War shows up the fault lines in society. We all adopt attitudes towards the conflict – for or against, patriotic or ashamed, tragic or heroic. But, at a personal level, the biggest divide is between those who have been in the military and those who have not. Old soldiers have the greatest sympathy with the guys on the ground, and perhaps the least sympathy with the politicians who sent them there.

Armies are mankind’s oldest institution – and I mean mankind, not humankind. It must have been one of the great moments in evolution when men moved on from banging each other on the head with rocks one at a time to banging each other on the head with rocks in large groups. Humanity has never looked back. Alexander the Great conquered practically the whole known world with an army of ten thousand. Now we have armies beyond imagination, and rocks beyond comprehension. But it’s still the old, primitive drama down there on the battlefield with the rocks – scared young men sent out to fight by brave old men who just happen to be somewhere else at the time.

Old soldiers always remember this. It doesn’t matter what kind of soldier you were – a hero of World War Two or a survivor of the fiascos in Vietnam or Afghanistan, or a mere draftee serving in some quasi “police action.” We all share at least some of the same memories. We remember our training or conditioning, we remember the absolute loss of freedom in the most profound sense, including the freedom to stay alive, we remember the camaraderie, and we remember being scared.

My own military experience was minimal but, like most men, I remember it better than almost anything else in my life. Back in the 1950s, all able-bodied British males were subject to the draft at the age of eighteen. The phrase “able bodied” was interpreted so liberally that I was drafted myself, in 1957. We were the great standing army of the unwilling, commanded by the incompetent to do the unnecessary.

Good wars were hard to find in those days, apart from the perpetual threat of trouble in the Middle East. But something has to be done to keep these huge military establishments occupied. All It needs is one pathological leader to set the machinery in motion. Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, argued that all wars are psychological. Nationalism and territory are just excuses.

There’s no exact civilian equivalent to the experience of war, although some violent sports come close. Lifetime civilians must find the whole thing rather strange: dressing up in uniform and going out to kill people to whom you have not even been introduced. 440

We were mere draftees, forced labor, and today’s armies are all professional. But millions of old soldiers, conscripts and regulars, must feel a profound sympathy for the young men and women out there in the heart of the conflict. In Ukraine. It’s personal out there, as well as dangerous, and it’s very hard for them. I just hope that, for their sake and ours, they are better trained, better motivated, and above all much braver than we were.