So a lot of British people seem to be wondering why refugees don’t stay in their own countries and take up arms to defend themselves (“…like the British did during the Second World War!”). Don’t get me wrong, I find it quite endearing that your Average Joe thinks he and his mates from Tuesday night five-a-side could put together a viable army, but maybe joining a thirteen-year-old civil war is a bit more complicated than an Inbetweeners movie. Let me explain.
Have you ever been in a pub when a group of drunk guys starts going berserk, drinking everyone’s drinks and punching people in the face? The rest of the patrons come together, over-power and restrain the troublemakers; the police are called and they are taken away to face the music. That’s World War II: everyone in the pub is on the same side and there is a clear set of bad guys ruining the 1940s for everyone else (incidentally, there’s also a guy who offers to hold everyone’s coats and money when the fight breaks out, and when it stops he won’t give them back – that guy is Switzerland’s banks).
Now, consider Syria. You’re sitting in the pub with your family having Sunday lunch when suddenly you hear someone at the bar say they’ve been short changed. In response, the bar staff open fire with automatic weapons and kill sixteen people. You’re horrified – in all the years you’ve been coming to this pub, knowing they’ve been short changing people, you never imagined they’d do something like this. You manage to barricade yourself behind an upturned table in the corner, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, a bunch of thugs from the rough pub next door hear there’s some trouble and decide to use the opportunity to take over the pub and make it as lawless as the one they’ve come from (where people have been brawling non-stop for the best part of a decade). There are bullets flying past your little shelter and blood and bodies litter the floor.
Whose side do you join? The bar staff who started the whole thing by killing the people they were supposed to serve, or the thugs from next door who want to hold you all hostage and make you join a death cult? LESSON NUMBER ONE: NOT EVERY WAR HAS A SIDE WORTH JOINING.
So you start your own army, right? This is an excellent idea – well done for taking the initiative! But exactly how do you start an army anyway? First, you find some like-minded people. So you turn to the guy next to you who’s barricaded himself and his family under a table and ask if he has any weapons.
“I’ve got my car keys and a bottle opener from a Christmas cracker,” he says. “The thing is, I was only planning a pub lunch with my family, I didn’t realise we’d get caught up in a gun fight, otherwise I suppose I would have been training and stockpiling guns for years.”
LESSON NUMBER TWO: STARTING AN ARMY IS REALLY, REALLY HARD.
This is tricky. Very tricky. You decide to try and phone the other pubs in the area to ask for help, but they don’t know who you are, and ever since they helped a bunch of patrons in the 80s who ended up flying planes into pubs, they’re pretty reluctant to help random groups they’ve never heard of.
So you just sit it out and wait for everything to blow over, right? After all, you’ve heard of other pub fights where the bar staff were beaten in minutes (The Sphinx & Pharaoh, the Crazy Colonel), but it gradually becomes clear that this one won’t burn out so quickly. You could crawl out and grab a gun, but that leaves your family completely exposed with nobody to defend them. With every minute that passes, the situation gets more terrifying. Maybe you could chisel a pretty cool spear out of a table leg if you had a few weeks, but right now your children are screaming with terror, begging you to stop the banging and the sounds of people screaming, but you can’t. There’s nothing you can do.
Suddenly, across a sea of broken glass and empty shell cases, you see the door to the street swing open. There isn’t even time to think: you grab your children, the most precious things you have in the world, and you run for the exit.
You stumble into the street, where a crowd has gathered to gawp at the carnage through the windows. As you get to the exit they try to push you and your children back into the pub.
“Go back where you came from!” they say. “You’re one of those thugs from the rough pub and you want to bring your violence out here into the street! Shame on you for dragging your children through all that broken glass!”
You manage to get through the crowd to the Queen Elizabeth pub down the road, which you’ve heard is a really safe, family-friendly pub where the staff treat their patrons with respect. But when you get to the Queen Elizabeth, you’re told by a security guard that there’s nowhere to sit because there are too many people already, even though it’s clear that the only reason there’s nowhere to sit is that the people who own the pub haven’t provided enough chairs. There are also loads of coats that have been put on chairs by older people who want to supplement their wine consumption by making youngsters buy them a drink in exchange for somewhere to sit.
Finally, with the help of some sympathetic staff, you find a chair in the corner by the toilets, and you put the kids on the chair while you lean against the wall, exhausted. People start accusing you of ruining the pub for everyone else, even though they were short of chairs long before you arrived. That’s when some guy with a big sweaty face who’s never been in a pub shooting, never feared for his children’s lives, never even seen a gun or a hand grenade, comes up to you and asks why you’re not in the other pub sorting out the massacre you’ve just fled from.
And that’s when you finally break down and cry.
IN TODAY’S EPISODE WE LEARNT…
In Britain, we tend to think of every war as a two-sided battle between good and evil, with an established system on the side of good which is able to organise and direct an army. As a nation, we have no easy frame of reference for wars with many factions, or wars where the government is fighting the people, or civil wars where the enemy is present not just in the air, but on the ground too. Contrary to popular belief, Britain DID produce a flood of refugees during World War II: 3.5 million British refugees fled their homes, but because the war was an international war, with no successful invasion, no enemy boots on the ground and aerial bombardment focused on cities, the vast majority of those refugees went to the British countryside. Had the Germans invaded and started killing Britons on the ground, it’s likely we would have seen an even greater exodus to countries like Australia and Canada than the one we did see: not because fleeing from genocide is cowardly, but because self preservation is deeply ingrained in human nature. Risking your life by crossing a treacherous sea to escape a war that is not of your doing is infinitely more heroic than selling out your principles to fight for a mad dictator or a death cult; and unless you’ve ever fled a tangled civil war yourself, it might be wise to put a little less effort into judgement and a little more into understanding.