What is war?

What is war?

Saint-Exupery wrote a slim, subtle stream-of-consciousness account of a futile aerial reconnaissance flight over enemy occupied territory which he had a one in three chance of surviving.  His thoughts flow between philosophical meditations on war, peace, life and...
Of time and trees

Of time and trees

Saint-Exupéry shows starkly how war changes the calculus on a sixpence. Trees which have been nurtured and enjoyed for hundreds of years, slowly expanding their beneficient presence through seasons of growing, suddenly become a momentary obstacle to a minute piece of...
What is peace?

What is peace?

This is Saint-Exupéry’s definition of peace, in which everything is in its place and friends can be reached, particularly striking when contrasted with his musings on the nature of war.  It comes from a slim but powerful book recounting a single reconnaisance...
Sun-darkening arrows

Sun-darkening arrows

Describing the shower of arrows at Thermopylae falling so thick and fast that they blot out the sun’s light.  Leonidas, the Spartan king, fell with his men after a path around the pass they were defending was betrayed to the Persians.  But for that betrayal it...
Long-somnolent border

Long-somnolent border

In the absence of functioning treaties or other guarantees of peace, let us pray for long-somnolent borders that they may remain in blissful turpitude.  I singled out this triologism a month or two before a ‘long-somnolent border’ woke up to the sound of...
No post and plenty of censorship

No post and plenty of censorship

We don’t know how lucky we are, having access to many forms of communication, electronic or postal, and being free of censorship.  Here Stefan Zweig describes the conditions in which he had to write The World of Yesterday, a moving, lucid account of his world...
War in all its gory

War in all its gory

Steinbeck met a number of people in the Soviet Union who had survived the worst depredations of the Second World War, including the battle for Stalingrad. Here he captures a grim snapshot of unforgettable trauma. ‘They spoke of horrid things they could not...
Of time and mind

Of time and mind

A beautiful story about a Jewish school teacher in a town subjected to Nazi massacre. Rosenthal defends his right to commit suicide if life becomes unbearable. Time, and approaching fate, have worn him down, but his mind retains its sovereignty, visible through the...
The mule and the mare

The mule and the mare

Listening time: under 3 minutes Grossman writes with great empathy of animals and their experiences. Here an Italian mule, requisitioned to the war effort and finding itself transported to a boundless Russian plain, is hitched up to a cart alongside a mare. The two...
War wounds

War wounds

Listening time: 4 minutes.Among the warm-hearted and even funny accounts of people they met in the Soviet Union, this searing observation by John Steinbeck stood out, concerning a young girl apparently unhinged by the effects of war. Her near-feral and watchful...
Church bells and cannon fodder

Church bells and cannon fodder

If swords can be beaten into ploughshares, the reverse is also true, and church bells can be melted down as iron fodder for cannon.  Here, a historical novel concerned with the 19th century Austro-Hungarian empire reminds us of this miserable transmogrification. A...
Going on a date

Going on a date

The photographer Robert Capa, known for some of the most iconic war photos of the 20th century, explains how unmissable a date with an invasion is for a war correspondent. I liked the analogy. Capa was killed in action when he stepped on a mine at the age of 40....
Why fight?

Why fight?

Rory Stewart’s trek across Afghanistan allowed him to meet some colourful characters.  Here he questions one of them to understand why he took up arms, first against the Russians and then against the Taliban. It boiled down to fending off unwelcome interference...

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