The Danger of Forgetting What War Is
Claudio Magris/Candide’s Notebooks, May 29, 2006
One of the catastrophes that no one succeeds in predicting or wants to predict, until it strikes, is war. Apart from a few hotheads no one wants it, but many consider themselves capable of playing with the eventuality, keeping it under control, to pick and poke at it with the certainty of being able to stop in time.
Arrigo Levi recently recalled how, at the start of this century, Winston Churchill, who certainly wasn’t slow to understand things, was convinced, when he was a soldier, that he was dedicated to a profession overtaken by the times, that they would never again know war - and this just a few years before the terrible massacre of 1914-18.
Even today we have managed to convince ourselves arrogantly that flashpoints and geographically limited conflicts couldn’t get away from us and are always under control. This blithe supposition shows that perhaps we are coming to the end of a long era in which the world - still physically aware of the frightful bloodbath of the Second World War - feared war, knew at first hand what it meant, had antennas to capture the signs of its arrival and did everything possible to avoid it - even in the moments of maximum tension between East and West.
You get the impression that this sensitivity to the dangers of war has weakened, and along with it the concern to avoid such a peril. We are starting to play with fire, often with arrogance. The complacent tone with which some political war commentators pronounce reassuring and optimistic explanations is a reminder of the comic satisfaction with which the cuckolded husbands in comedy sketches boast about their marital harmony.
The century that is drawing to a close, observed the ambassador Sergio Vento recently, has been characterised not so much by totalitarianisms, but by the World Wars - especially the First, of which the Second was a continuation - that created them.
In Dresden, razed to the ground in 1945 by air raids that caused no fewer victims than an atomic explosion, the Frauenkirche has still not been rebuilt. Its fragile remains have been left standing just as they were at the end of that terrible day. The carcass of the church emerges from piles of masonry like a chopped-up body or a face with empty eyesockets. In front of that monument to destruction you feel as if the bombs had fallen yesterday and could fall again today; the horror of war and the madness of who started it are there for all to see. Those ruins are a symbol of the way the spectre of war has been present for decades.
Various signs seem to show that that climate is changing. The world seems to have forgotten the horror of war. The conflicts each have their own specific cause, obvious or hidden, but they appear to be the symptom of an increasingly wide fear, of an infection that is rife. The wars that flare up and die down here and there are signs of a wider pathology of a body that is gradually starting to give way.
Putting an ear to the ground, like the Indians in Westerns, we can hear in the distance the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Behind all this is a certain educational, social and cultural atmosphere that over the decades has created generations to whom war is alien and who are completely unprepared for it, so unprepared as not even to contemplate its possibility.
The war in Serbia is a tragic and obvious episode of ferment that risks spreading and picking up elsewhere when this conflict finishes, without precise motives and with results disproportionate to the tragedy that is occurring. The world is a tinderbox: the proliferation of nuclear weapons in irresponsible hands; the growing nationalist delirium that sees each ethnic group claiming to be a state and trampling the weaker one that lives next door, inventing impossible false pedigrees of racial purity; flourishing economic development that reduces jobs and creates masses of unemployed and social tensions; the migration of millions of dispossessed from every corner of the Earth pressing at the borders of the more developed countries.
It seems impossible to us that someone could one day press the atomic button, but the limits of our imagination are not those of reality. It would be good to have always in mind that shell of the Frauenkirche. And it’s no coincidence that they are now planning to restore that church and remake it as though it had never been destroyed. Perhaps it’s the sign of a dangerous desire to ignore the possibility of new destruction.
This article, originally published in the U.K. Independent on May 3, 1999, belongs to a series produced by the International Parliament of Writers about Kosovo.