The People's war?
When NATO's war against Serbia began, one peculiarity was that there was no public enthusiasm for it, and no public opposition to it. The dominant sentiment was one of uneasy acquiescence.
'We all feel very detached from it', said a friend of mine, aged 22. She put this down to the fact that she, along with 100 other students, had recently returned from a skiing holiday in the Alps. But she could have been speaking for almost anybody in Britain. This was never 'our' war, that the public felt a part of. There was no war fever, no jingoism, and even raising the subject of the war in a social situation made you feel rude or like a bully, trying to drag people into a discussion they did not want to have.
So what was this detachment? After all, people do care. Confronted with pictures of human misery, with horror stories of atrocities, your emotions are affected and your concerns are raised. But if you care, where does this lead? What do you do?
You, of course, cannot do anything. The only people who can are those who sit in parliament and Whitehall, in NATO and the UN. And politics has never seemed more irrelevant, and politicians less trustworthy, than today. You may think there is no alternative to their intervention in Yugoslavia, but this is a far cry from investing political leaders with the ability to put a stop to the horrors of the world. Blair is no Winston Churchill...or even Margaret Thatcher. These are different times.
But has this mistrust of political leaders, this general detachment from the war, led to a powerful anti-war sentiment? No. Because even if nobody thinks politicians can solve the problems, it is taken as given that Somebody should do Something.
Whatever is said or not said about Kosovo, the one phrase that trips off the tongue is 'we never thought we'd see this again'. The imminence of 'another Holocaust' is a fear held across society, unquestioned and unchallenged. The acceptance that there might, as the papers insist, be another Holocaust in the making has brought with it a set of imperatives that overrides all other doubts. If it might happen again, somebody has to stop it. And if there is no alternative to Blair and crew, the task has to be down to them.
Blair's war may not bring the national devotion of the Second World War or the Falklands, but nor will it attract the opposition that greeted Vietnam. All it brings is acquiescence, with a sour taste in its mouth.
Meanwhile in Russia
On the streets, in the shops, in taxis, on buses, in bars and cafes: everywhere that I encountered ordinary Russians, conversation was buzzing with opinions about the war.
'Russia is a poor country and we can't afford to get involved in Yugoslavia', said Gulnara, a 24-year old mother. But 32-year old Rafkat was in favour of assistance, whatever the cost. 'The Americans are the aggressors. Clinton is causing the conflict to take attention from his own scandals.'
Students seemed particularly surprised that Western agencies - usually promoted as democratic and peacekeeping in the Russian press - were so keen on military solutions. Maria, a sociology student, said: 'The Albanians should be free to do what they want but their alliance with NATO is encouraging a war instead of trying to get a solution.'
Rustem, a factory worker, felt that more was at stake than resolving the existing conflict: 'I think when they have finished with Yugoslavia, the next country could be Russia.' Zulya,
a postgraduate student, said: 'If they can do this to the Serbs, they can do it to anybody - any country. The world could easily slide into another world war.'
Don't mention it
In April, opinion polls claimed that around two-thirds of the British public supported the war. But for punters in the pubs, there were more pressing things to talk about
Easter Sunday lunchtime, in the public bar of an old working-class pub in Manchester, with bitter at £1.10 a pint. As the tempo of the NATO air strikes was being stepped up, the battle which mattered to most of the drinkers here was on the domino table, and the only stakes they were aware of being raised were the £2 side-bets. In two hours of drinking among these men, some of them of a generation forged in the Second World War, nobody mentioned Kosovo once among the banter about football, greyhounds, work, drink driving offences and the pros and cons of Irishness. When I asked one bloke - 'Labour all me life' - what he thought of what the government was doing, he started ranting about what they are doing to the local hospitals. No doubt most of them would have supported NATO if asked by a pollster. But the hot war in the Balkans was not exactly foremost in their thoughts on that warm Bank Holiday weekend.
'That kind of violence is just not on.' The elderly punter in the Greengate pub in London E13 was talking about Dennis Wise biting Elena Marcelino during the Chelsea v Mallorca game. Other topics of conversation included Robbie Williams ('He's having another bad patch, but he's a good lad and will make a comeback'); the TV interview with the five men acquitted for the murder of Stephen Lawrence ('There was something sinister about them' was the general consensus); and the National Lottery ('I had the first three numbers last week and nearly had a heart attack'). People were talking animatedly about the news - but not about the war.
In the JD Wetherspoons pub on Farringdon Road, music and TV are barred so that people can chat to each other. On this Thursday evening, the conversation among suited city employees was - guess what? - work, and the approaching weekend. War seemed to be the last thing on people's minds: especially for the young couple who sat, determinedly snogging, from when we arrived until we finished our third pint.
Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999