Joan Bakewell: However terrible, war is attractive to the young

How often are the reminiscences of older people about the wars they knew when they were young?
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The Independent Online

"If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!" I remember smiling indulgently as small children led by some eager young curate clapped gamely at this deep philosophical proposition. It's one thing to be happy and quite another to know it. The one is an unconscious state of being, the other a deeply self-conscious introspection that sends anything as subjective as happiness flying out of the window. But happiness has recently been up for definition and tabulation.

We live in an age of statistics and they are becoming a menace. Whole careers, consultancies, seminars and strategies depend on the rolling out of percentages, increases and decreases, spike graphs and decade-on-decade comparisons. Now they're being applied to happiness. But whereas you can count hospital beds, NHS money spent on drugs and even the length of surgery waiting times, you can't tabulate things of the inner self. They would seem to be ineluctably elusive.

That won't stop the cascade of books addressing the issues of what makes people happy, and to what extent society can and should help bring it. Richard Layard kicked off the current spate last year with his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. There was much fascinating evidence of happiness registering in the left-hand side of the brain, and the influence of oxygen flow. There were graphs, too, that showed how we rated our happiness compared with earlier years. Other books have followed, and now David Cameron has climbed on the bandwagon, putting happiness on his political agenda. Dream on, Dave. Politicians are never going to make us happy. Government policies have a habit of defying those inner needs.

Given the central credo of consumerism that an abundance of good things will tend to make you happy, people express surprise that the West's decade-long avalanche of frocks and fancy foods hasn't got us all clapping with the vigour of those Sunday school children. If anything, people seem more downbeat, burdened with disappointed hopes, spoilt brats on Big Brother screaming their discontents, and entire television series framed round the concept of grumpiness. The agenda of both the media and politics seems to focus on sensitising us ever more to what makes us less than happy.

One mechanism for this is fear. Reports of John Reid's shake-up of the Home Office serve to exaggerate our belief that crime is out of all control. Not a happy state of affairs at all. There is indeed a sudden surge of street crime that frets away at our daily peace of mind. But murder is actually in decline, which should surely make us feel better. Yet we continue to overreact. Fear of child molestation has brought about crazy rules that inhibit the cuddling of a crying child; fear of perverts has stopped many parents letting their child take on a paper round. The manipulation of fear is one way to sway how we rate our happiness.

The greatest of our global fears, alongside natural disasters, is war. War is fear made manifest, the antithesis of all we profess to hold dear. Images of peace - restful landscapes, smiling people, gentle occasions graced by music and beauty - might all figure in some global image of peace, and even of happiness. War is its deadly opposite: turbulent vistas of homes and communities rendered derelict, the human face scarred if not by blood and injury, then by tears of despair, the cacophonous sounds of unpredictable explosions ... every image we loathe and dread. Unhappiness made palpable, beyond statistics, beyond quantifying.

So how does it happen? Why has the human animal, with all its academic insights into brain function and sensibility, with all the political processes charged with maximising human happiness, so consistently arrived at its very opposite: unrelenting warfare? There is a paradox here, and it has something to do with memory. How often and how heartfelt are the reminiscences of older people about the wars they knew when they were young? Many speak of such terrible events as "some of the happiest times" of their lives. One of them, commenting in a recent programme commemorating the Battle of the Somme, all but implied that the loss of 60,000 lives on the first day wasn't wasted because we went on to win the battle.

War appears, in hindsight, to have triggered some thrust of energy and commitment, some surge of adrenalin and loyalty that was lacking in the restful days of peace. Perhaps it is the immediacy of crisis that gives a sense of purpose. But, we know too, from innumerable war memoirs and the legacy of damaged minds, that war is also visceral and brutalising. It strikes at the human heart and turns it black.

War is the human activity most unlike any other: it contains a multitude of experiences and paradoxes. Among which it has to be acknowledged that many young men of tribes across the world enjoy going to war. It "stiffens the sinews, summons up the blood", a call to arms that goes out even now to young men whose job it will be to rain madness and pain on those who don't agree with them. Then, once the events have been swallowed into history, we will commemorate in decorous and peaceful ceremonies acts of barbarity and carnage that defy the imagination.

Today, as we debate and chase the chimera of our own happiness, we are also witness to war that is devastating that of others. How can the two possibly be reconciled?