‘When you’ve shouted Rule Britannia, when you’ve sung God Save the Queen, when you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth…’ So wrote Kipling derisively of the domestic cheerleaders of the Boer War. The lines came to mind this week as the Commons again strained at the leash of war. Horrified by the Aleppo atrocities, MPs dug deep into the jaded rhetoric of a superannuated great power.
They vied for abuse to hurl at the Syrian and Russian forces laying siege to the wretched city. There were the obligatory parallels with Hitler. The Tory MP Andrew Mitchell, spoke of ‘events that match the behaviour of the Nazi regime in Guernica’. He wanted a no fly zone and a safe haven. Others wanted ‘action not words’. It was unthinkable to ‘stand idly by’. To a modern MP, something must always ‘be done’, even something stupid like shooting down Russian planes.
The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, replied that he hoped to ‘persuade both sides to have a ceasefire, and work towards a solution’. This bliss would be achieved by ‘demonstrations outside the Russian embassy’. Putin must have roared with laughter.
Not a week passes without some new horror emanating from the vortex of the Middle East. So called ‘wars among the peoples’ are, like all civil wars, distinctively terrible. Cities deaden the impact of an infantry advance. Reckless bombing takes over and accidents happen. Saudi Arabia bombs a funeral party in Sanaa. Russia bombs an aid convoy and a hospital in Aleppo. Western planes bomb friendly troops outside Mosul. There is no appetite for British troops on the ground. All talk is of bombing, intervention lite.
Britain has already contributed enough to Syria’s hell. It helped America create a power vacuum in neighbouring Iraq where Isis could form and flourish. It then encouraged and gave material support to the rebels against Assad in 2012, ensuring that he would need support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. All intelligence at the time said Assad would never back down. Downing Street rejected it and bolstered the opposition. This duly sucked in Isis from Iraq. It is hard to think of a more disastrous semi intervention.
The maelstrom of Aleppo shows yet again the weakness of bombing in trying to defeat a determined army in a big city. Bombs turn ruins into fortresses. Bombs can devastate property and kill those inside it. But as strategic weapons they are near useless. Nato air forces claimed bombing Belgrade would induce Milosevic to leave Kosovo in 1999. Nato’s General Klaus Naumann said afterwards that it merely hastened ethnic cleansing, killing some 500 Serb civilians. Milosevic withdrew only when Nato invaded.
Bombing was going to drive the Taleban out of Kabul in 2001. The northern army did that, while bombs killed some 4,000 civilians. Bombing was going to avoid the need for a ground assault on Saddam in 2003, just as five years earlier it was said to have ‘totally eliminated’ his weapons of mass destruction.
Some 12,000 coalition bombing sorties have been directed at Isis in northern Iraq in the past two years. Tens of thousands of civilians have died in the ‘collateral’ carnage. In Syria, the human rights network estimates that Russian bombs have killed more Syrian civilians than Isis. Last year the Americans bombed an MSF hospital in Afghanistan. Bombs are unreliable. Stuff happens.
As the military historian David Edgerton has argued (in The Shock of the Old), the appeal of airborne weapons to politicians down the ages has little to do with their effectiveness. For rich aggressors against poorly armed foes, they have glamour and immunity to counterattack, and have found new life in so called precision targeting and unmanned drones. In reality they have proved almost useless against fanatical soldiers with mortars and AK 47s. But they look good on television back home. They are ‘something being done’.
The survival of the high explosive bomb as a ‘legitimate’ weapon of war is strange. It is a war crime to disable, maim or poison a victim by chemical or biological means, yet it is permissible to blow them to bits. Dropping chlorine evokes howls of horror. Dropping bunker busters does not. Cluster munitions, the most horrible of delayed action weapons, remain in the arsenals of Nato armies.
A bomb is only as good as its pilot, and the pilot is only as good as his or her intelligence. The bomb may be precise, the intelligence rarely so. Colonel Helen Mirren’s agonised indecision in the film Eye in the Sky suggested a rare sophistication. Not so lucky are all the wedding parties, funerals, markets, blocks of flats and hospitals that were somehow in the way of assumed ‘bad guys’.
The iron truth remains: if you want to shift the balance of power in a foreign state, you should have the courage of your convictions. You invade and occupy with main force, and stay to clear up the mess. Not to do so, to rely on bombing, is macho posturing. Above all it is cruel.
Britain has no dog in any of these fights. So called liberal intervention was famously advocated by Tony Blair in his Chicago speech of 1999, and appended to the United Nations’ concept of a ‘responsibility to protect’ the persecuted and oppressed. It supposedly justified countries such as Britain in aggressive ‘wars of choice’, to set the world to rights. This week’s Commons debate showed the lasting potency of Blair’s vanity, even after the fiascos to which it has led. The former head of MI6 Sir John Sawers even suggested Britain was to blame for Syria, for having ‘vacated the theatre’ — as if it belonged to us.
All nations and peoples have a humanitarian obligation to aid those afflicted by war. That obligation is to relieve suffering, not add to it. It is to aid those trying to comfort war’s victims and offer sanctuary to its refugees. It is not to take sides, guns blazing, in other people’s civil wars. The current disintegration of the Middle East is a tragedy for Islam, but it is not the West’s business. Nor, short of mass invasion, can the West remotely pretend it can stop it. The MPs calling for a ‘no fly zone’ over Syria to stop Russian aggression appear almost to have forgotten that we, too, in support of America, are bombing Syrian targets. Our air strikes may be less brutal than the Russians, perhaps, but they have done nothing to advance the cause of peace. Quite the opposite — just last month, American and RAF aircraft killed 80 Syrian soldiers protecting the town of Deir Ezzor from Isis.
War may still have the best tunes. But British politicians would do better to spend their time organising relief than shouting adjectives, banging drums and dropping bombs.