Well, I could argue that it’s fairly vital for defending yourself against an aggressor, but that’s not an argument I want to get into at this time. From a writer’s point of view the thing it’s best for anyway is as a background and setting for fiction.
It’s easy to see why this should be the case. Put your heroes in uniform and send them off to fight, and immediately the stakes are raised – people are actively trying to kill them all day long. If the war is a total war like WW2, they will be facing the risk of death from bombardment even in their places of safety.
The author has the benefit of characters who are already facing the horrors of death and the worst that humanity can do to itself. If those characters are heroic, or even simply decent, if they can manage the smallest acts of kindness, then those things will stand out against the darkness of the background like lights, and love will blaze like a star.
War too has its own strange fascination. I will admit to being in love with my great war machines. I began writing Age of Sail fiction because of two vivid moments in the cinema – the appearance of the two-decker HMS Dauntless out of the fog in Pirates of the Caribbean, and the magnificent, heart stirring sound of a cannon ball fired from the Acheron at the frigate HMS Surprise in Master and Commander.
A line of battle ship was the greatest weapon of mass destruction the 18th Century knew. Its broadside of cannon fire could level citadels and forts on the shore line from a mile away, and I won’t deny that that stirs my heart. There is definitely a part of me that would love to have the power to sail up to my problems and literally blow them out of the water.
I got into World War Two the same way. I thought it was too modern for me to feel any poetry in it, too much like real life. But then I discovered the Lancaster bomber, and once more I fell in love with a machine of war, and by extension with the men who flew it. As with the crew of a tall ship, the men of a bomber crew suffered great hardship, endured terrifying experiences, kept going through situations where you would expect frail human flesh to fail. And in both what resulted was friendships and loyalty more intense than could have been created by the strains of normal life.
I’ve been reading a book called Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two by Daniel Swift, and he obviously doesn’t share my slightly worrisome ability to rejoice in destruction, because he says that one may write poetry about a sword, but that there is something too obscene about the killing power of a heavy bomber to permit a person to feel the same awe and admiration for it as one would feel for a blade.
I think that’s rubbish, for a sword too is a thing designed with only one purpose in mind – to kill people. A Lancaster merely does it on a larger scale. If a sword can be admired for its beauty, despite being created to deal death, so can a Lancaster. Both are implements for the exercise of force – the same power that we admire in an alpha hero taken to its logical extreme. The power to stop what you don’t like, obliterate it, burn it to the ground; to run terrible risks, face and conquer fear and adversity, and to triumph.
But of course, what comes arm in arm with this heady, glorious violence, (or what should come with it) is an awareness of the horror of it. Of how -yes- how obscene is the ability to rain fire on old men and women and children sleeping in their beds. On how the men you can’t help admire for their courage and their self-sacrifice, their kindness to their friends and their willingness to die to ensure that we, their descendants, could live in freedom, are the same men who bombed towns until the pavements melted and the fleeing inhabitants sank into the liquid tarmac and were horribly burned to death.
War is not simple, and it is hard to separate out the good from the bad. There’s much talk about there being no glory in war, but to my mind that’s as false as saying that it’s all glory and no horror. A man climbing out of his plane while it’s under attack by fighters, clawing his way along the wing without a parachute in order to put out a fire in the engine and save his mates’ lives… Don’t tell me that’s not glorious or heroic. The Germans offering to safely escort a plane flying a replacement artificial leg to Douglas Bader – even though they must have known he’d try to escape the moment he got it. Don’t tell me that’s not so humane and chivalrous it warms your heart.
It’s like every day life turned up to the maximum volume, confusing and morally gray, full of ugly things and also full of some beautiful ones.
And that – although I hesitate to say it, because it seems disrespectful – is another good reason why it is such a blessing for a writer. It is full of emotions and all of them are cranked up to an intensity unavailable in peace time.
I am grateful that it’s there to be written about. But I’m even more grateful that it’s something I haven’t had to live through. I have the armies that have protected my country from invasion for a thousand years to thank for that. And that’s another good reason to write about them as heroes. But for Nelson’s navy, but for Harris’s bombers, I might not have the freedom to write at all. The moral ambiguity of war is a gift for a writer, but a degree of fannishness helps too. And it’s far safer for everyone involved if I spend my time imagining what it would be like in a gun turret with four Browning machine guns at my command than it would be if anyone actually provided me with them in real life!