Sunday, June 06, 2010

The pity of war

Southern California isn't just nature. UCSD is home to the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, which take on incredibly ambitious things. My parents loved their performance of the Bernstein "Mass" here last year. Today we heard Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" (in its San Diego premiere). It's a piece I've heard once before (in Vienna, with Bryn Terfel one of the soloists). Since then I've been to Dresden, firebombed in retaliation for the blitzing of Coventry (now they're sister cities). I learned in the Catholic Hofkirche that the War Requiem was performed there when it was restored.

Hearing this shattering but in places hauntingly beautiful piece of music here in California in 2010 was a new experience again. It wasn't about the pity of World War II, or even about Europe's bloody 20th century, but about the pity of wars more generally. Steven Schick, director of the La Jolla Symphony, mentioned our own wars in the program, Afghanistan and Iraq. As Wilfred Owens' words were sung I thought of those on the other side of our conflicts. I thought of child warriors in Africa. I thought of a war nobody mentions anymore, which was as trench-fully wasteful of human life in its way as WWI, the Iran-Iraq war.

But what struck me most of all was how absent war is from my consciousness. I know nobody who died in uniform, in any generation: the past generations of my family were by fortunate accident so spaced that nobody was of draftable age in 1914-18 or 1939-45, for Korea or Vietnam ... and more recent wars have been prosecuted without a draft, without bringing the war to each family. I can't really imagine what it would be like to have war experience in the family, let alone to have lost family or friends in wars. I can't really imagine the sense so strong in the aftermath of WWI that many good men, perhaps the best, did not return. That we owe our freedoms to their sacrifice - or (if one follows back the German side of the family) that they died for nothing. "War Requiem," the work of a pacifist, isn't about anything but the senseless loss, and the hope - less believable in 1962 than it is perhaps now - that a future without war might be possible somehow...

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