Friday, August 11, 2006

Reflections on a “State of War”

In an effort to clean up old files, I came upon this piece I had written almost five years ago; I cannot remember now what I intended to do with it, but I apparently did nothing. It seems that I wrote everything but the final few paragraphs on September 18, 2001, and added the ending about three weeks later. My efforts at crystal ball gazing may well raise a laugh, but remember, as our C .in C. frequently reminds us, “we are in this for the long haul".

One week after the fall of the Trade Towers I wrote:

As President Bush’s pronouncements get more militant and abrasive,
it might be worth trying to prepare ourselves psychologically for living in a ‘state of war’ for a prolonged period.

The Munich Crisis

I feel that my experience enables me to suggest some factors that we need to get used to. I was twelve when Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the British people on September 3, 1939 telling us that a state of war existed between the United Kingdom and Germany. Of course, this did not come out of the blue. For several years, our newspapers had been full of the terrible scenes from Spain, and one year before, at the Munich crisis, I had seen trenches being dug as I made my way to school, only to find that our main assembly hall had been opened as a gas mask distribution centre. Moreover, unlike many, our family had also had early warning. My father was a Commander in the Royal Navy and had been on the retired list since 1922 when massive cuts were made in the armed forces; he had been recalled to active duty as early as April, 1939. By the time Chamberlain spoke, he was in Istanbul wearing civilian clothes, (complete with a cover story about a trade delegation), on his way to Basra (Iraq) to set up a section of the Naval Control Service (RNCS), the convoy control system that was already in place when hostilities began.

The Phony War

Even in the first few months, when the Allies sat behind the Maginot Line and the Germans behind the Siegfried line, the period called the “phony war”, much changed. We all had ration books, but at that stage there were not too many serious shortages; so far as I recall, the butter ration was still a whopping 4 oz. per person for a week (it was to go down to one ounce together with 4 ounces of margarine by 1942). At first, too, the ration book was a relatively simple document, covering meat, eggs, fat, sugar and a few other things. From the start, the meat ration was governed not be weight but by a fixed amount of money you might spend. This meant that if you wanted, you could blow the whole ration on one small Delmonico steak (or whatever the butcher in the UK then called it), or you could buy several pounds of lamb shank for stews. It made shopping a much longer affair since a whole series of little squares had to be clipped out (no perforations) of the appropriate page. Then the little buff colored books, one for each member of the family) had to be put safely away – losing a ration book was at least the equivalent of losing a major credit card today.

As a day boy at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Royal Charter given in 1561, two things were very obvious and extremely irksome. The first was the omnipresence of one’s gas mask, which had to be, carried everywhere. The civilian masks were a rather primitive affair, there being no valve system. When you inhaled, the air came through the filter and the rubber mask pulled close to your cheeks. As you exhaled, the air escaped out of the sides, making the kind of rude noises that reduced pre adolescent boys to uncontrolled laughter. Each gas mask was issued in a flimsy cardboard box about nine inches by seven by seven. Naturally they did not last any time at all, and very quickly, metal boxes with shoulder straps were on sale, khaki in color with GAS MASK stenciled on them. The father of one of my best friends ran a small factory in Mansfield that made decorative containers for biscuits and cakes, and he was turning out the new mask carriers within a week.

The second most obtrusive thing for someone who lived around eight miles from the school was the blackout. As the Michaelmas Term (Fall Term) wore on, it was getting dark by 4.30 p.m., and this meant that any after-school activity involved a walk across a totally darkened town, often feeling for the curb with one’s foot. This was followed by a longish wait and a half hour’s ride on a very dimly lighted and overcrowded bus, though, in retrospect, the buses were just normally overcrowded at that stage: it was not until 1940-41 that a bus designed to carry 35 passengers regularly carried 60. This kind of total overcrowding prevented the cooperative homework sessions with books spread out over several seats which had been a normal pattern of the thirty minute ride home. I suppose we sailed close to the honor code (though, of course, being British, it wasn’t actually in writing) but it provided a bit of extra free time before bed was decreed.

As the war progressed, rationing became stricter and stricter. Many foods, particularly imported fruit disappeared. The last banana I ate must have been around the end of 1939; I did not see another one until 1948. Sweets (candies) and cigarettes became very scarce. The news that the local News Agent’s shop had a consignment of cigarettes would produce a hundred-yard long queue. Clothes were very hard to get and in 1942 a “points” system was added to already bulging Ration Book. I think one had 200 points for the year. A whole line of clothes was produced called “austerity cut”. They used less material, having narrow lapels, no trouser turn ups and so on; they also used up fewer of your valuable “points”. An austerity sports jacket would use up around 120, leaving around 70-80 points for a pair of shoes. A visit to Savile Row for a jacket would use up all your points and require some help from another family member.

Petrol (gasoline) rationing began at once, and, for the first few months was relatively liberal. Even ‘private’ cars were allowed five gallons a month, the idea being that that would provide a ride to church, a shopping trip or other essential ride once a week. Doctors, clergy, social service workers had special petrol allowances. Not far into 1940, however, the only gas available was for “official” cars, a category that included all essential workers, commercial vehicles, lorries, buses , delivery vans (not luxury goods). Our family car sat on blocks in the garage for two years and then was sold to the local doctor for about 30% of its value.

Summer 1940

Of course, all this was a mere backdrop to living in “a state of war”. As France fell, and the Battle of Britain began, immense strain was felt. We were not near the coast, but there was a feeling of certainty that as the Germans landed on the beaches, massive air raids would lay us waste and waves of parachute troops would descend on us. I vividly recall cycling to school in June and coming to a whole series of roadblocks with posted sentries as I took my usual side road for the last three miles. All over the country, sign posts (the old-fashioned kind mostly, some old enough still to have a finger shaped at the end), were taken down, and it became a hazard for a Nun to go out in habit, since a persistent rumor said that that was a favorite disguise for parachutists. We were sure that the (not “an”) invasion was imminent, but were stirred by Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches, fight them in the hills” speech. I can clearly recall wondering whether I would really be able to shoot at a descending paratrooper with the shotgun that was somewhere in the house.

Soon after this, the Blitz began. Night after night sirens sent people to the shelters, and that peculiar and distinctive throb of a whole wing of German bombers going over filled the air, together with the noise of the aircraft guns and the rattle of falling shrapnel.

USA in State of (Virtual) War

Extrapolating from all this, a “state of war” for America now might be envisaged. The food shortage would not be so severe, and might, indeed, be good for America where about 50% of the population are over weight. Paradoxically, in Britain during the war, the overall health of the nation improved because a more balanced diet was possible for many who had been below the poverty line in the thirties, and even the strict rations of war time gave them a balanced, though low calorie diet.

One would suppose that the energy shortage, however, will become acute if we really are in this for “the long haul”. Again, it is unlikely that such draconian measures as I noted above will be instituted, but it would be reasonable to see a ban on all RVs, and the limiting of SUVs to essential services and certain weather conditions. Probably gas rationing, either organized or left to market forces, will emerge: a ration of ten gallons per vehicle might be necessary. If the energy crunch became really bad (a total Arab embargo, for example,) air conditioning might cease to be an option.

Of greater concern than all the material considerations is the necessity to begin to adjust psychologically to military service. If this really is to be the kind of war Bush seems to envisage, this might need to be universal and not selective. (Remember, I wrote this five years ago.) This may seem a pessimistic preview; on the other hand, things could get much worse. In September 1939, we in Britain, had little inkling of an idea of what lay ahead for us.

Of course, it might be possible to do something other than get into a state of war. We might try to do something to redress our foreign policy such as taking more notice of our European allies and of Russia. However, all this posits a foreign policy driven by statesmen, not politicians, for whom, poll results are primary. So, perhaps we had better begin to practice doing without things, and prepare to carry around with us a gas mask which will have to be much more sophisticated and larger than the one I used, carried in its tin box, as a missile in schoolboy scrimmages.

I wrote the above on September 18th, (2001) and it is now the beginning of October. Since September 18, some interesting things have happened. Bush, apparently at the urging of his father among others, has toned down the rhetoric considerably; there has been a rush to surplus stores to buy gas masks, though the experts assure us that they are really no protection, and there have been tectonic shifts in foreign policy. Voices have been raised pointing out that US foreign policy has been seen to be (and probably in fact has been) unfair to the Palestinians. A writer in today’s NYT (p. A6) reports Saif Almaskari, a former under secretary for political affairs at the Gulf Cooperation Council, as saying that people in his native Oman are not happy. “They wait in vain for the U.S. to say to Sharon, ‘Enough is enough’”. (A sense of American unfairness erodes support in Gulf States).

There can be little doubt that among thinking citizens, the issues of our past foreign policy are receiving scrutiny unusual for a decade or more. Jane Perlez, in a review of War in Time of Peace by David Halberstam concludes, “In a way, “War in Time of Peace” will be an interesting test case for Americans. Over the past decade Americans were absorbed in themselves. Now that foreign affairs have come home in the most crushing of ways, are they ready to read an account of foreign policy and its makers by one of the most astute writers in the trade? If they want to learn from the past decade, they should. If they want to think seriously about the future, they must” (NYT Book Review, September, 30, 2001 p.8).
Simon Mein October 2, 2001

And now it is almost the fifth anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Towers. There seems to be no end to the conflict in Iraq where the US has successfully deposed a cruel regime, but seems powerless to fill the vacuum thus created: the southern strip of Lebanon lies devasted, the Taliban is still able to inflict significant damage in Afghanistan and any hope of truly bi-partisan action is seen as laughable. I am not sure what I meant by "shift in foreign policy". From today's perspective little seems to have changed since President Bush first took office. Perhaps the elections this Fall will do something to force change; certainly nothing else seems to have done that since September 2001.

Simon Mein
August 14, 2006

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