If you're older than 35 or so, you probably have vivid memories of the Falklands war. There was the emergency debate on a Saturday in which Michael Foot sounded like Winston Churchill, and no wonder: if the Argentine air force technicians had set the fuses on their bombs properly, he would have become prime minister. There were those strange press conferences given by the foreign office spokesman, Ian McDonald, whose voice and delivery seemed more appropriate to a pathologist in a German expressionist horror film. Even the good news sounded tragic.
I've got even clearer memories of the beginning of the Gulf war. (It's funny how that trips off the tongue now: the Gulf war. It's just another of those wars that appear in lists with dates that GCSE students have to learn.) My brother rang me up to tell me the bombardment of Baghdad had started. We put dressing gowns on and went downstairs and watched that blurry firework display live on CNN.
People got quite frightened, even in Britain and America. Sylvester Stallone cancelled his appearance at the Cannes film festival because he was worried something might happen. Wouldn't it be fun if suddenly people in movies behaved the way they do in real life? If suddenly, when the hero jumped out of his car, he actually locked it and then had to go back because he couldn't remember whether he had left the window wound down? Or if, when the hero phoned someone, he had to look the number up? Or if John Rambo was offered some horrendously hazardous mission and responded: "I can't do that. It sounds much too dangerous. I'd almost certainly get killed or at least badly hurt. Haven't you got anything safer for me to do?"
The point I'm working my way around to is that the beginning of the air assault on Serbia didn't feel anything like that. Obviously there were news flashes and prime ministerial and presidential addresses, but I'm not surprised people were ringing up during Clinton's broadcast and asking when normal service would be resumed. There'd been all that Monica stuff for months and months and now here he was again. And the rest of it is familiar as well. The first time we heard John Simpson broadcast from inside a city that we were bombing it seemed amazing, but we're used to that now. We've seen Tony Blair using his extremely serious expression before. It wasn't that long ago that he last explained why rocket attacks were so necessary and would be so effective (except that it turned out they weren't).
You could tell the slightly dubious status of this new military action by the list of people the Observer rang up for a 50-word comment. There was an expert on Kosovo and the Oxfam manager for Eastern Europe, of course, but also Max Clifford, Howard Marks and Julie Burchill. I was trying to think of a parodic list of people who might be phoned up for comments - Chris Tarrant, Carol Vorderman, Barbara Windsor, Nicholas Parsons, the Two Fat Ladies - but even as I type them out, they all seem plausible enough. It's hard to think of anyone who isn't. Mass murderers, maybe. I haven't yet seen Peter Sutcliffe's view on the Balkan conflict, but I don't see many newspapers, so maybe I missed it.
Tam Dalyell commented that "it is wrong to interfere in ethnic conflicts unless we are prepared to do the same in, say, Rwanda or East Timor". But we did interfere in both conflicts. In Rwanda we - or at least, the UN - imposed a ceasefire, which allowed those committing genocide to regroup. And in East Timor we weren't actually killing the insurgents ourselves, but the Indonesian army was using equipment we had sold them. Or doesn't that count?
I wonder if the current conflict will be dignified with a name, like the Falklands war or the Grenada invasion, or whether it will be one of those unclassifiable events like the disastrous exercise in Somalia in which the only thing anybody remembers is the dead body of an American serviceman being dragged behind a car.
"War" doesn't seem the right term any more. It suggests vast Napoleonic battlefields with armies lining up in ranks, not this new world of arms exports, ethnic conflicts and sudden, arbitrary interventions and withdrawals, in which the lives of our soldiers are precious and those of their civilians are limitlessly expendable. What about "New War"?