered the Depression and endured – and eventually won – the war.

That social stability has left us ill prepared to meet the sterner tests of the current crisis, and found us confused, despondent, and downcast.

Could a single positive outcome of Covid-19 be a salutary reminder of the fragility of our existence?

Poverty, disease and frequent death were the everyday companions of those born before the last world war, but the astonishing medical advances since then have separated us from the inevitable accompaniment and culmination of all life. With the decline of religion and loss of belief in an afterlife, death has become the last enemy to be pushed out of sight and out of mind. Lacking a spiritual dimension, we have pursued pleasure and shallow materialism, and attempted to prolong youth and extend our longevity at all costs, regardless of the quality of those extra years. Is it too much to hope that a single positive outcome of Covid-19 may be a salutary reminder of the fragility of our existence, and return us to a more realistic and stoically courageous attitude to the human condition?

In the darkest days of World War Two, the French writer Albert Camus published his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). Camus suggested that the only serious problem in a Godless and absurd universe was that of suicide. Faced with a bleak, cold and indifferent reality, was life worth living at all? Camus’s answer was that, in such a situation, humanity must make their own meaning, and create their own values and happiness, but always with the absurdity and precarious nature of their position at the forefront of their minds.

Using the Greek myth in which the eponymous Sisyphus repeatedly pushes a heavy boulder to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back down to the bottom as he reaches the summit, as a metaphor Camus concludes: “We must imagine Sisyphus happy”. At the same time as he was writing the essay, in the midst of the Nazi occupation of France, Camus was completing his novel The Plague in which his characters find fulfilment and meaning in caring for those stricken by an epidemic.

We have to keep buggering on – after all, what else can we do?

Camus embodied in his own life the philosophy he advocated. Menaced from childhood with deaths from TB, and as an adult defying death by working with the French resistance, he lived and wrote on the edge of an existence constantly risking extinction. Nevertheless, Camus celebrated the fruits of the earth as he found them in the simple sensual pleasures that his life offered: sport, sun, swimming, love affairs, passionate friendships and intense political engagement. And, appropriately enough, his life ended absurdly, prematurely, and suddenly in a random road accident.

Camus obeyed Roosevelt’s injunction not to fear fear; and he saw that it was possible to glimpse in the distance the “broad sunlit uplands” that Churchill liked to invoke, even though he did not reach them himself. As for us, struggling to overcome our own unprecedented crisis, we have to keep buggering on – after all, what else can we do?

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