Brits love wars -- but ...

Support remains high for the war in a nation with a deep militarist strain. But attitudes toward Israel, Muslims and "terrorism" show some key differences with America.


Andrew Brown
October 13, 2001 1:53AM (UTC)

When Tony Blair told some British troops whom he was visiting in Oman that one of his own sons wanted to go into the army, it's quite possible he wasn't lying. The militarism of British culture is so deeply embedded that it is hard for us even to notice. Though Britain is the only country publicly fighting alongside the United States at the moment, the British position in this war is more complicated and more defeatist than may at first be clear. But our hesitations don't spring from a notably pacifist spirit. We take it for granted that the monarch is not only commander in chief of the armed forces, but that male members of the royal family will have done real, hard time as serving members of the armed forces abroad. The first indication that Prince Edward was going to turn out as a useless parasite came when he bailed out of Marine training on the grounds that it was too much like hard work. What gave Mrs. Thatcher her second term was the Falklands War. It may have been pointless and very expensive, but it was by God a war and a prime minister who can win one becomes extremely popular.

Similarly, Tony Blair used the imminence of war to deliver an extraordinary speech in which he committed his government to right almost every wrong in the world, from war in the Congo to global warming. As one sour commentator remarked, this is a government which cannot even keep refugees out of the Channel Tunnel, yet it proposes to winkle bin Laden out of Afghanistan. But going to war has the same exhilarating effect on a British prime minister as acquiring a new mistress might have on foreign politicians.

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The most vivid example of the role that war plays in British culture comes from the Daily Telegraph, the largest-selling broadsheet, owned by the eccentric Canadian millionaire Conrad Black. The Telegraph has been the only British paper to back wholeheartedly the Sharon/Wolfowitz agenda of invading not just Afghanistan but Iraq and anywhere else that "sponsors terrorism," and in its leader columns has urged that the war be seen as a golden opportunity to detach Britain from the EU and align it more closely to America. But the leader line is not very important: These policies are even more unpopular than the Conservative Party, which has just lost a second crushing election to Tony Blair. What really shows the British character are the bits of the paper the readers care about: the letters and the obituaries.

The Telegraph does strive for breadth in its obituaries. It did a very elegant job on Gregory Hemingway, the alcoholic transvestite son of Ernest, when he died last week in a Palm Beach women's jail. But the only sure way to be remembered by the Telegraph as a good Englishman is to have killed Germans in your youth. In the month since the WTC bombing, the Daily Telegraph has carried obituaries of 17 old warriors, among them Wing Commander Bill "Sticks" Gregory, the "RAF radar operator who helped the night fighter ace Bob Braham account for nearly 30 German aircraft"; Captain Lennox Napier, the "Submarine commander whose sinking of the German tanker Wilhelmsburg caused Hitler to go red in the face"; and Captain Edmund "Splash" Carver, a "Fleet Air Arm observer who helped to sink the Bismarck and witnessed the German ship's last moments."

Few of these people had done anything very interesting in the 56 years since Germany surrendered, but to the million or so subscribers to the Telegraph they represent all that is most noble about our country.

The letters page has also carried some classics, including one from Lt-Col Lord Walsingham, an elderly Norfolk landowner, offering within days of the WTC attack to serve in the ranks in any invasion force of Afghanistan: "Those of us who fought against Hitler know what to do." There really is a widespread enthusiasm in this country for killing our enemies, and pretty widespread acceptance that this war will involve casualties. The most recent poll shows 72 percent of the country backing Tony Blair's participation in the war, even though 59 percent of us believe it makes terrorist attacks on this country more likely.

Our liking for war shows in all sorts of ways: One of the oddest is that military historians get knighthoods more frequently than most academics, as if the glory of their subject has rubbed off on them. Sir John Keegan got his for a series of truly illuminating and original books, starting with "The Face of Battle," which were informed by nostalgia for the war he never fought, and admiration for the young men he taught at the British Army's officer training school, Sandhurst. But the war in Afghanistan seems to have unhinged his critical faculties altogether. He is now the Telegraph's defense correspondent, and when it comes to Afghanistan, even analogies with the Crusades are not grand enough for him. He wrote last week that "the tested Western response to Islamic aggression is now well under way. It is not a crusade. The crusades were an episode localised in time and place, in the religious contest between Christianity and Islam. This war belongs within the much larger spectrum of a far older conflict between settled, creative, productive Westerners and predatory, destructive Orientals."

He continued: "Westerners fight face to face, in stand-up battle, and go on until one side or the other gives in," whereas "Orientals, by contrast, shrink from pitched battle, which they often deride as a sort of game, preferring ambush, surprise, treachery and deceit as the best way to overcome an enemy."

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What makes this absolutely perfect is the very next sentence: "This is not to stereotype Afghans, Arabs, Chechens or any other Islamic nationality traditionally hostile to the West as devious or underhand."

Perish the thought. Keegan's outburst was too much even for Telegraph readers, one of whom wrote from Pembroke College, Oxford, to point out that it was the Taliban fighters who are waiting in their trenches, ready to die on the battlefield, and the Western powers who are lobbing missiles at them from a very safe distance indeed. It's also worth noting that when our special forces were training the Mujahedin to fight Russian troops, their main difficulty was to persuade the Afghans to be more sneaky and deceptive in ambush, and less eager for pitched battles.

British Catholic intellectuals like Keegan and Paul Johnson, who made similar points in a piece for the Wall Street Journal last week, find the idea of a "clash of civilizations" hugely appealing. But there is not much sign that their historical vision is shared in the government. When there was a day of national prayer for the victims of Sept. 11 last Friday, the home secretary, a Christian, did his praying in a mosque in his constituency.

And as Blair and his foreign minister Jack Straw shuffle around Asia and the Middle East to strengthen the coalition against the Taliban -- so far they have visited between them Moscow, Pakistan, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Cairo and Oman -- there are very clear signs of a deep split between Britain and the United States over Israel. We both say the same thing about peace in the Middle East. The difference is that the British mean it. The British government, and indeed British public opinion, wants a genuinely independent Palestine alongside a genuinely secure Israel. We don't believe that the support of the Israeli military occupation on the West Bank can possibly be described as "defending democracy."

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The noisiest example of this came last month when Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, visited Tehran as part of a fence-mending operation, and said, "One of the factors which helps breed terrorism is the anger which many people in this region feel at events over the years in Palestine." This is a statement of such irreproachable truthfulness that it must be undiplomatic; and sure enough it was denounced with astonishing vehemence by an Israeli spokesman who called it "despicable and it's simply wrong. I've never seen such a bunch of lies garbled together."

But in a quiet and patient way, the message keeps being put out. Tony Blair's grandiose speech to his party conference, in which he set out the moral case for war, included the Palestinian suffering in the camps of Gaza among the wrongs which he wanted to right. On his trip to Egypt he said, "It is important that we put this peace process back on track so there aren't generations of people who then go and abuse the Palestinian cause to commit acts of terrorism." There is no doubt of Blair's commitment to Israel: his chief fundraiser, personal friend, and private ambassador around the Middle East is the Jewish Lord Levy. But the British don't equate a commitment to Israel with a commitment to the policies of the Israeli government.

The divergence between British and American views of the Middle East is not a simple one to explain. In part it comes about because Britain has become a surprisingly Muslim country since the end of the Empire. No one has exact figures, but there are something between 1 and 2 million Muslim Britons today. In the arithmetic of democracy, that means that there are between five and 10 times as many Muslims in the U.K. as there are Jews. There is no significant nationwide Muslim vote yet, but there is a widespread belief that Muslims are people just like us.

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But this on its own won't do for an explanation. Americans in general are tolerant of Muslims, too. Another reason for British ambivalence is the memory of "terrorism." One of the bitterest little wars the British Army fought against terrorism was in Palestine, against Jewish terrorists, one of whom, Menachem Begin, founded the party that now governs Israel. So we understand that while terrorism is evil, it is a tactic, not a moral category; and that the stain can be washed away by success. What is more, we have come through a long and painful process of defeat to understand that the terrorist may have some right on his side. One reason to forgive the Jewish terrorists is that they were right to demand a Jewish state. Successive U.S. governments put pressure on us to negotiate with the IRA -- and some pressure on the IRA to negotiate with us. Dealing with terrorists like that is what peace is all about.

But I think the deepest reason for this divergence is a simple lack of power. The awful thing about becoming a second-rank power is that you discover that foreign affairs involves dealing with foreigners, and taking seriously their absurd ideas about the world. This is something which America has yet to learn.


Andrew Brown

Andrew Brown is a writer and journalist in Britain. His book "The Darwin Wars" is published in the U.S. by Simon and Schuster.

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