The greatest sport ever has been overlooked... till now

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The Independent Culture
IN THE 1930s Aldous Huxley broadcast a talk on BBC radio entitled Why Wars Happen. He was telling the world, shortly before the start of the Second World War, why wars happen, and nobody seems to have been listening. I didn't hear it at the time. In fact, I didn't hear it till many years later, when I was working on a BBC programme which took material from the BBC archives and I came across the talk, so I dug it out and became, for all I know, the only person who has listened to it in the last 60 years.

His explanation of why wars happen was simplicity itself. They happen because people get bored. He said this was demonstrable because of the suicide rate. The suicide rate always goes down, he said, during a war, because something more important is going on than the petty affairs of the would-be suicide. And besides, if you commit suicide, you never learn who wins the war. He thought this was not as frivolous as it sounds, because during a war, the suicide rate does not merely dip in the warring nations - it goes down in the neighbouring neutral nations who are looking on.

In other words, war is not just a horrible, vile affair, it is also an engaging spectator sport, as absorbing to the unattached watcher as to the home and away crowd.

I have always remembered this radio talk as a quiet piece of scepticism which sounded convincing but which would probably not bear too much examination. Suicide rate going up and down, depending on war and peace? Hmmmm. So I was quite startled the other day to spot a headline in The Spectator under Theodore Dalrymple's name: "How this war is reducing suicide in Britain".

Could Dalrymple be putting forward the same theory as Aldous Huxley?

He certainly was. Indeed, he said it was more than a theory - it was well-known and generally accepted that wars reduce suicide, and quite observable too. The hospital in which Dalrymple works has had far fewer attempted suicides admitted since the Serbian offensive began, and the same had been true at the time of the Gulf War, though he did admit that the attempted suicides started flooding in again at the time of the cessation of hostilities.

Dalrymple thinks that the Serbian War ( are we calling it the Serbian War yet?) may actually be a Government plot to diminish would-be suicides and thus relieve pressure on the NHS.

What we need now, he theorises, are a few more wars with inoffensive targets to bomb, at little risk to ourselves, to keep pressure on the NHS down. I think he is wrong here. I am sure he is right about the need for war, but I think that what we have always wanted is a few ding-dong minor wars which were not fought by a big side bombing a little side but which were fought between evenly matched forces under well understood rules, with little at stake - in other words, a war with real spectator value.

The Falklands War was the ideal war. It was fought on a neutral site which nobody in their right mind really wanted to win. Both sides desperately wanted to win the war, but nobody wanted the prize particularly - as Jose Luis Borges said, it was a case of two bald men fighting over a comb. But it was the kind of enthralling war that stops depressives reaching for the overdose, and I would be willing to bet that the suicide rate hit rock bottom both here and in Argentina.

The great thing about the Falklands War was that there was virtually no civilian presence and therefore no refugee problem. I am afraid that the way the Serbs are murdering and displacing hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians is making the war a less than satisfactory spectator spectacle - a bit like modern rugby, where it is also hard to tell half the time what is going on.

"There must have been some infringement there," says the commentator, "because someone is getting sent off." "There must have been some kind of massacre there," say the war correspondents, "because half a million young men have disappeared."

But it's not good enough. It will never make a great spectator sport until we start hiring out somewhere like the Falklands as a neutral site for other people's wars, fully equipped with floodlights for night fighting and all the up-to-date media facilities necessary for a modern war.

It needs a man with imagination and resources and energy, with the vision to make war the greatest sport of all time. It needs, perhaps, a man who has recently been thwarted in his efforts to take over Manchester United and who is looking for something else to occupy his empty declining years.

War International?

The Sky War Channel?

I don't see why not.