Leading article

We are not 'tired of war'. We are tired of lack of leadership to win one

As we wear poppies, let's remember we're still a nation that seeks to shape the world — not be shaped by it

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

One remarkable fact of recent years is that even as the veterans of the first world war have died and as those who served in the second world war have headed through their eighties and beyond, the memory of the 20th century’s two most devastating wars has continued to be honoured with thoughtfulness and devotion. The idea of commemorating those who defended and saved this country has lost none of its potency. This year, as we head towards the 100th anniversary of the start of what was meant to be the war to end all wars, there are more British poppies in evidence than ever.

Our part in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in particular has become one of the few indisputable moments of our history about which all British people can feel legitimate and unalloyed pride. During it, people from throughout the country (and, indeed, the Commonwealth) played a full part. The Queen herself served in uniform, as an engineer. Even in a time when the idea of our national identity is often looked down upon, Armistice Day at least has always remained a permissible form of patriotic commemoration.

But it is hard not to see a certain guilt too. Over the past decade our armed forces have been deployed numerous times, but seldom with much public support and never with much political strategy. By the time British forces leave Afghanistan next year, they will have been engaged there for longer than the course of the two world wars put together. Yet it is a conflict which most of the public ignored, and continues to ignore. Many politicians turned away from it even as the casualty toll mounted.

As the Taleban come back into negotiations, after our armed forces have spent a decade in the country ostensibly in order to keep them out, it is hard not to reflect that some of our best men and women have been treated badly as well as unwisely by successive governments in recent years. Their mission was never clear: was it to quash the Taleban? To introduce democracy — or the idea of a unitary state — to Afghanistan? Or to fight for human rights? No politician has had a clear answer. Yet while the past decade has seen the standing of politicians in Britain hit an all-time-low, rarely has public respect for our armed forces been higher.

Reflecting on another unwise attempt to engage British forces — this time thwarted — in Syria, George Osborne recently said, ‘There is a war weariness in this country and there is no point denying that.’ This echoed the sentiments expressed by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry who said, as they tried to persuade their country to support an ‘unbelievably small’ strike in Syria, that their own country was ‘tired of war’.

There is something not just sentimental but also slightly misleading in this assessment. Public support for the deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq may have been low, and support for a pointless intervention in the morass of Syria even lower, but that does not mean that Britain, or indeed America, is ‘tired of war’. Few of us have even remotely enough experience to make such an ostentatious claim. What are we supposed to be tired of? Watching the same story on the evening news for ten years?

More likely is the idea that the British people, like the American people, are simply fed up with not having won a war for some time. What news comes from Iraq reminds us of a country we entered haphazardly and exited disgracefully. In Afghanistan a pack of tribesmen with the most basic weaponry have fought the world’s advanced militaries to a humbling stalemate. There has been a disheartening mismatch between the language of politicians entering conflicts (‘This time, we will not walk away,’ Tony Blair promised the Afghans) with the reality: the politicians do walk away, suffering attention deficit disorder.

Remembering the second world war also allows us to remember perhaps the last time that an existential threat was justly responded to and evil ultimately triumphed over by this country. The recollection of that war is good for us. Over the history of the first war, which gave us the symbol of the poppy, hangs an undoubtedly more complex legacy.  But it has never been more important to remember that conflict. As the slew of books already emerging in the run-up to the centenary shows, there remains a huge public appetite for tilling over the tragedy of the path to 1914. Was it an avoidable catastrophe? A death-blow to western civilisation? Do we remember it for its unimaginable sacrifice, or as an example of the greatest possible waste?

Perhaps it is still too early to say — the effects of the break-up of the Ottoman empire are still being felt today. Perhaps the same can be said of the British empire. Whatever the explanation, these are the wars through which Britain sees the world in which we live. And for that reason, among others, there remains a deep and appropriate desire for remembrance in Britain. Partly because we are still a nation which seeks to shape the world, rather than be shaped by it. But also because we understand our great good fortune to live in a world built by the unforgettable sacrifice of others.

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  • Nick

    A good article.But Marine A has been convicted of murdering Taliban filth.
    No doubt the Marine has a really credible career but now he is condemned to prison.
    So much for fighting for your country……..A country which has sold itself to islam.

    • victor67

      I would guess there would be several more of these incidents in Afghanistan. They happen in all wars, particularly pointless ill thought out occupations of hostile countries.
      The ones in the dock should have been feckless professional politicians who sent them there and the ones continuing to lie to us saying it is about our safety.

      • Tom Tom

        In the past unintelligent soldiers did not have headcams recording and then copy the data to a laptop and write it up in diaries. Have we a generation of complete idiots who think everything is for YouTube and Facebook ?

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      When civil insurrection comes to Britain, don`t expect the Army to ride to the rescue after that way the poor bloody infantry have been treated by the politicians. Which means that all that stands between the elite and the mob are a hated police force.

      • Nick

        I love the police force and I like traffic wardens as well.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      How can you betray a country that`s already betrayed you?

      • Toby Esterházy

        How did a Country betray someone (you) who is never a full member therein?

    • Amro

      Yes, all of the Muslim cabinet members, Muslim owners of British media outlets, Muslim chief executives and high ranking Muslim civil servants would agree that our country has sold itself to Islam.

  • Littlegrayman

    “We are not ‘tired of war’. We are tired of lack of leadership to win one.”
    Didn’t Sun tzu have something to say on this? Perhaps his writings should be part of the PPE Course at Oxford along with an understanding of Thermodynamics?

    • Tom Tom

      What the hell do you know about PPE ? The man who sent British troops to Afghan had a PhD in the Slave Trade in Dahomey and did not go to Oxford

    • Tom C

      Associating yourself with intellect does not make you intelligent

  • alabenn

    That this man was dragged before a Court Martial to satisfy the right on credentials of politicians and the social workers now in positions of command in the forces sickens me to the pit of my stomach.
    The moral pontification of Cameron, Clegg and that slimy successor to Blair and Brown frankly is beyond the pale, especially that handwringing at the start of to gobfest PMQ`s when they express false sympathy for the men killed in action.
    And before anyone jabbers on about the man being unarmed, these scum who have no compunction killing prisoners and murdering women and children do not deserve any consideration under the Geneva Convention.

    • Nick

      I nearly puked when I heard General Houghtons comments and he is no doubt another muslim appeaser.

    • Tom Tom

      He was Court Martialled rather than be sent to the ICC for trial. The Most Famous Living Briton Tony Blair signed up to the ICC and the adoring British public returned him to office every time he stood

      • alabenn

        Do you really think that not handing him over to the creatures in the Hague has done the man any favours.
        I do not know which idiot government signed the country up to that rubbish treaty but I notice the US did not.
        There will have been some who would toy with that idea, but the first time it happens will lead to the collapse of any remaining loyalty the forces have to the weak minded fools in positions of power in this country.

        • Tom Tom

          France delayed……. it was Blair who signed up as everyone knows and then used the British forces more often than any other peacetime premier

  • Ricky Strong

    Perhaps we pay such homage to our veterans of the two great wars because we fought together, as English, as Welsh, as Scotts, as Irish; we fought for a purpose and with a true sense of identity; we knew what it was we stood for, and what we stood against. We once had something to be proud of, an idea, a dream, a reality.

    Yet what do we send these brave men and women to fight for now? We send them to their deaths, not to fight for justice and honesty, not to fight to protect their families and their country but as Carl von Clausewitz once remarked, “as the continuation of politics by other means”.

    Our politicians have a great deal to answer for.

    And with regards to this whole idea of us suffering because we are now loosing battles I say; give our commanders free rein, supply our troops with all they need and I can assure you that the British Armed Forces will defeat any enemy, will take any land and will complete any task you ask of them.

    • rtj1211

      I think we knew what we were fighting for in the Second World War. I’m far from convinced that anyone actually in the trenches in the First World War knew what they doing it for. Ordinary Tommies had nothing against ordinary Fritz. Rich people fighting proxy wars using serfs as their ersatz courage was the usual reason for most British wars. The Armada and Hitler were two notable exceptions.

      We are in Afghanistan due to a terrorist incident on 9/11. A bit worse than the Brighton Bomb, but nothing compared to the suffering of napalmed Vietnamese, carpet bombed Iraqis or the citizens of Hiroshima in 1945. We lack perspective, balance and fair play when it comes to assigning degree to our own actions vs those of others.

      I have no time for Muslim fanatics nor for any re-establishment of a Caliphate.

      I have equally little time for my own small country playing power games with weak adversaries.

      • Tom Tom

        Yes. It was a war to save Joe Stalin and the USSR. It did nothing for Poland or Czechoslovakia. It bankrupted Britain and gave it over to the USA. I have yet to understand why my family members died in North Africa and Italy……..if Prague was so important to Neville Chamberlain in March 1939 that he gave Colonel Beck of the Fascist Regime in Warsaw the power to take Britain to war

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “We are not ‘tired of war’. We are tired of lack of leadership to win one”
    Then get yourselves an independent foreign policy, Britisher pals.

  • haywardsward

    First, If any country should be aware of previous involvement in Afghanistan it should have been the UK..

    2 losses and a draw since that first adventure 1839.

    The two Gs, Georg Hegel and George Santayana were absollutely correct concerning history.

    And yes an independent foreign policyy would be the second

  • paulus

    thay boy must be saved , we save our own

  • Aren’t these people Taliban mercenaries.. do they obey the rules of engagement under the Geneva convention? Don’t they mutilate ,destroy their own , thus proving they sink to the most despicable levels of controlling warfare?

    • Tom Tom

      Taliban means Students, they are largely Pashtun and fighting a tribal war against the invader. The truth is the politicians have set an agenda which ends with “Rout With Honour” and the Taliban is not letting them have the “Honour” bit so they find it hard to exit.

    • FuglydeQuietzapple

      Killing anyone is as controlling as it gets. Lying about them afterwards as though they were another species is a moot point though.

  • Toby Esterházy

    Openly attacking members of H.M. Armed Forces—this is how left-wing “non-C.of.E.” Counsels-to-the-Queen, barristers, solicitors and notaries public in London controlling the English legal establishment repay the protection and asylum rendered to their ancestors with Dutch, German, Yiddish, Polish and Russian surnames throughout the centuries! The King David Hotel attack springs to mind! I hope Malcolm Rifkind is proud of what he is doing behind the scenes (and what he is not)!

  • jmjm208

    The 1st World War was a complete and utter waste of life. The people who have my admiration are the brave conscientious Objectors who stood against the tide of militant jingoism sweeping across the country at that time; many of these courageous people paid for their stand with their lives.

    Moreover, the vast majority of wars this country has been involved in have not been defensive but offensive and, therefore, wrong.

    Consider too, the fact that British servicemen have been responsible for numerous atrocities over the years – the murder of 13 unarmed civilians on “Bloody Sunday” being just one instance.

    • Tom Tom

      Martin McGuinness was not unarmed but his human shields were

      • jmjm208

        There was NO justification for what the paras did that day. They murdered those civilians and were not even charged for what they did.

  • davidyvonne

    At least our current heroic soldiers freely chose to enlist and to fight, where as many killed in the 1914/18 slaughter were compelled by appeals to their patriotism coupled with massive unemployment to join up in complete unawareness of what they would face. Similarly so many young men were shamed into enlisting by white feather brandishing ignorant society women.