Max Hastings

Phoney war

Max Hastings says it’s about time our leaders stopped playing political games and accepted that ‘international terror’ cannot be defeated by conventional military means

Max Hastings says it’s about time our leaders stopped playing political games and accepted that ‘international terror’ cannot be defeated by conventional military means

If the leaders of the Western world want to do our security a favour, they could adopt a New Year resolution to economise on the use of the word ‘terrorist’ in their rhetoric. This proposal is based not upon indulgence towards al-Qa’eda or the IRA, but upon the need to think clear-headedly about how best to protect our societies.

Through the ages, Britain has faced enemies of many creeds and nationalities. Today, a mind-boggling weight of verbiage is addressed to the perils posed not by Spaniards or Frenchmen, Germans or Russians, but instead by ‘terrorism’. The danger is real enough, but the definition encourages lazy thinking. ‘Terrorist’ is a woefully inadequate identification. Like ‘infantryman’ or ‘cavalryman’, it merely describes a method of engaging in combat.

‘Terrorist’ is a seductively pejorative label, because it reflects abhorrence. The Germans used it to describe wartime resistance fighters in occupied Europe (and to this day such sages as John Keegan deplore the activities of Special Operations Executive and its brethren because they created unwelcome precedents). The term is unhelpful in encouraging reasoned responses to practitioners of many hues.

Conventional armed forces kill far more ‘innocent civilians’ in the course of pursuing their purposes than any terrorist group has contrived, as many Iraqis, Afghans and Palestinians would testify after experience at the hands of the US and Israeli armies and air forces. Yet most people feel less abhorrence towards the old way of war, because it operates within frameworks of ritual and order with which we are familiar.

It is a cultural conceit of democracies that we take for granted a right to go about our daily lives in peace. We resent a phenomenon which strikes without warning, impelled by groups which lack the legitimacy of nation-states, which do not oblige us with formal declarations of war, or clothe themselves in distinguishable uniforms.

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