Friday, 27 March 2015

War (what is it good for?)

We live in interesting times when it’s possible to say that the Conservative led coalition of the past five years have led us into less armed conflicts than the preceding Labour government.  While Blair’s excursions into the Balkans were done for the right reasons, as was the intervention in Sierra Leone, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were far from as clear cut and, ultimately, have tarnished his reputation.  His legacy stands little chance of being for the social reforms he ushered through, rather two costly, morally debatable, and fruitless conflicts.

The current government have been more timid.  Probably this is partly to do with the complicated nature of coalition politics – although they seem to have been able to steamroller their way through everything else.  And we have to give credit to Ed Milliband for keeping us out of Syria.  If his brother, David, had been leading the Labour Party in 2013 it is hard not to suspect our armed forces would find themselves back in the Middle East embroiled in another complicated conflict where you’re never too sure who the enemy is.

That’s part of the problem with the twenty-first century.  It’s not clear who the goodies and the baddies are.  Not that it’s ever been, but as a boy raised on black and white war comics and simplistic films starring John Wayne as a marine or any number of stiff lipped, firm chinned British actors flying Lancaster bombers, World War Two offered an easy narrative.  The Nazis and other Axis powers were aggressive, power hungry and the SS’ use of skulls as insignia gave a clear idea who was evil. 

I think a lot of the Conservative party have the same hangover of upbringing, but every other war in this history of man has been more complicated than that.  The Arab Spring uprisings initially gave us a clean story that plucky down-trodden citizens armed with twitter in one hand and an AK-47 in the other were throwing off the yoke of oppression all around the Mediterranean circle.  It was easy to send in the Typhoons as air support.  But as Libya continues to tear itself apart, Egypt threatens another bloody coup and Syria begins to resemble hell on Earth the narratives are confused. 

Isis’ sudden emergence as a new caliphate making lighting strikes which defied the nation borders drawn up by a French civil servant in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire defied expectation.  Yes, the despicable actions of its soldiers on unarmed prisoners and civilians shift them towards the baddie side of the spectrum, but we need to recognise how much their existence is our fault.  How much have our follies in the Middle East over the past century given ammunition to the cause?

I first wrote about Putin’s aggression in 2008 so it is particularly depressing to find him still on the agenda seven years later.  But the annexing of Crimea and shadowy supporting of Ukrainian rebels along the Russian border have to be put in the context of the Cold War’s aftermath and the continuing expansion of NATO as an organisation making itself essential to protect the West from the threat it antagonises. 

Still, our withdrawal from the occasional unnecessary armed intervention is a relief as the current government have slashed expenditure on the military to such an extent that we barely have one.  We find ourselves a nation with a new fighter jump jet but the two aircraft carriers which will maximise their effectiveness won’t be operational until 2022, in the meantime they sit in a field somewhere on the mainland.  Our armed forces are de-motivated and verging on the demobbed.  As someone who leans heavily towards pacifism, this is not one of my biggest concerns – although it does seem unfair to send under-resourced and under-supplied soldiers into battle.  If we’re going to have to go to war, I want it to be under circumstances where we have the highest likelihood of success with the minimal number of casualties. 

And yet, here’s the hypocrisy:  we under-resource in terms of conventional forces and continue to invest in Trident.  A missile system we can never use except in an instance of mutually assured destruction.  A deterrent to a threat no-one’s entirely sure is still out there.  A typically Conservative investment which benefits a small number, including themselves.  The claim is that nuclear weapons keep us in the premier league, helps to retain our permanent seat on the UN security council.  This is a fallacy.  For a whole raft of reasons, not least our cowering in the face of difficult decisions, the current government is not seen as an international world leader.  The rest of the world isn’t smiling at us out of benevolence or respect; they’re trying to stifle their giggles.

Nuclear weapons are too dangerous, the margins for error too tiny.  The 1962 Cuban missile crisis is usually referred to as the closest we came to mutually assured destruction.  Most will cite the gamesmanship and political acumen of both Kennedy and Kruschev for averting disaster.  Not many know that had submariner Vasili Arkhipov not disobeyed orders to launch a nuclear torpedo, then the chances of us being here today are slim.

The Tories traditionally sell themselves as military men, always men.  Along with the economy, they have liked to paint themselves as safe hands, as keepers of the imperial flame, their ranks littered with former soldiers, sailors and airmen.  Paddy Ashdown stood out as an anomaly, a major politician with an armed forces’ past not joining the Conservatives.  Maybe it’s a generational thing, but the current crop doesn’t seem to have the same natural instincts to grab a rifle and order someone else to storm the barricades. 

However, military types still lurk at the edges.  Cameron may be in need of special forces ministers to launch a Save Dave campaign while he’s losing a strategic hill to Age UK’s boos and heckles, the only social group over than the nauseatingly rich this government has actually helped, but others around the country are striking decisive action.  Afzal Amin cited his army background, his inherent skill at divide and conquer, in seeking to justify his attempts to get the English Defence League to threaten staging a rally in Dudley, which he would then talk them out of.  A scheme of ludicrously Scooby-Doo stupid that even the monumentally moronic leader of the EDL, Tommy Robinson, thought it was daft and shopped him to the cops.  Would you really put these people in charge of a kettle much less a government department?

When I was a young boy I wanted to join the army.  A ridiculous idea, in retrospect.  I was short and tubby with little athleticism.   I may have grown up tall, relatively scrawny and with good stamina, if nothing else, but I also abhor violence.  I was swayed, at the time, by what I saw as heroism.  It was the fault of all those war comics, John Wayne’s wink and actors’ square chins, who had probably seen it for real their own active service, stoically going down in black and white glory.

War is not glorious.  The armed forces are full of heroes, but they’re also full of broken, traumatised men and women who can no longer cope with the horrors humankind is capable of inflicting on each other.  The data suggests that the twenty-first century is proving to be uniquely peaceful, but that’s not telling the real story.  Nations rarely sweep across borders in petty moments of ego driven mania – Russia aside – but wars feel more protracted, more all encompassing and more destructive. 

It’s a long limp to hell, just like the end of the Liberal party, no matter what Nick Clegg thinks. 

Clegg may persevere with the idea that Liberalism is alive and well in British politics and there is no arguing with the back from the brink work done by him, Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown.   Down to five members in 1957 and led in the seventies by a closest homosexual who may, or may not, have murdered his male lover, it is a remarkable turnaround to be the junior member of the coalition with 62 seats, but make no mistake: the compromises forced upon it mean that this is no party of traditional liberalism.

Liberalism has been disappearing over the horizon ever since David Lloyd-George staged his coup in 1916 against HH Asquith.   Asquith had become increasingly muddled and desperate as the First World War dragged on.  Trapped in indecision as every wrong move led to greater piles of bodies on the battlefield his inertia was crippling the country.  He was a man more suited to the gentle, innocent peacetime of the early century when he could indulge in his preferred habits of glamorous parties and feeling up the ladies.  

Lloyd-George, on the other hand, self-styled himself as a human dynamo.  He was a walking, talking ego who ousted Asquith by pushing through a war committee, which he chaired, and that quickly turned into a cabinet.  He led a coalition government for the remainder of the war and called a snap election after the armistice.  His decision to field a national coalition government on the ballot was a triumph which swept him back into power, but a disaster for the party.  The Conservatives took the majority of the seats in 1918, but the Liberal Party split in two, Lloyd-George’s coalition pragmatists versus Asquith’s loyalists.

Asquith lost his seat and returned a mere 39 MPs, many of which defected to the coalition, but steered by a Conservative weight on his back Lloyd-George fudged much of the next four years.  The 1922 election again saw two Liberal parties fielded, led by the old adversaries, and both were over-hauled by Labour, never to return to the front of the political pack.

It remains to be seen whether Clegg’s affair with the Conservatives over the last five years has done lasting harm to the party.  Many of their supporters will feel betrayed that they voted Liberal Democrat to keep the Conservatives out, but instead helped them to a working government.  Remember, tactical voting is a dangerous game; like all battles it depends on the bravery of the foot soldiers as well as the genius of the generals.

Politics can be a noble profession, but perhaps it should not be a heroic profession.  Or, at least, not in the way my ten year old brain imagined heroism.  It is not about self-sacrifice against insurmountable odds, about lobbing a last gasp hand grenade and bugger the consequence, about defeating the opposition and subjecting their supporters to the economic equivalent of marshal law.  Politics should not be divisive.  It should be collaborative and inclusive, about having the best ideas and bringing the majority of people along with you.  Politicians need to remember that and leave the machismo at home.

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