Back in the beginning of time, the founders of the Institution chose to make themselves distinct from the military engineers by calling themselves civil engineers, possibly as a result of their pacifist Quaker origins. Today the same differentiation has come back into focus as military engineering plays its part in removing the veins and arteries of Yugoslav civilisation.
There can be few civil engineers who do not wince at the sight of the fallen bridges over the Danube or dread the potential environmental disaster of the burning oil refinery at Pancevo. While we may defer to the logic of the military action and trust in the judgement of our politicians, it seems hard that the work of civil engineers in providing the infrastructure for a society has to be torn out to bring about a solution to the Kosovo crisis. One can imagine the progressive decline in normal activity coupled with the failure of telephone, power and water supplies. Whether this brings about political collapse or inspires for a time a resilient blitz mentality is for others to calculate.
Back in the early days of the Balkan crisis I registered the fighting around Mostar, acutely aware of its beautiful medieval bridge, and was relieved when pictures were shown of it remaining intact. This relief was short lived as its destruction was graphically reported over a number of days. It was a loss for civil engineering and civilisation but in the context of the hostilities, of little consequence.
We put the civil into civilisation, military engineers are helping to rip it out
Mostar once more entered my thoughts as the fighting waned when Whitby Bird was asked by the charity War Child to work on the building of a music therapy centre in the town. This involved one of my partners, Bryn, travelling there. The returning picture was one of total devastation coupled with stories of a divided town where to walk off the beaten track was to risk treading on a landmine. It was impossible to appreciate the scale of the horror but a relief to think that we were doing something to help. The music therapy centre is a place of healing, with the aim of restoring through music the fractured minds of the local children. Music can be very cathartic.
We are often asked what civil engineers actually do and my work on the ICE’s A1 working party was focused on providing a modern definition. ‘Civil engineering is the practice of constructing and maintaining the built and natural environment,’ we decided.
In the context of the war, it is almost possible to see it as the opposite of military engineering. We put the civil into civilisation, military engineers are helping to rip it out. One can now imagine the reasoning of the founders of the Institution as they sought to distance themselves from their brothers.
However, whatever the role of the civil engineer, the process of putting back the infrastructure will be the easiest task in restoring civilisation to the area. The hearts and minds of the population will bear the scars long after the last bridge is rebuilt and the real work will clearly take a number of generations.