Andrew's Column: What Victory?
In the UK, the 75th VE Day anniversary came at a moment of national crisis -- the COVID-19 pandemic.
Britain marked VE Day last Friday. We had a two-minute silence, the Queen broadcast to the nation, there was even an attempt at a national socially-distanced singalong.
'VE' Day? Not familiar with it? Not all that many people in the UK are confident what it stands for. One newspaper absent-mindedly described it as 'Victory over Europe' Day - a testament to our Brexit-ridden times.
Victory IN Europe Day marked the end of the Second World War in its main theatre of battle following Hitler's suicide in his Berlin bunker and the surrender of the German army. That was 75 years ago. Hardly anyone still around was there for the enthusiastic celebrations in May 1945 - the Queen is one of the few with direct memories.
The war in Asia lingered on for another three months. The 75 anniversary of VJ Day (Victory over Japan) will be marked in August. Millions of Indian soldiers, of course, made a conspicuous - and largely overlooked - contribution to those victories over fascism and dictatorship. They deserve better than our collective forgetfulness.
The VE Day anniversary came at another moment of national crisis - which both curtailed the concerts, parades and street parties planned as part of this moment of celebration ... and gave it much more emotional heft.
On all sides, we have been bombarded by comparisons between the war and this pandemic. And the militarised vocabulary of the virus and its vanquishing is unmistakable. We are 'battling' COVID - the virus is 'the enemy' - we need to respond on 'a war footing' - health workers are our 'front line'.
The Queen harked on that point in her message broadcast 75 years to the minute after her father, as King, had addressed the nation in its moment of victory. "Never give up, never despair", she counselled. "We are still a nation those brave soldiers, sailors and airmen would recognise and admire."
All this war rhetoric is in part to create a narrative to explain why we are all enduring restrictions on how we live without parallel in peacetime. These are not normal times, is the message ... "don't you know there's a war on".
Then there's the simple, sombre death toll. More Americans have died from COVID than perished in the Vietnam war. New York has suffered a heavier loss of life from the virus - much heavier - than on 9/11. Here in London, we're told that the past four weeks have witnessed a heavier death toll than during the worst four weeks of the wartime bombing Blitz which so traumatised the city in the early 1940s.
But let's not kid ourselves. This virus is desperate, cruel and will blight us all for some time to come - but it's nothing like war. Wartime casualties were disproportionately the young - COVID hits disproportionately at the old. Does that make a difference? Yes. All lives matter - but there is a more intense tragedy about young lives unlived than long lives brought to a premature end.
And the scale is something different. 450,000 British lives were lost - military and civilian - in the Second World War; twice that number in the First World War. 75,000 Indian soldiers died in the earlier conflict; 90,000 or more in the second global struggle. Even when the excess deaths arising from this pandemic can be reliably measured, the figure won't - I trust - be on that scale.
More than anything else - unlike my father (a trainee pilot in the Second World War) and grandfather (who carried messages by motorcycle across battlefronts in the First World War), I have never worn a military uniform. Nor have I ever been asked or expected to do so. The Lockdown of the last few weeks is small stuff beside the social and economic dislocation that accompanied mass mobilisation. The trauma is nothing like as immense as taking civilians and training them to do battle and to kill.
But in the aftermath of the VE Day anniversary, I do wonder if the British myth of invincibility - victory in two world wars and the sense that this island nation can never be subjugated - introduced just a touch of complacency in the response to the pandemic. We were slow to wake up to the threat - slow to Lockdown - slow to test - we still don't quarantine the trickle who continue to come through our airports.
And there's a key difference. VE Day marked a clear end to the war. The rebuilding lay ahead, a daunting task. But the conflict was over.
We will never have such a definitive moment of victory over this virus.