Monday, 30 October 2006

50 years on

Fifty years ago today, I was feeling rather nervous on the first day of my two years’ National Service in the RAF. That day, the coming two years looked immensely long but, now, the fifty years that started then seem to have flown by.

British and French troops had just invaded Suez, Soviet troops had just invaded Hungary and there was widespread fear and even expectation that the Third World War was starting. Curiously as I look back on it, I think my nervousness was more about the unknown quantity of National Service itself than the fear of war. My grandfather and father had served in the first two world wars and it seemed quite natural that I would serve in the third. I remember thinking servicemen might even be safer than civilians the third time round, because the Government might provide better protection for them, than for civilians, against nuclear weapons.

Looking back on it, I now find one of the most horrifying aspects of that memory is the general acceptance of, or resignation to, an apparently imminent world war then. There was a similar feeling with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 but I hope future generations never experience it.

However, although the threat of world war seems mercifully to have receded, there have continued to be many smaller conflicts and, although each has been minor in relation to the world as a whole, they have been major to those caught up in them.

Mercifully also, young men are no longer forcibly recruited into the British armed services but those who bravely join voluntarily to defend the rest of us should not be sent abroad to fight aggressive wars against countries that pose no threat to us. Part of my service was in Iraq and I feel now both for British service personnel who have been sent there in much more dangerous conditions than I was and for the people in Iraq who, although they have lost a brutal dictator, have now acquired anarchy and foreign occupiers.

Incidentally, I was a reluctant supporter at the time of the Anglo-French invasion of Suez. I was reluctant because I didn’t like the idea of war, but I was a supporter because we were told then that Britain and France had intervened to protect the Suez Canal and separate the warring Egyptian and Israeli forces. We did not know until some time later that that was a lie but my subsequent knowledge that it was a lie helps to explain why I never believed Bush and Blair when they claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat to us.