The mightiest battleships ever built: Japan’s “Yamato” takes two hits from American aircraft in October 1944 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, in which her sister ship “Musashi” had already been sunk (photo: Time Life Pictures/US Navy/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Last month, in the waters off the Philippines, they found the wreck of the Musashi. Together with her sister Yamato, the pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy, she was the mightiest battleship ever built. In 1944 Musashi sallied forth in the greatest and bloodiest sea battle of the Pacific War, Leyte Gulf. A last-ditch attempt to turn the tables on the Americans, the unequal contest went badly for the Japanese from the outset. Overwhelmed by wave after wave of warplanes from six US aircraft carriers, Musashi took 19 direct hits from torpedoes and 17 from armour-piercing bombs, before she finally succumbed with the loss of more than a thousand men.
The ghostly images of her wreck, found by the American Paul Allen, brought back teenage memories for me. I too had sunk the Musashi—only mine was a scale model 1/500th the size of the original, and she sank in Black Park lake, ablaze with magnesium, while we watched and photographed my battleship’s immolation. Why a youth with no obvious pyromaniac tendencies would enjoy doing such a thing now eludes me. But it was by no means unique for a boy growing up in the decades after ttclauhe Second World War to acquire encyclopaedic knowledge of the armies, navies and air forces of the belligerents of both wars, to make models and play war-games, all without so much as a whiff of cordite. I even painted large murals of the two world wars on the walls of my primary school, complete with portraits of Churchill and Lloyd George. Only once, when the rest of my class suddenly chanted “war, war, war” because I had made one too many references to it, was I made to suffer for my hobby.
Boys like me could afford to treat war as a hobby because we thought we had got off lightly. We children of the 1950s thought of ourselves as “post-war”: too young to fight the Nazis or the Communists, too old to fight the Islamists, we were the fortunate beneficiaries of the carnage that had scarred previous generations. For us, the fascination of past conflict lay in its remoteness from our experience. For half a century the face of battle, in the late John Keegan’s phrase, was averted from our gaze. Now it is we who must avoid the Gorgon’s evil eye. We never thought that the spectre of war would return to haunt our middle age. We had not prepared our own children to fight for what we had inherited. We did not expect to see the survival of Western civilisation at stake yet again in our lifetimes, or in theirs.
The First World War had not proved to be the “war to end all war”, but the Second had come pretty close. The horror of the Holocaust, the containment of Communism, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction: these and other events conspired to deter Nato and the Warsaw Pact from fighting to the death on the plains of central Europe. True, there were many other theatres of war across the continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America; and there was never a year from 1945 to 1989 when localised conflicts, coinciding with and encompassed by hostilities between East and West, did not kill people in their thousands. The Cold War was primarily ideological rather than military: its greatest confrontations were fought out on the chessboard of diplomacy rather than the battlefield. Notwithstanding Clausewitz, however: the politics of the period was a continuation of war by other means.