The urge to launch wars quickly – and be seen to win them decisively – is an alarming impulse of our modern governments
For a country that has been at war almost non-stop for the last decade and a half, Britain finds it strikingly hard to stay level-headed about how its wars are going. Less than a fortnight ago the word “stalemate” was still being used in British newspapers’ Libyan conflict coverage; now Britain’s limited contribution to the Nato operation there is widely seen by the press as a major foreign policy triumph. The same manic progression from pessimism to optimism, and sometimes back again, has been the British media response to all our recent major military campaigns, from Iraq to Kosovo to Afghanistan.
In 2001, apparent victory in the last prompted a memorably reckless piece of political point-scoring by the Sun. “Shame of the Traitors” was the headline over an extra-long leader in the paper the day after Kabul fell to the British-backed Northern Alliance. Rounding on the Guardian, the Independent, the Mirror, the New Statesman and “the left” in general, the Sun gloated: “The wobblers said we couldn’t win the war before the winter snows set in. They were wrong! They said there would be hundreds – or even thousands of allied deaths … They were wrong! They said the Americans were bombing thousands of innocent civilians … They were wrong!” Ten years on, that crowing sounds excruciatingly hasty. It also sounds dismally parochial: a brutal civil war, with big international repercussions, reduced to a Fleet Street squabble.
Wars are complicated; their outcomes often unpredictable – especially in faraway countries of which we know little. And since making peace with our European rivals in 1945 and withdrawing from almost all our colonies in the 50s and 60s, it has been in distant, unfamiliar places that we have fought. Bellicose British journalists who opine about such conflicts from a safe distance, judging in an afternoon the merits of the Kosovo Liberation Army or Libya’s National Transitional Council, and the justification and best military tactics for siding with them, ought to be more careful.
It’s hard to see that happening. The British press generally prefers certainty to caution and nuance. Decades of cutbacks in reporting from abroad, driven by recession, the digital erosion of newspaper profits and, quite possibly, a growing national introversion, mean the foreign context for our military interventions feels in ever-shorter supply. In Libya, who are the key anti-Gaddafi protagonists? What do they really want? What is the exact balance between secular and religious forces? Only the keenest students of the last six months’ Libyan coverage are likely to know.
But the cartoonishness of modern British civilian discourse about war can’t just be blamed on journalists. There is also a more pervasive and steadily growing ignorance about war and military life in general.
The bombing of Britain during 1939-45, the last time British civilians suffered war on a mass scale, is now, for most of us, almost ancient history rather than raw, living memory. I find myself pointing out the German shrapnel scars on the front of my house in north-east London to visitors as little more than a bit of local colour. The number of ex-second world war servicemen – the youngest are in at least their mid-80s now – is shrinking fast. Even national service ended almost half a century ago, and with it mainstream Britain’s experience of rainy parade grounds in Wales or nervy anti-guerrilla operations in Africa and Asia. In 1944 there were 4.5 million Britons in uniform; last year, according to the Ministry of Defence, there were less than 180,000.
I come from an army family, but I don’t regret this demilitarisation of British life. No country is threatening to invade us; as in most healthy liberal democracies, our armed forces ought to be small. They are about to get smaller still: tomorrow, 2,000 servicemen are expected to receive redundancy notices, the first of an anticipated 22,000 over the next four years as part of the coalition’s defence cuts.
This scaling-back has not been accompanied by a lessening of British civilian interest in soldiery but almost the opposite: a sort of public and political crush on the military – as if servicemen were like firemen, but even more daring and in khaki. In his book, Blair’s Wars, John Kampfner reveals that as prime minister, Tony Blair “would talk to his closest aides about his ‘huge respect for these guys [in the services]’. He would privately contrast their expertise with ‘amateur’ politicians.” Margaret Thatcher, another prime minister who had never served in the forces, had a similar epiphany during the war in the Falklands.
By contrast Denis Healey, a distinguished second world war veteran, once gleefully told me a story of typical services bodging and bureaucracy. At one stage during the war, he remembered: “I was sent to replace a drunken bombardier as a railway checker on Swindon station. In the blackout, it was very difficult to count the number of soldiers getting on … so I made [it] up.” Fearful of being found out, Healey approached a fellow-counter at the station to compare figures. “I found he made up his too.”
In the 60s and 70s, the military anti-hero was a staple character of hugely popular TV shows and novels, such as Dad’s Army, M*A*S*H and Catch-22. Nowadays Andy McNab’s macho SAS memoirs sell in Britain in seven-figure quantities. With British war reporting increasingly reliant on journalists embedding with soldiers, with all the restrictions on movement and perspective that implies, the heroic version of soldiering is less and less frequently challenged. Meanwhile the British peace movement, while still capable of occasional great mobilisations such as the 2003 anti-Iraq war march, has, like the left in general, lost much of its broader everyday influence since the early 80s.
The result is a country that goes to war too easily – with usually only a handful of MPs seriously examining, let alone opposing, our military interventions before they happen – and is too impatient for victory. Since 9/11, the long anniversary season of which is already upon us, the urge to justify and launch wars quickly, and to be seen to win them decisively, has become a central impulse of British government – an impulse that would, most likely, alarm the actual war veterans who governed Britain from the 20s to the 70s. Even after the grinding, inglorious campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, David Cameron did not struggle to find backers here for his Libyan adventure.
So far he has avoided sounding triumphalist about the outcome. But it may only be a matter of time, especially if the outcome becomes more definitive-seeming. The Conservative party’s annual conference is coming, and the coalition’s domestic policies have yet to demonstrate that they are working to enough voters. A defeated British bogeyman such as Gaddafi, and a demonstration of British expertise: the supposedly vital role played by our “special forces” in the rebel capture of Tripoli. Such patriotic themes may be irresistible for a steadily more unpopular prime minister.
National decline may be becoming a general preoccupation for the first time since the 80s. But too many of us still think that at least Britain is good at war. Expect to see books on the liberation of Libya in the shops in time for Christmas.