Death, Morte, War, Guerre

All my life I have been untouched by death and war. Growing up in the stability of the western world and prosperity of the rich “north” of the world’s north south divide I have never heard a gun being fired in anger. My first experience of modern day weapons of devastation was at an air show in Duxford. I am, as middle class as it gets, son of a cardiovascular scientist and PCT leader. That “squeezed middle” as David Cameron likes to put it. This air show that I was taken on with my parents is typical of outings that children from my background will have gone on. To be completely fair to my parents, they were normally much more educationally enriching then this air show of military grandeur. However, this air show was my first encounter with the most destructive instruments that humans have ever made. Colossal jets stormed across the sky as their engines approached the sound barrier, their sidewinder missiles and air-to-surface cluster bombs brandished on the underbellies of these imperial, steel sky hawks. Little did I know that just across the north sea, mainland Europe and the Mediterranean basin, in the land where for over one and a half thousand years three of the world’s largest Abrahamic religions have been at each other’s throats, these jet fighters were carpet bombing flimsy Palestinian houses with white phosphorus and cluster bombs, ripping apart houses, schools and bodies alike. The fear which must have filled the air of Ramallah, Gaza and Nablus must have been toxic. Not that abstract fear one feels after watching a horror film but a very real, ever present, suffocating terror. This can be directly contrasted with the ambience of Duxford. Awe and amazement was painted across the faces of me and my brothers as these jets stormed across a crisp Cambridge sky. I can remember my older brother Chris, stating his ambition to become a pilot in the RAF after this very moving piece of military propaganda as we climbed into our rusty Renault Savannah. Our first encounter with these machines left an indelible mark on our minds. The first encounter for the children of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan with these beasts of war would leave them terrified, scarred, burnt, limbless, parentless or dead.

We often deplore those pilots who drop bombs and fire missiles at inanimate apartment blocks and small clay villages. Their disconnection with this industry of death they are perpetrating sickens us. However in our society a negative label is never attached to these instruments, they are never stigmatised in quite the way they should be. Instead they are distinguished as works of human ingenuity. We are not in the militaristic societies of yesteryear where warriors are glorified and wars are celebrated however war is fêted in a subtle way.  David Cameron speaks of the dead soldiers coming back from Afghanistan as having made a huge sacrifice for their country. Hollywood films do not award soldiers with warrior status as tapestries would have done hundreds of years ago. Instead they paint soldiers as victims of the conflict their governments have undertaken with “good intentions”.  War and death are so inexorably linked yet by glorifying the dead soldiers in the way we do seems to  gift warmongers ideological fuel to perpetrate these crimes. For society, the premise and ideology of our current war on terror is idiotic and illogical. The troops are misguided patriots. The fallen are untouchable heroes. Immortalised because they died in military garb. The civilians of these nations we are warring in receive a status only when they are ripped to pieces by our bombs and bullets, and that status is a statistic.

Last year I went to Lebanon.  I entered the country through the Damascus Beirut highway with a football team, and the countryside we went through was breath-taking. Huge jagged mountains scarred the landscape like the earths skin had been burnt by a scorching fire and was now peeled upwards roughly after years of treatment had healed these horrific geological blisters.  As the coach entered Beirut I was struck by its modernity. It’s European like cafes, restaurants and shopping malls reminded more of Lisbon and Barcelona then Aleppo or Amman. Only old apartments dated from the seventies and eighties peppered with bullet holes and pockmarked with shell wounds reminded me of Lebanon’s blood stained past. During the eighties Beirut was the battleground for  three armies all of varying strength. The Israeli army being at the top of this triumvirate. Commanding the skies above Beirut Israeli jets dive bombed a trapped Syrian army which had come under the premise to enforce stability but had become captivated by Lebanon and stayed too long. The other targets of these Israeli jets were PLO guerrillas who had been herded into the city by the advancing Israeli army in the south. Amongst all this rival Christian, Druze and Muslim factions stalked the streets battling it   out with each other, allying themselves with either of the three armies. The atmosphere would have been saturated in dread especially for the Lebanese and Palestinian refugees cooped up in apartment basements. Death was dealt with as a day to day reality.

The war wounded buildings today are juxtaposed by a skyline of gulf inspired sky scrapers. Not unlike the ones that have been erected in the U.A.E. and Dubai. This was an image of Lebanon’s future, her path away from civil unrest and strife and to a prosperous future in the bosom of Gulf investment (an ironic quid pro quo). This conflicting spectacle of a war torn past and a promising lucrative future is visible in the numerous BMWs  and Range Rovers being bomb checked on their way to refurbished beaches that were stormed by Israeli commandos just over twenty years ago. The memory of death and war is very real in Beirut, how much must be put to bed and how much must be remembered in order for such a multifaceted society to move on is a precarious question. Lest we forget, or best we forget?     

How humans deal with the horrors, realties and memories of war seems to be trivial and complex. How can the bitter memories of war be overcome without resigning the dead to distant memories? No wars have been committed under benevolent auspices, the fine line between respecting fallen soldiers and glorifying the war they have been in must be clearly defined. When we remember them, it must be as human beings and within that commemoration their innocent victims must also be added. That is how we gain back our humanity.


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