War is a serious business, or it would be if we took it seriously. If war was treated with the seriousness it deserves then wars would not be begun lightly on false pretenses. They would have clear and realistic strategic objectives and timescales. They would be based on a very clear understanding of the kind of enemy that was being fought, and their planners would devise appropriate strategies and tactics to defeat the enemy and realise their longterm objectives.
If war was treated seriously, their planners would have contingency plans and be aware of their risks and unintended consequences and weigh up carefully whether these risks were worth the cost in military and civilian lives.
In Britain this seriousness has been absent for some time. Even during 2014’s year of remembrance we preferred to contemplate rivers of ceramic poppies that transform bloodshed, death and mutilation into an aesthetically-pleasing spectacle rather than remember the meatgrinding slaughter of industrialised warfare that might have been far more troubling and far less likely to produce a warm glowing feeling.
And as far as the wars of our own era are concerned, too many of us prefer not to remember anything at all. We like campaigns like ‘Help for Heroes’ that take it for granted that anyone who wears a uniform must be a hero regardless of what they do or the reasons for the war they fought.
For the most part journalists and politicians bow to this cult of the hero and resist asking questions about the wars that bring our troops back in body bags or missing limbs. Instead the contemplation of heroism and sacrifice brings awestruck and reverential silence, in which lying politicians talk empty blather about how they were killed or maimed in order to ‘keep us safe’ or ‘protect us over here by fighting terrorists over there’ when they weren’t doing anything of the kind.
The silence also extends to military failure. Because war, like ‘national security’ is an activity from which accountability is curiously absent at a senior level. Screw up a war or start one without knowing what you were doing or how to achieve whatever you thought you were doing, and very few people will ask you anything about it beyond the usual marginalised suspects, protesters and anti-war types.
If you are a politician who happens to be involved in such wars, like Tony Blair, or John Reid or John Hutton say, you will probably go on to make a lot of money or get a baronetcy regardless of the bad decisions that you took or even because of them, and you will find that most people have conveniently forgotten all about it or never remembered it in the first place.
In the last month of last year, two articles cast a less-than-flattering light on this quaintly British willingness to let auld military acquaintances be forgot and just generally look away when wars go wrong or never went right. The first was James Meek’s devastating analysis of British military failure in the Afghan war in the London Review of Books, which concluded that
‘ the extent of the military and political catastrophe it represents is hard to overstate. It was doomed to fail before it began, and fail it did, at a terrible cost in lives and money. How bad was it? In a way it was worse than a defeat, because to be defeated, an army and its masters must understand the nature of the conflict they are fighting. Britain never did understand, and now we would rather not think about it.’
Not only would we rather not think about it, but the government had the temerity to presented the British withdrawal to the public last year as if it were the successful conclusion to a brilliant campaign.
On the last Sunday of the year, the Observer‘s Will Hutton referenced Meek’s piece in a column that depicted British failure in Afghanistan as a symptom of a ‘national malaise.’ Hutton found the reasons for this ‘malaise’ in ‘right-of-centre ideology’, even though the two wars that he refers to were begun by a supposedly left-of-centre Labour government (emphasis on ‘supposedly’ here folks).
Hutton, like Meek, described the Helmand campaign as ‘a humiliating defeat, the worst in more than half a century and, arguably, ranking with the worst in modern times.’ He excoriates ‘the political and military’s establishment’s catalogue of wholesale mis-statements, dishonesty, betrayal and refusal to acknowledge reality that characterised the whole affair’ and the fact that ‘tough questions were rarely asked – it was the public’s growing horror at its self-evident futility that was the catalyst for the war’s end. The inability to agree to the publication date of the Chilcot inquiry into Iraq is emblematic of the toothlessness of our framework of accountability.’
Can’t disagree with that, though I personally don’t accept that ‘rightwing ideology’ is principally responsible for a failure that is rooted in the longterm imperial nostalgia of the British elite that prefers to shoot first and ask questions later (or send others to do the shooting), in order to demonstrate British ‘greatness’ to the world. I think Meek is closer to the mark when he places the ‘delusional exaggeration of British military capabilities’ within a wider longterm context, arguing that
‘ what began at some point in the 20th century as an unsavoury means to an end – trying to use American military might to leverage the waning British military, with the end of maximising British influence – floated loose of its original aim. Preserving the means became an end in itself. The goal of the British military establishment became to ingratiate itself with its US counterpart not for the sake of British interests but for the sake of British military prestige.’
Harsh truths, but British society needs to drink them down like bitter medicine if we are ever to cure ourselves of an addiction to war that unlike the US, stems from the absence of power rather than the preponderance of the ‘military-industrial complex’.
Otherwise we might find ourselves involved in other ill-conceived wars with vague and unrealizable goals that are likely to produce other disasters.
Oh wait, I forgot. We already are.