05 March 2010

The changing character of war

In Lecture 29 I said that World War I was the last "classical" war, a war in which the casualties were found mainly amongst the soldiers. Beginning with World War II military conflicts produce more casualties among the civilian population than among the soldiers (a fact painstakingly avoided by the media, which report every death among the occupying forces in Afghanistan but rarely mention the much larger death toll among Afghan civilians).
A recent review of a study of returned servicemen after World War II illustrates the deveelopment with some interesting observations. When the soldiers returned home from the battlefields of World War I the civilian population acknowledged their suffering and greeted them with a sense of guilt: "While British state pensions and policies were ungenerous, civilian volunteers stepped into the breach, flocking to donate money and time to hospitals, rest homes, philantropies and cultural associations that sought to ease disabled veterans' isolation and pain."
In contrast, soldiers returning home after World War II were ignored, their stories of suffering paled in comparison with those of survivors in bombed-out cities. Instead of a hero's welcome, or at least understanding for trauma and depression, they found a lack of empathy and faced the disintegration of their private lives: "Divorces went up, from 4100 decrees absolute in England and Wales in 1935, to 15,600 in 1945, to 60,300 in 1947." Veterans from the Vietnam war did not fare better.

Reference: Susan Pedersen: Suitable Heroes. A review of Demobbed: Coming Home after the Second World War by Alan Allport. London Review of Books 32(4) 25 February 2010, pp. 11-12.

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