I spent three years as a student at Cambridge and never did so many things. I never visited the Fitzwilliam Museum. I never went inside King’s College Chapel. And I never visited Madingley American Cemetery. I soon put the first two right and have been back to both many times since I left college, back in 1967, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I visited Madingley, together with friends from the Wisbech Society. And I’m so glad I went. I won’t say it was fun, because it was more than that; far, far more.
When we arrived it was overcast and windy, but slowly the sun won out and the weather improved. We got out of our mini-bus and slowly climbed the hill up to the great flagpole, flying the Stars and Stripes. It still felt strange to look up at what is essentially a foreign flag. Then we all turned round and there was a spontaneous silence as we were confronted by thousands of white crosses, below which was the grave of a dead person. Each cross carried the person’s name, rank and date of death and I couldn’t help but notice how many airmen died on certain dates in 1942 and ’43 – presumably on those vast thousand bomber daytime raids. And of course heaven alone knows how many crosses they left in their wake in Germany.
Beyond the crosses the land sloped down to the flat fields of the Fens, which spread for about forty miles, across to the Wash and the North Sea. It’s a landscape I know intimately and love dearly, but yesterday afternoon those crosses transcended everything – and, don’t worry, I’m not about to spout stuff about ‘the price of freedom’, or other clichés, but they brought home to me what it means to be human. You can’t avoid inconsistency and lack of logic. Mankind’s world is an irrational place. War is Hell and war is wrong, but sometimes you have to fight to prevent insanity taking over. That’s why those brave men and women died and the evil they fought was clear to all.
But the times we now live in have changed: threats and evils abound, but they are all different and require different answers and different solutions. Grand-sounding concepts like the War on Terror are totally misguided and will achieve nothing, other than to drive desperate people to greater levels of craziness and extremism. When I looked at those crosses I realised that the lessons of history are all-important. Nothing, but nothing, matters more. And if we close our eyes to them, we will be creating vast fields of crosses that would extend to the horizon, and beyond.