Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair's War Policy: Staying 25 per Cent Ahead of the Tories

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Blair's War Policy: Staying 25 per Cent Ahead of the Tories

Article excerpt

Jingoism has a bad reputation. This has had one unfortunate consequence. It has discouraged those in charge of defence matters from pondering on the couplet which invented the concept:

We don't want to fight, but by jingo if we do

We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too.

Rarely has so much wisdom about warfare been encapsulated in so few words. From its opening phrase disavowing gratuitous belligerence, this is light years from the vulgar jingoism of the Sun and the Mirror. Its message is simple and timeless; do not go to war except to defend vital interests, and if you are going to war, make sure that you are prepared: before you will the ends, ensure that you have the means. If only those in charge of the Kosovan operation had been proper jingoes.

Instead, they have ignored every historical precedent. Yet we do know enough about war - it would be astonishing if we did not - to draw some conclusions, which our policy makers should have been aware of. The modern age of European warfare started with the French invasion of Italy in 1494, and one generalisation applies to almost every subsequent war. Whatever its outcome, it created instabilities. If you want to understand the next conflict, begin by analysing the previous one.

The Prusso-Danish war of 1864 might seem an exception. It is the best example of a surgical, Clausewitzian war, adhering to a military version of the classical unities: limited front, limited time, limited objectives: complete success. But think of the wider Bismarckian context. Germany still has Schleswig-Holstein; what about AlsaceLorraine, and where is the Reich?

Until recently, it also seemed as if 1945 might have brought the age of blood and iron to a close; that the second instalment of the war to end all wars had actually succeeded in doing so. The successes of the post1945 settlement, though now less durable, are not to be underrated, but they did not derive from the war. That left Europe dangerously unstable; a continent full of fissile material, with the two superpowers at eyeball range, rather like the French and the Spaniards in Italy circa 1500.

Only the atomic bomb prevented a third world war. It enabled the Americans to wrap up Japan and return to defend Europe against the Soviet Union. Its terrible power prevented small conflicts from becoming great wars. One does not have to join the multi-culturalists or other disparagers of Western civilisation to conclude that we avoided a third 20th-century war, which would have wrecked what was left of old Europe, not because of moral improvement, but because of mutually assured destruction.

But we now have a post-historical set of ministers, for whom the world began in 1994, and who have no knowledge of or interest in the dim, distant pre-Blairite past. These new pre-Lapsarians appear to think that they have reversed the fall of man; not much history was taught in the Garden of Eden. Gordon Brown did study history, though this mainly involved disinterring obscure Scottish socialists from their unremembered graves. Most of the rest know nothing.

Mr Blair's knowledge of military history extends to the Gulf, the Falklands, and the second world war. He has a Boy's Own Paper view of all three: that the triumph of the good guys was inevitable. He does not realise how near we came to losing in 1940 or what a damned close-run thing the Falklands was - and as for the Gulf, will it still count as a victory when we wake up to discover that Saddam Hussein has acquired weapons of mass destruction? …

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