Thousands of years of history have established, beyond challenge, that battlefield conquest has never brought lasting peace to the victor or the vanquished. True, many mighty empires have risen, flourished and lived triumphantly as world powers – but not for many hours on the great Clock of Time.
Today, we are witnessing yet another example of the wrong way to find peace on our fragile planet as Russia tries to force Ukraine to rejoin the once-great Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which had seemed to collapse overnight as the rest of the world rolled from the 1900s to the troubled 2000s.
Ukraine has rejected Russia’s demands, preferring to keep its own elected government, to enjoy a free press and other perks of democracy.
Consequently, a daily diet of death and destruction has unfolded as Russia launched its brutal attack on Ukraine and tanks rolled across the border. Thousands of citizens have fled their homes, clutching whatever they can carry. Young men have stayed behind to fight the invaders while their wives, many of them young mothers carrying young children, have stumbled onto trains and busses and safety.
Television news has become a daily serial of rockets, shells and machine-gun fire from inside the battle lines. With warnings that we were about to see scenes that might upset us, TV crews brought us the reality of a young mother lying sprawled on the road, a child in her arms. Both dead. Killed by shrapnel. On the same broadcast, we were shown older men digging graves to bury their dead because there was no other service available.
I watched with dismay, not for what TV was displaying but because not one network emphasized that this is the way wars are now fought. What Ukraine is suffering is not new. That is the saddest fact of today’s unfolding tragedy. We – the human race – haven’t learned a thing from the procession of tragedies we have tolerated to settle our differences.
The world had hardly recovered from the First World War when we were embroiled in Korea, then Viet Nam, then a couple of middle east wars and the never-ending war in Afghanistan where three empires were sent home defeated. England lost an entire army there; Russia didn’t fare any better, and the USA has quit for now.
I have written before on my own experience as a civilian under heavy wartime fire in Coventry on November 14th, 1940. A month shy of my 16th birthday, I was just off shift, waiting for my bus to get home, when the sirens sounded. The first incendiaries from the bomber pathfinders of Luftflotte (Air Fleet) 3 fell shortly after 7 p.m. The all-clear sounded little more than 12 hours later. Coventry is remembered because Germany coined a word for the raid, “Coventration,” total destruction. Many of the dead are buried in a mass grave now part of a contemplative park.
But Coventry was not the most frequent target for bombardment. Neither was London – a fact some Londoners still challenge. The most bombed city in England was Hull, on the east coast, where 1,200 were killed and another 3000 injured. It was under red alerts for 10,006 hours; 95 per cent of its residences were destroyed as well as 27 churches,14 schools and hospitals. And, I have a feeling only the English would record among the wreckage 42 pubs and eight movie theatres.
Where did they shelter? They called it “treking” (cct). By 1941, one-third of the population hiked out into the country when the sirens sounded. Having lost 400 killed in raid shelters, the people of Hull preferred the fields, and they knew the German bombers didn’t fly in bad weather.
Across the channel, German cities fared even worse as the RAF built in strength and the U.S. Air Force joined to complete round-the-clock bombing. On Feb. 13/14, 1945, an all-night raid on Dresden by 800 RAF bombers followed by a daytime attack by 210 aircraft from U.S. 8th Air Force created a firestorm. Estimated deaths were as high as 30,000. Critics of the raid insist the death toll, in a city jammed with refugees fleeing from the advancing Russian Army, was closer to 250,000 and that most of the dead were women and young children.
Attempts were made to charge the men responsible with war crimes, but their defence that “the attack was necessary” was accepted as valid.
In Ukraine, there has been criticism of the Russians for using “rocket attacks.” In England, I remember the first of the evil “flying bombs,” the V-1, which would fall to earth when its noisy engine ceased to pulsate. The brief silence that followed was hypnotic. If the rocket was at low altitude and flying away from you, you could stand and watch as its nose dropped. Wherever it exploded, it was going to be away from you. If it was on course toward you, you raced for any cover available – or prayed. In Germany, it was called Vergeltungswaffe – the “Vengeance Bomb.” At the peak of its use, 100 V-1s a day were fired across the Channel.
Then came the V-2 – the Vengeance 2. It was supersonic and exploded on contact. The missile now being used to crush Ukraine is a vastly superior V-2 – which was designed by German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. Most of his team was offered sanctuary with him in the USA if he would share and develop his V-2 building skills. He would, and he did. The Russians had pirated the factories making the parts and assembling the V-2s and scooped up enough scientists to keep stride with the USA.
If it ever comes to a shooting war between Russia and the USA, they will both be firing rockets similar to those originally designed by von Braun’s team and built by 12,000 factory workers from concentration camps who died in their thousands during the late war years from sickness or starvation and were replaced with other camp victims.
So, fret and shudder as we will – as we must – at the happenings in Ukraine, let it not detract us from facing the fact that generations of us have allowed the shape of modern warfare to develop as it has. Readers interested in following the numbers can Google on Casualties of the First World War and History of Western Civilization.
The opening paragraph on “Casualties” notes that total numbers may vary because “many deaths went unrecorded.” However, there is general agreement that they are close when they say “some 70 million people died … including about 20 million military personnel and 40 million civilians died” in World War Two. Many other civilians died because of deliberate genocide, massacres, mass-bombings, disease, and starvation.”
Whatever way you interpret the stats, the numbers point to a lot of mothers dying with dead children in their arms on bomb-destroyed streets, just more victims of a world that has lost its way. And with twice as many deaths as the military.
I am reminded of a verse learned many years ago: “War begets poverty, poverty peace. Peace begets plenty and riches increase, but riches bring pride and pride is war’s ground, and war begets poverty, and so we go round.”