It might actually be better if Sir John Chilcot’s report is never published. I for one can no longer be bothered to be annoyed (though I used to be) by the increasingly comical excuses for its non-appearance. We all know the real reason is that the Iraq war was the product of lies, vainglory and creeping to the Americans, but they don’t want to admit it.
I suspect Sir John and his colleagues would be more hurt by a patronising acceptance that they are a hopeless embarrassment than by any more anger. Instead of publishing the report, we could send Sir John home, abandon the whole thing and have another inquiry into why it wasn’t published, also lasting many years. I doubt very much if, when Sir John’s epic actually falls heavily from the press, it will give much comfort to the relatives of the dead, here or abroad. Those of us who can remember Lord Hutton know that those responsible will deceive themselves about the Iraq war, and everything about it, till they die.
I will not believe they have understood what they did until two things happen: when Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the Foreign Office lawyer who resigned in a lonely protest against the illegality of the war, heads the honours list with a damehood and a GCMG; and when Anthony Blair gives every penny he owns to charity, including all those blasted houses, and goes off to spend his remaining years in a Trappist monastery, along with Alastair Campbell, who will be good at helping him keep his vow of silence.
I know perfectly well that justice of this kind happens only in daydreams. And, having opposed the Iraq adventure from the start, I seem to be far more relaxed about it than almost anyone I know, though they all say they were against it now. The strange behaviour of so many sensible people in 2003 could be the real point. It is a Trotskyist fantasy to imagine that Mr Blair is going to be hauled off to the Hague to stand trial for war crimes. And it was a Trotskyist fantasy to imagine that a large march by those who are against any western-backed war, anywhere, ever, would change the government’s mind back in the days of WMD.
The national puzzle is this: why did so many mainstream, reasonable, informed and sensible non-Trotskyist people readily accept the most transparent twaddle as fact? I remember them doing it, even if they can’t. Many of those who did have slight doubts took the odd view that, once it had started, they had to rally to the colours, as if 2003 were 1940 and Saddam really was Hitler. Actually, the more it went on, the more it was everyone’s duty to denounce it and to understand the various follies which caused it.
What we really need is not Chilcot, but an inquiry into how we, the British educated classes (perhaps above all in my trade of journalism), are so easily talked into wars. The overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, one of the greatest politico-socio-economic mistakes of the past 50 years, was wildly popular at the time. Those responsible face no threat of being arrested for war crimes by waiters in fashionable restaurants, as happened to Mr Blair. As for Syria, the speed with which the BBC and most commentators became convinced of the need to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad (most of them having hardly heard of him a month earlier) was astonishing. There’s a similar keenness for worse relations with Vladimir Putin, once again based on a strategic and historical grasp so feeble that it makes me, a jobbing scribbler, feel like a mixture of Metternich and Macaulay.
It is not the weapons of mass destruction and the fake 45-minute warning we need to worry about, let alone the United Nations. It is the weapons of mass self-deception, and the 15 minutes or so it regularly takes to turn the honest British journalist (and his readers) into Churchillian enthusiasts for red war. Somehow we need to find a treatment for Munich Syndrome. This is the belief that all foreign tyrants are Adolf Hitler, that the calendar is permanently stuck at September 1938, and that we in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with the USA, mighty in the cause of freedom.
I blame history teaching, and TV’s relentless obsession with the Hitler era: the current version of the second world war that is still wildly propagandistic and unreflective. When, for instance, I recently researched Britain’s sacrifice of her Empire’s life savings in 1939 and 1940, vast secret shipments of gold and bonds to America until there was nothing left, I was astonished to find how little material there was in mainstream histories. And it is also very hard to find anyone in today’s politics or media who is familiar with the far more relevant story of Suez. This was actually the first outbreak of Munich Syndrome, as poor Anthony Eden, probably unhinged by amphetamines, persuaded himself that Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was Hitler, while he, Eden, was Churchill. It was not so, and the delusion destroyed us forever as a great power. But no lesson was learned. It was first forgotten, then overlaid by the counter-myth of the Falklands, a war we very nearly lost and only needed to fight in the first place because of Margaret Thatcher’s shortsighted and cheapskate defence and foreign policies.
How odd it is for me to say this. I am probably one of the last people living who knows that ‘battleship’ doesn’t mean the same as ‘warship’. I grew up in the thrilling shadow of the Royal Navy. I was taught songs at my prep school so patriotic that they would probably be illegal now, and I meant every word of them as I sang them. I still do genuinely love my country, above all things for being free. I just don’t love costly, dangerous wars of choice.
But it is blatantly obvious to me that this country’s problems began when it started going to war for sentimental, idealist reasons instead of for hard cynical purposes. Lord Palmerston, often wrongly portrayed as a jingo, did his greatest single service to his country when in 1864 he wisely betrayed a solemn promise to Denmark and left her to the mercy of Bismarck and the Habsburgs. Nobody really cared then and everyone has forgotten about it now. If only his successors had had as much sense in 1914, we might still be a great and wealthy power instead of a disarmed debtor nation ruled largely from abroad.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.