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Reluctant heroes of our times

When Europeans talk of "peace", they often do so in a parochial sense. So mindful are they of the scale and the effects of the Second World War, any conflict that does not threaten hostilities between European states is shifted to the edge of public awareness. "Peace", then, becomes a function of a distance between ourselves and those elsewhere that is as much mental as geographical.

Conflicts since 1945, the new, permanent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London, shows how much our own, relatively placid post-war times contrast with those of others around the world.

The pearl at the heart of this exhibition is still Britain. There are good displays, for example, on the Gulf war, with much video footage of the ill-fated Iraqi retreat on the road to Basra and spectacular oil-field fires.

But the displays on the origins of the Arab-Israeli wars, the Suez crisis of 1956 and the conflicts that have blighted Africa, were interesting. While information panels tell of 19th-century colonialism and more recent great power irresponsibility, photos show the awful results - massacre, migration and famine - of tribal enmities monitored but seldom mitigated by the world.

The section dealing with the post-war arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union is a little easier to take. The potential consequences of a nuclear exchange is shown by placing the Imperial War Museum at the centre of an aerial map of London. From this point, concentric circles show the likely extent of damage from a direct hit. Anyone less than 10 miles from the core of the explosion hasn't a chance.

This makes the contents of a nearby display risible. Beneath a film of an exploding hydrogen bomb, a TV screen shows the official Eighties film, Protect and Survive, of what to do in the event of a nuclear holocaust. It is a rightly cynical juxtaposition: Government advice on how to build a "safe haven" - suitcases piled on a door against a wall - set against that terrifying mushroom cloud. Though in the shadow of the Bomb, most of the West was officially at peace.

As the section on the Vietnam war shows, the East was different. Clips from the time are shown - a napalm-charred girl running naked towards the camera and anti-war demonstrations. The personal cost of the Vietnam war is shown in letters home from loved ones later killed, and a celebrated picture of a serviceman coming home to his exultant family. It reminds us that, at times of conflict, all most people want is to go back to where they came from.

As one British soldier put it in 1948: "Dear Mum, I am in Bethlehem where Christ was born, but I wish to Christ I was in Wigan, where I was born. "

Laurence Alster

The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ. Tel: 0171 416 5313. Adults Pounds 4.50, students Pounds 3.50, children Pounds 2.25. School visits free if booked in advance

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