Defending Britain

Conservative scribblers across the English speaking world looking for a tired witticism never wait long before moaning about defence – ‘why can’t we be honest, why can’t we call it "Attack"? Why can’t we bring back good old-fashioned names for army departments like the "War Office"? Let’s stop being so PC and let’s start being honest‘. That sort of thing you’re bound to have a read a million billion times, and, as with just about every right wing cliché under the sun, there’s a grain of truth there: it is useful when things do what they say they will, and in the past there does seem to have been less mewling cant than there is in public rhetoric today. A running theme of the Tory press in Britain at the moment is that we’re, apparently, ‘poorly equipped for war‘ which is honest as far as it goes, but not hugely useful, for it leaves out, why war? Why this war? And most importantly – and you know it’s important because dead Germans have been droning on about it for a tediously long time – what is the point of war? The point of war is the health of the state, as so many writers on this site will insistently tell you. However, if one has a less jaundiced view of the state than my libertarian brethren, the point’s there to be made that, all too often the war party doesn’t, qua war, have the best, the true interests of the state at heart. In other words, even if you love the beast, the best way to serve it isn’t by starting irresponsible wars.

There’s no doubt that Conservative politicians and pundits having a slash at the British government over our current level of military preparedness have a point. Indeed, they have a huge volume of anecdotal points (which they would find to hand if they examined any other military at any other time, because the military means waste).

Take your pick – there’s the small matter that we have some quaintly Marxist trades unions in this country, and one such, those representing an unhealthy proportion of firemen, intend a national strike starting this evening. Thanks to the ‘health and safety’ tyranny afflicting modern Britain, God knows what will end up being cancelled, which isn’t an entertaining prospect for the Government. They could, especially if they wanted to rip up a raft of bogus European legislation to do with ‘workers’ [sic] rights’, ban trade unions in the public services, or they could allow them but simply make strikes illegal. I dare say the keener eyed libertarians out there can come up with plenty of market based solutions to the fact of state-monopoly provision of fire fighting services (you’ll even be able to point insightfully to the eighteenth century, always the eighteenth century with libertarians) that deals with these troglodytes and their 40% pay increase blackmail. Anyway, the point is, we’re gearing up for a war in Iraq (why? I don’t know) which is a big ask for Britain, but to supplement the striking firemen the government’s going to do what it always does, and use service personnel instead. Which is bad news for warships and divisions stripped to accommodate this need.

Then there’s the Navy’s engaging habit of tussling with various bits of the planet defiantly protruding near sea-level; to date the tussling warships have come off worst, but where there’s a will, there’s hope. One destroyer, HMS Nottingham, came a cropper off Australia, sailing cheerfully, up until she struck the rocks, about the Tasman. Now I’d love to see a working defence relationship between us, Australia, and the terrifying menace on the other side of the Tasman (New Zealand since you ask), not least since it might go some distance to freeing them from American clientelage, but until then, the thought does occur, why on earth, with our niggardly surface fleet in the state it’s in, do we have warships patrolling the Tasman? Because it’s nice? You’d have to wonder. Another gem was the nuclear boat Swiftsure, one of those juicy cold war relics, a hunter killer, with neither ships to hunt, nor inclination to kill if all that babyish fuss over the Belgrano is anything to go by, which managed to run aground. Those Tory bores looking for a stick with which to beat the regime reached eagerly for this one, for guess what, there was a trainee at the helm. Grown ups, realists, service dullards, anyone like that could have pointed out, uh, that’s why the armed forces you boast about so often are as good as they are – there are no namby-pamby get-outs when you’re being trained by the senior service.

I remember one friend at university telling us the heart-warming tale of how his brother had been (the very junior) duty officer on the carrier Invincible a few years after the first Gulf War, as I suppose we’ll soon have to learn to write, and how he managed to scrape a few barnacles off her hull by taking a rasher route than normal through the mildly contentious straits of Hormuz. But that’s service life for you, a bit of risk’s entailed. Not that this seems to be an easy thing for British hacks to accept.

In one of those little ‘axis of evil’ specials designed to remind us that there’s more to this war without end than just Iraq you know, we’ve recently been told about those pesky Ruskies and their naughty helping of the vile Iranian. Precisely they’ve been helping extend the range of Iranian missiles, that will, get this, ‘put Israel and the whole of the Middle East – including British and US forces in the region – within its reach’. ‘Big tickle’, you might well exclaim, or alternatively, ‘so what?’ If Israel’s got a problem with other countries gaining the sort of weaponry she already has, let her deal with it, it’s not as if she doesn’t have the means. So ‘big deal’ might very well be your conclusive retort, save for that bit about our precious boys. Well, the report in question helpfully supplied a map of where these missiles could hit, if fired (always a pertinent factor I think, what with ‘missiles don’t start wars, Weekly Standard op-ed writers do’) and to hit serious, long-standing concentrations of our military we’re looking at Cyprus. I’ve no problem with us being there, but let’s face it, it’s our choice. Moreover, Cyprus? Between you and me, whatever slight chance there is that Iran decides to fire first – after all, we surely don’t have any problem with them firing second, in self-defence? – they’re going to pick Cyprus? Leave it out: this is one of these non-risk risks used to frighten and alarm the British newspaper reading public, and thank goodness exists to soothe and comfort them, and others.

Moving on from that homily, the big problem right wing writers and commentators have with the military, other than their near-total personal disengagement from anything close to military service, is the habit, especially when the right is in opposition, of glorifying the supposed collective wisdom of the military. Or to type out seriously dodgy pieces of reasoning like this:

The implicit bargain in the modernisation of the Army following the end of the Cold War was that while the great, heavy armoured formations would gradually be wound down in the absence of a Soviet threat on the central German plain, they would be more than compensated for by enhanced hitting power of air mobile brigades which are especially suitable for "out of area" contingencies.

This is, of course, the Telegraph getting it exactly wrong. One of the signal glories of life in Britain for several centuries past is that the civil power does not need to treat with its military thus. Governments decide, soldiers obey: this is a good system, it has things the right way round. However encapsulated in that quote are more or less all the deviationist errors of right wing thought on defence you could hope to find. For example, the problem with air mobile brigades we face is that our Apache pilots are not going to receive sufficient training on time to be able to fly the kit already delivered. This is because of the fact that those responsible for providing the training failed to take into account that flying conditions for training differ somewhat in occasionally wet and grey Britain to, oh, the southern United States. Yet this failure is one of the inflexible application of market dogma to places where it shouldn’t apply: the training scheme was so comprehensively mucked up because ‘competitive bids’ were required for something inherently statist, and the private sector company that won the contract couldn’t cope.

There’s any number of other falsehoods we could fuss about, not least the nonsense that we are only now equipping ourself with an ‘out of [NATO] area’ capacity – as the Falklands ought to have demonstrated to those with eyes to see, any credible military can act to the limits of its equipment, all that held us back before 1982 was our foreign policy posture of only concentrating military force in Western Europe, and we know who we have to thank for that decision.

What is most stupid, what reeks of aspirational civilian vulgarity more than anything else, is the implicit idea that there is a static force base Britain ought to maintain – that our military provision, if changed, i.e. diminished, in one field (and it’s hard, even for Conrad Black’s newspapers, to argue that e.g. there are still Soviet tanks in Poland to defend ourselves against) should automatically and mysteriously swell in another, in some bizarre form of compensation. When right wing folk in Britain complain that we appear to have fewer service personnel to play with than we did in 1990, what do they expect, that we should have more? Why on earth should defence spending have increased after the Cold War, bogus farce that it was?

The pro-military boosters have an unfortunate tendency to neglect what the military says when it does venture demi-explicit political opinions. Few Tories can be happy with the fairly fey opinions on the viability of effective counter-terrorism to have emerged from the lips of generals tasked with policing Ulster over the last thirty years. Nor is it sensible to abuse weakling secretaries of state for defence for failing to stand up to the evil Treasury – the only defence ministers in Britain to have avoided becoming catspaws of the service chiefs have habitually been the men who have wanted to make the Treasury’s case for it. Policy has to be the preserve of politicians, and despite what their fanboys in the press might hope for them, to a man the top brass know this and want to keep it that way.

To end on the specific of the under-accounted for war we’re gearing up for in Iraq, the fact of contemplating fighting caused the collapse – Britain had to pull out her detachment, no one else felt able to step into fill the void – of NATO’s ‘ACE mobile force’. In feeble efforts to criticise the government for not spending enough on defence, the standard neo-con tinged line among the British right has been, ‘this has occurred at the very time when the Americans are pressing the Europeans to do more collectively’. First things first, any British Tory, interested in Britain’s national interest, ought to ululate at the fact that this crypto-European army, which Tony Blair was more than willing to mouth support for, has collapsed, as they say, under the weight of its own contradictions. It was a threat to our security, not an adjunct to it: good riddance. But no, for Conrad’s boys, naughty us, we’re, yet again, not doing what the Americans press us to do. Quite how obedience to the whims of Washington defines pursuit of our national interest I will never understand, but there you have it. If we don’t pony up the troops, we’ll lack the ‘influence’. And where would we be without that? Though were, conversely, will we bit if we continue to have it? Purely out of interest, what’s the best case scenario for where our forces-on-the-ground derived influence will leave us, as compared to where we would be if we didn’t have them there?

War for the sake of war, war for the sake of a misapprehended notion of what the sectional interests of the military are, and war with an admixture of anti-Muslim bile, that’s all the right in Britain can do to justify our making war on Iraq. I could do better myself.