Pegasus Bridge in Normandy proved to be a turning point in the war, and is now a memorial site. Photo: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo
Earlier this month, on the 78th anniversary of the D-Day Landings that drove the Germans out of France and began their defeat in the west, I read Pegasus Bridge by Stephen E Ambrose. I read the book in a day, a rare feat for me. It was gripping, describing how the first action of the D-Day Landings took place just after midnight, in the early hours of June 6.
It was a formidable achievement carried out by British paratroopers to protect two bridges over the Orne in Normandy that, if blown up, would have exposed the landings’ eastern flank.
I had bought the book a few years back when one summer I visited Pegasus Bridge and the café, the first liberated building in France. I had breakfasted there with my youngest son and Phil Ryan, who helped me start The Big Issue. His father had been a paratrooper in the Second World War.
I had been at Pegasus Bridge for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day Landings, having flown over in a frighteningly small plane from Southampton. It was a stunning experience, but no less moving was my later anniversary visit, again with my son and Phil. And what an extraordinary feeling of joy in the streets around the town of Arromanches, near where the landings took place. Joy at reliving the experience of all those years ago. A friendship with the Normans kindled by memories of the war.
In two years’ time it will be the 80th anniversary, and I wonder, will we be celebrating the biggest event in the Second World War calendar? It is the taking of Pegasus Bridge in the early hours of June 6, 1944 that is considered the finest moment.
How much of our modern world, with its many problems, flows from that war? A war that successfully saw off a belligerent dictatorship but, in the process, created a wide gap between east and west that still lingers in the ether of our everyday politics.
Who would have thought that the price of bread and oil, of many domestic goods, could be so influenced by the war in Ukraine, a result of the division between east and west that had its foundations laid in the Second World War?
Had we lost the war, it may well have put to an end the growing democratisation of the market place that has allowed more and more people to express themselves through their purchases, as well as their votes. The war cut the world into the big chunks of politics that now divide it: Russia, Europe and America, with China hovering and successful. A postwar success that has grown out of the defeat by the Chinese communists of the Chinese nationalists, which would not have happened if it were not for the preoccupation of the west with other things.
For ‘other things’ read the growing antagonism between the ambitions of the east and the ambitions of the west. And the fact that at the war’s end only the US, owning half the world’s wealth, came out wealthier and healthier.
Now we seem to be reliving some of the ambitions of the east to be a force in the world again. And the tragedy of Ukraine is part of the grasp for political power and significance by Russia. Obviously matters back then, in the immediate postwar world, were not completely resolved.
Will we return to a balance of power ever again? For it was the balance of power that kept the big confrontations off the table. The relative peacefulness of the postwar world, with surrogate wars fought between east and west in Korea and Vietnam, hid the calamity of such a divided world.
Interestingly, one of the big arguments against big wars was that we had been so immersed in each other’s commercial life, buying stuff overseas and trading internationally, that we did not need war any more. Globalisation was going to make us so dependent on each other for supply and demand that never again would we lift a gun. Differences within and between nations would be sorted out in the realms of commerce.
Unfortunately, so attractive was the ending of production in the west and its exportation to the east to shareholders of the big companies, that they jumped at it. And of course the customers, the consumers of everyday life products, were attracted by lower prices. Clothes became a case of pushing down the cost to such extraordinary proportions that it turned almost all garments into sweatshop products (watch Greed, not a great film but good on the killing fields of exploitation in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka).
Alas, the poorly thought out potential disasters that could come our way if we export jobs are legion. We can say Brexit, Trump and even Putin grew out of the dangers thrown up by globalisation, as well as its opportunities for increasing consumerism.
The world is now redivided and the west, our west, seems more unstable than it’s ever been in recent time. And politics at home seem ill-prepared for facing up to anything to do with a return stability.
John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.
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