Matthew Parris

We peaceniks are going to have to pay a heavy price for Allied victory

We peaceniks are going to have to pay a heavy price for Allied victory

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The high-water mark for modish opposition to the invasion of Iraq may this week have passed. Those who, like me, remain unconvinced of the case for war should prepare for a spell of unfashionability.

I write on Tuesday. I do not know whether by the time you read this the Iraqi defence effort will have begun to crumble, but it is very possible that within a week the beginnings of such a collapse will be evident - and we of the peace camp will be thrown on to the defensive. Many in that camp have persuaded themselves that, in the event of war, the case against is likely to be vindicated fast and in an obvious way. They expect the war to be long and bloody, the resistance stiff, and the result a tremendous loss of life.

I remain undeviatingly opposed to war, but accept that a massive raised American fist will often intimidate potential opponents into early surrender. It may do so now, and fast. Those who have prophesied a bloody nose for British and American troops should prepare to be proved wrong.

Let me explain how that may happen. Some of my fellow peaceniks have forgotten that it is not the mind of Saddam Hussein alone we need to read, but the minds of tens of thousands of his forward guard in politics, administration and the military.

Think for a moment about these people. They are soldiers, airmen, police officers, magistrates, civil servants, scientists, small-time politicians, people not unlike you and me. They are not monsters, they are not wicked, and the fanaticism of the regime they serve and fear, though it lies heavy on their lives, does not define their lives. By day they serve the government which employs them, but at the end of each day they return to wives and children, hopes and fears, gardens, motor cars, property and savings. They do not want to die. Put yourself in their place then ask yourself three questions.

First: who do they think is going to win this war in the end?

If (as I submit) the answer is that they guess that, come hell or high water, and after no matter how bloody a struggle, the Americans will triumph, then ask yourself the second question: is the overriding consideration in their minds likely to be the honour of their doomed President, Saddam Hussein, or their own and their families' ultimate fate?

And if (as I submit) your answer is that the overriding consideration will be their own fate, then ask yourself this third question: what, in light of that, would be the most rational course of action for them now?

The answer to that question is surely clear. They should avoid any appearance of disloyalty - this would invite summary execution - but in the most gingerly possible fashion they should sound out the feelings of their comrades. Human beings are very good at this. Without a single head being placed above a single parapet or a word spoken out of turn - often without even conferring - large numbers of people can with surprising rapidity establish that they are of the same mind.

So we should have little doubt that in the days ahead those who staff most of Saddam's civil and military establishments will be trying to think of ways to get out from under a doomed administration. This will hasten its disintegration. Who will bail out first we cannot know. How fast or how suddenly the collapse would come we cannot know - any more than one can know when or in which particular directions a crowd will scatter when charged by a tank. But we do know that they will scatter.

And what about Saddam's own response? He does not strike me as mad. Given a choice between death and a comfortable retirement beside a swimming pool in (say) Mauritania, there is surely a strong chance he will not opt for death. Nor is he likely to give the least indication of his intentions until he is on the aeroplane. He may hold out until all is obviously lost, hoping that the British-American attack will stall. But when he realises all is lost, there is a chance he will fly.

I say 'a chance'. It is a good chance, but no more than that. Sometimes - often - people do fight to the last in hopeless circumstances. Pride, fear, heroism, the blind fury which can come upon any cornered beast do sometimes stifle reason. So I would offer no more than evens on the chance that one or both of the prophecies I have just outlined will come to pass. The whole world, including us peaceniks, must fervently hope so, for thousands of lives would be saved.

But, having given thanks for their salvation, we peaceniks would then have to consider a smaller matter: our own position. For, make no mistake, Tony Blair and his supporters would be merciless with us, and understandably so. Consider what we, or those who think like us, have put him through. But he has soldiered on regardless - and now grateful mobs would be demonstrating in the streets of Baghdad, burning images of Saddam. London and Washington would say that this best imaginable of outcomes could have been achieved by no other means than by pushing Iraq to the very edge of the abyss. They would be right.

How would I reply? I should then anchor my response in two arguments.

The first is very strong, but will cut no ice at all in public debate; in fact, it will sound pathetic. It is the same response we might offer a wayward brother who, against all advice, bet the family silver on a racehorse, at odds of two to one - and won. 'You had no reason to be confident of that,' we would murmur, morally certain that such strictures were fair, but resigned to the fact that they were unlikely to be heard above the popping of champagne corks. That a gamble might have gone horribly wrong tends to be overlooked when it happens to have gone right. 'Ah well,' sigh the wise, 'our advice was sound - and no less sound for being unproven on this occasion.' But few listen.

My second reply points to the anxiety we would feel about our wayward brother's next investment. This, we would fear, will only send him back into the betting shop for an even bigger flutter. I hope Saddam and his administration turn tail now, and believe that they may; but I fear the new confidence this will engender in the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister - and a gathering international storm.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.