THE GENERALS are beside themselves, Whitehall’s in a panic. After generations of continuous warfare, the British public has had enough. They’re war-weary, the mandarins fret, and believe the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have been bloody failures.
Worse, multicultural Britain is increasingly hostile to troops marching into countries from which British citizens or their families came, defence ministry officials complain, especially as one war after another has been waged in the Muslim world.
Add to that the unprecedented vote in parliament last year to stop an attack on Syria and the governing elite is convinced its right to decide issues of war and peace without democratic interference is under threat. As the former Tory Middle East minister Alistair Burt insisted: “Politicians need space and time to take unpopular action.”
Most humiliating for London’s securocrats, Barack Obama’s former defence secretary has warned that British military cuts – which by some measures have put the country behind Saudi Arabia as the world’s fourth largest arms spender – threaten the country’s defence “partnership” with the US.
It’s all come to a head as British combat troops prepare to follow the US and Nato camp followers out of Afghanistan, potentially bringing to a halt over a century of continuous war-fighting by the country’s armed forces.
As the Guardian’s tally of relentless warmaking shows, British troops have been in action somewhere in the world every year since 1914. It is an extraordinary and chilling record, unmatched by any other country. Only France, Britain’s historic rival colonial power, and the US, at the head of the first truly global empire, come close.
It’s not as if other major powers have sent their soldiers to fight abroad with remotely such regularity, or at all. But when it comes to Britain, the line of uninterrupted armed action in any case stretches far further back than a century.
As Richard Gott’s book Britain’s Empire recounts, its forces were involved in violent suppression of anti-colonial rebellions every year from at least the 1760s for the next 200 years, quite apart from multiple other full-scale wars. You need to go back before Britain’s foundation as a state and the English civil wars to find a time when government-backed privateers, slavers and settlers weren’t involved in armed conflict somewhere in the world.
There are in fact only a handful of countries British troops haven’t invaded at some point. What is so striking about the tally of the past 100 years is that only in 1940 were British troops actually defending their own country from the threat of invasion.
And there is a telling continuum between Britain’s conflicts in the colonial period and the post-cold war world. The same names keep cropping up, a legacy of imperial divide-and-rule: from Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine to Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Waziristan.
There’s very little in this saga that the British – let alone those at the receiving end, from Kenya to Malaya – can seriously take pride in, even if they knew about it. (Who, for example, remembers the killing of 15,000 Indonesian civilians by British troops as they restored Dutch colonial rule in 1945?) Even the supposed successes of liberal interventionism, such as Kosovo and Libya, are scarred by escalated death tolls, ethnic cleansing and dysfunctional states.
What is it about Britain? Are its people really more warlike than others? In reality, England’s early development of capitalism and technology gave its elite the edge over colonial rivals, while its plunder and economic power was enforced by a dominant navy. That shaped British society and delivered wealth and clout to its rulers. But for the majority there were few if any benefits – one reason there was always a strong strand of domestic opposition to Britain’s warmongering, from Charles James Fox to Keir Hardie.
It’s the same, only more so, today. For the political and commercial elite, British warmaking under the wing of Washington is about state prestige, corporate profits and the protection of a system of global economic privilege. That was the clear message this week from the former first sea lord Sir Jonathon Band, who now works for US defence contractor Lockheed Martin and insists that Britain’s commitment to buy 48 F-35 fighter aircraft “will certainly not be enough“.