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The illusion of control


The illusion of control

The solution to venereal disease during the first two world wars was not condoms but the promotion of abstinence. This has parallels to how we now view drug-taking by young people, says Peter Kelly


Many people would say that World War Two was Britain’s finest hour. Defeating a fearsome and evil enemy, saving the continent of Europe from fascism.

But anyone who thinks the war was fought flawlessly without a degree of incompetence and ineptitude would do well to read Command – How the Allies Learned to Win the Second World War by the comedian Al Murray. Murray studied modern history at Oxford and he writes about the war in such an entertaining, engaging and informative way.

Britain was wholly unprepared for the war and made loads of blunders at the start. Dunkirk was a disaster, as was the battle of Crete. For some reason, reading the book really got me thinking about the pandemic.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses and believing the leaders of the past were always prepared, decisive and competent but it is never true. When people look back to World War Two, they don’t think of the mistakes, they think of the victory and I believe in time when the details of the pandemic disappear from memory, it will be looked back on as a success.

There really was no guarantee that we would get through the pandemic. The social order could have completely broken down. The vaccine’s development may have taken much longer. The roll-out of the vaccine may have been botched. So many things that went right could have gone wrong.

That is not to say that things did not go wrong and that we should not be open to examining what happened and being better prepared for the next one. But overall, I think it will be looked back on as a success like World War Two is now.

Leadership is hard and you probably need a bit of arrogance to be a leader. A humble person who never gives an opinion outside their area of expertise may not be much use to you when dealing with a crisis that has no precedence in living memory. Could the generals of World War Two give the ministers of the pandemic a run for their money in a ‘who was more arrogant’ contest?

The most eye-opening and interesting part of Murray’s book for me is the information he sheds on venereal disease (VD) during the wars. During the First World War, there were 416,891 hospital cases for VD. Anyone who thought anti-vaxxers were annoying during the pandemic would have really struggled with the general consensus towards condoms during World War Two.

The army had a massive problem with VD but it could not be seen to promote a simple solution that could have easily solved their problem. They could not issue condoms as it would have caused moral outage.

The solution to VD was not condoms but the promotion of abstinence. This for me has parallels to how we view drug-taking now by young people. Education and the promotion of abstinence is favoured over the implementation of harm reduction policies.

The illusion of control is favoured over maximising safety for an activity that will always have a degree of inherent risk but an activity people find alluring to the point where the promotion of abstinence is never really realistic.

Enter Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery. Monty was a war hero. He led the allies to many battle victories during World War Two. Monty was famous for being arrogant and unlikable. He lacked diplomacy and tact when dealing with others but this directness made him a great military leader.

Once asked to name three generals he admired, he said the other two would be Alexander the Great and Napoleon. So, we can see the man certainly did not lack confidence. Monty is celebrated as a great military man. He predicted Dunkirk would be a disaster and trained his men for a tactical retreat.

He led the allies to victory at the second battle of El Alamein. He played a key role in the invasion of Sicily and Salerno in Italy. He commanded all the ground forces in the invasion of Normandy. And he later accepted the surrender of all German forces in Denmark, northern Germany and the Netherlands.

I believe the NHS should also celebrate Monty as a great champion of safe sex. In 1939, he wrote a letter where he basically said that military personnel should be spoken to openly and honestly about women, sex and VD. He basically said that if a man wants to get with a women, let him do so but encourage him to do it safely using condoms and taking precautions against getting infection.

The letter was scandalous and he got a good telling off for his troubles but you have to say in hindsight he was spot on. There will always be opposition to the healthiest scientific solutions and there will always be arrogant leaders who gets some things right and some things wrong.


Peter Kelly is a community pharmacist based in London and a stand-up comedian.


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