Inside Story

Britain’s military complex

The grim conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have dulled the instinct for armed intervention. But it still runs deep in British political culture, writes David Hayes

David Hayes 12 April 2013 6287 words

War leader: Tony Blair arrives in Basra, Iraq, on 22 December 2005 to meet with officials and visit British troops. Adrian Dennis/AP

“A king is history’s slave.” It is tempting to view Tolstoy’s reflection as an apt comment on British military policy in the early twenty-first century. So much in Britain’s invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and so much of the draining campaigns against local insurgencies that followed, seems predestined by the experience of forgotten ancestors. From the Afghan wars of 1839–42 and 1878–80 (with a reprise in 1919) to the seizure of Mesopotamia from the Ottomans in 1916–17 and its troubled suzerainty over subsequent decades, Britain’s later violent involvement in these two regions can be read as eternal recurrence.

A long imperial history with its sheer abundance of precedent lends itself to the idea that the deeds of the powerful are “not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history” (War and Peace again). Where Afghanistan and Iraq are concerned, such determinism has potent right-realist and left-populist variants (respectively, our leaders never learn from history or their conquering instinct is perennial) which often overlap, and converge on the need to break the cycle of martial adventurism. At the same time, the modern architects of these wars – step forward, Tony Blair – are seen as free agents whose responsibility for the resulting disasters is limitless. Trapped by the past and blind to the present, yet refusing to choose a better future, Britain’s political elite lives down to the worst of a shameful imperial record: deceit and illegality on the road to war; murder and torture in its waging; humiliation and abandonment in the retreat.

This, at least, is the dominant media and public view a decade after the launch of the “shock and awe” attacks on Iraq on 20–21 March 2003 and the tumbling of Saddam Hussein’s statue on 9 April. YouGov finds 53 per cent agreeing that “the US and Britain were wrong to take action against Iraq,” 27 per cent thinking it right. Half of the respondents agree that Blair “deliberately set out to mislead the British public in the run-up to the war over Iraq’s possession of ‘weapons of mass destruction’,” and 31 per cent disagree. Moreover, asked if Blair “knowingly misled parliament and the public about the scale of the [WMD] threat and should be tried as a war criminal,” 23 per cent agree. A thousand columnists, a hundred comedians, and a score of poets have echoed Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy”: I met Murder in its lair / He had a mask like Tony Blair.

There is also, though, a notable contrast in much of the local coverage around the anniversary. The most enlightening focuses on conditions in Iraq itself and highlights the lives and views of people there. Roula Khalaf’s fine survey in the Financial Times, the formidable Patrick Cockburn’s reports in the Independent, and David Blair’s conversations with Baghdadis in the Telegraph all come into this category. (According to the latter, the Iraqis he meets “tend to qualify whatever opinion they hold” about the war, and voice “no easy judgements or strident opinions.”) In addition, there have been several conferences around London hosting in-depth assessments from academics and other specialists, again including Iraqis from the country and the diaspora.

Overwhelmingly, by contrast, the domestic political media has fixed its gaze on the moment of invasion (with the question “was it worth it?” framing almost every discussion). High-profile polemicists such as Mehdi Hasan, Max Hastings, Owen Jones, and Seumas Milne tick off familiar arguments: about the invasion’s illegality and its catastrophic impacts on Iraq and the region, the corruption of British governance by an elite culture of secret deals, and the cynical use of phantom WMDs as a pretext for war – all of which vindicates its opponents and discredits its advocates. Again, the evidence of the polls suggests that a good part of this case has in effect won the public debate (though the fine detail is often more nuanced than the headline numbers). On the other side, prominent supporters of the invasion such as David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, John Lloyd and John Rentoul have restated their case, citing Saddam Hussein’s exceptionally brutal record, legitimate uncertainties over WMDs, the demands of solidarity, the tense but defensible calculations of Blair’s diplomatic and legal strategy, subsequent progress in Iraq and recent events in Syria. (On my own account, I believed that force alone could remove Saddam, that this was justified and, most importantly, that it was the only way that Iraqis could reclaim their ability to shape their own history.)

But if Iraq’s brief, concentrated return to Britain’s public arena creates the impression that the argument over the invasion is stuck while discussion of Iraq’s new realities is moving ahead, taken too far this would be facile, for there is a deep connection between the two. A decade of war – invasion, occupation, insurgency, sectarian conflict and local campaigns – has affected every Iraqi, transformed the country’s political and social landscape, and released forces that will endure for years to come. A decision that eventuated in the killing of at least 111,000 civilians (as recorded by the meticulous Iraq Body Count project, though the total is almost certainly thousands more), and led to a displacement and refugee crisis that uprooted four million Iraqis, will long influence the lives of survivors.

Charles Tripp, the doyen of historians of Iraq – and one of a number invited in November 2002 to meet Blair, ostensibly to impart their expertise – makes the important point that violence of this scale and nature carries its own effects deep into society. The violence intrinsic to the invasion “precipitated much that followed”: for “the use of violence, whatever its motive, has its own baneful logic. The deeper and more prolonged its use, the more distinctive and disturbing the consequences will be.”

It is far too early, then, to close the invasion file and everything that surrounds it. Nor will that be possible, as the official inquiry into the United Kingdom’s involvement in Iraq, appointed by Gordon Brown in June 2009 and chaired by John Chilcot, has yet to report. When it does (perhaps in 2014), the establishment verdict will be in on the most traumatic episode in British foreign policy since the Suez crisis in November 1956. At over one million words so far, it will be exhaustive if not definitive. The Chilcot inquiry succeeds two others: the Hutton inquiry of 2003–04 on the media–political furore that followed the death of the weapons inspector David Kelly, which toppled the BBC director-general and provoked a carnival of conspiracism, and the Butler review in 2004 of the use of WMD-related intelligence (chaired by Robin Butler, cabinet secretary 1988–98), which criticised the government’s embrace of unreliable sources to make the case for war.

In minute detail and mandarin prose, these documents seek to reconcile the judgements of the powerful across various agencies. As part of the methodology of elite British governance, it is impressive to behold. But it is also a performance in which all involved are conscious of their core function, namely to record, criticise, recommend, move on – while leaving everything fundamentally as it is. What they leave untouched is the deeper context of policy: the accumulated inheritance of experiences and impulses that help to frame and influence state behaviour. Yet where this inheritance is germane to decisions such as the one to join in the United States–led invasion of Iraq, it deserves to be included as part of the total picture.

IRAQ came late to modern statehood, with Britain present at its creation. The process, as messy and contingent as any colonial episode, was part of the remaking of the Middle East after the great war, when the retreat of the Ottoman empire from its eastern flank left a political vacuum that the rulers of France and Britain saw a need to fill.

The opportunity to “take” Mesopotamia – the ancient land of two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates – was forged in war, and initially had less to do with oil than Britain’s desire to so weaken the region’s Ottoman overlords that their subjects would be inspired to revolt. Such is the case made in the historian Charles Townshend’s tremendous book, When God Made Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia and the Creation of Iraq, 1914–21. The book’s centrepiece is the disastrous late-1915 campaign by an Anglo-Indian force led by Major-General Charles Townshend (apparently no relation) that moved north from Basra, stalled at Ctesiphon, and retreated to Kut-al-Amara, where a four-month siege ended in surrender and the death in captivity of over half the 17,000 exhausted survivors.

The baton was passed to Lieutenant-General Frederick Maude, whose rebuilt force – like Townshend’s, operating under the authority of the imperial government in India – retook Kut in February 1917 and entered Baghdad on 11 March. A week later the latest of Baghdad’s many conquerors issued a reassuring proclamation: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.”

The two Ottoman provinces of Basra and Baghdad were now in British–Indian hands (with the political tensions between London and Delhi very real). As so often, a fluid strategic environment encouraged imperial minds to consider how the temporary spoils of war could be turned into something permanent. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company had begun production in 1912, its local oilfields and pipeline to the refinery at Abadan on the Shatt al-Arab – the very border between Persia and the Ottoman empire – thus acquiring geopolitical significance. But Mesopotamia’s own sources of oil “did not loom large in British strategic calculations when the war broke out,” says Townshend. “By the time it ended, this was changing. The potential oil resources of Mosul province were beginning to exert an influence on the developing idea of establishing an Arab state in the conquered territory.”

In Europe, collapsing empires gave way after 1918 to a swathe of independent nation-states. Across the post-Ottoman lands, the postwar settlement thwarted local aspirations to the same status. In the event, the surviving empires’ instrument of choice was the League of Nations’ territorial “mandate,” under which Mesopotamia, Transjordan and Palestine were allocated to Britain, and Syria and Lebanon to France. The latter enforced its rule in Syria only after suppressing a revolt and ejecting the Hashemite ruler, King Faisal – to which the British responded, following the tireless advocacy of the indefatigable Gertrude Bell, by installing him on the throne of the new “Kingdom of Iraq.”

An entity born of imperial war, with borders drawn in the interest of its overlords, lacking the natural allegiance of its many nationalities and faiths: Iraq was always going to be interesting. The incorporation of territory, such as Mosul, largely populated by Kurds emphasised both the artifice and the self-interest of Iraq’s construction. The sporadic Kurdish resistance was met by aerial bombardment from the early Royal Air Force, in a crude campaign governed by the larger aim of facilitating oil exploration in the north. (An invaluable source on this innovation in colonial policing is David Omissi’s Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force, 1919–1939, which notes that it had also been used against “rioters in Egypt, tribesmen on the Frontier, pastoralists in the Southern Sudan and nomads in the Somali hinterland.”) The process reached a critical stage in 1927 when oil in commercially viable quantities was found around the northern city of Kirkuk.

To the south, opposition to British domination had been evident from the start: in the landmark Ath Thawra al Iraqiyya al Kubra (“great Iraqi revolution”) in 1920, in the formation of several incipient anti-colonial organisations, and even in indifference towards King Faisal, whose noble descent the British presumed would accord him legitimacy among the faithful. (“I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain,” wrote Gertrude Bell.) A bitter dispute over oil concessions in Mosul was a focus for these sentiments, and heralded the nominal equality Iraq acquired under the Anglo–Iraqi Treaty of 1930. (A superb account of this period and the shadow it cast is Toby Dodge’s Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied).

Britain retained oil rights, military bases and influence, in a settlement described by Hanna Batatu as having “virtually reduced Iraq into an appendage of the British Empire.” But the instruments of control were becoming less certain. An anti-government coup in 1936, quickly reversed, was a signal, but far more significant was the seizure of power by a nationalist (and pro-German) military cohort in April 1941. The strategic risk to Britain, already at a low point in the new global conflict, was acute; if the popular acclaim that greeted Rashid Ali al-Gaylani’s venture was alarming, even more so was the prospect of seeing Iraq move towards the Axis camp. The old order had to be restored, and was – by force, and via the “second British occupation.” But a new course had been set amid a complex social landscape where a range of forces – religious notables, merchants and landowners, workers and peasants, administrators and officers, many ethnic and confessional groups, and emerging movements such as communists and Ba’athists – was in movement.

It was hard for London to make sense of it all, let alone to see how effective dominion could be maintained. (A foreign office telegram of September 1943 confesses the “weakness of our long-term position in Iraq.”) The trend was again made visible by Al-Wathbah (“The Leap”), a popular revolt in January 1948 sparked by protests against a revision of the 1930 treaty that would guarantee dependency on Britain for another generation.

The Portsmouth Treaty was passed, but – this time – there would be no “third occupation.” A year after the Baghdad Pact of 1955 had linked Iraq and Britain (along with Turkey, Pakistan and Iran) in an anti-Soviet alliance in southwest Asia, the humiliation of Britain’s Suez imbroglio changed the regional terms of trade. Baghdad’s political ferment led to a republican coup in July 1958 that eliminated the monarchy and brought to power the “Free Officers,” led by Abdul al-Qassem. This kicked off a tumultuous decade that culminated in the decisive Ba’athist takeover of July 1968.

The sweep of the era is indicated in the full title of Hanna Batatu’s great work of historical sociology, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Ba’athists and Free Officers, published in 1978. Its 1300 pages of astounding scholarship open with the judgement that the events of 1919–20 began “the painful, now gradual, now spasmodic growth of an Iraqi national community” and end by stating that the main task of the regime in power in the late 1970s should be “one of elaborating the institutions and building the skills that could employ the huge oil revenues in a socially effective way.” Britain seems barely visible in the whole story, also an indicator of the way its colonial power was exercised. But the next three decades were to reposition this now fainter relationship in unimagined ways.

THE renowned Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, born in 1950, once replied to a question about her upbringing in Baghdad by saying, “Everything was modern, modern, modern!” Despite periodic instability and violence, the 1960s and 1970s were indeed good years for many. But the larger project of using the fruits of oil wealth to modernise Iraq was to take a new direction around the time Batatu’s book was being finalised. Its architect was the Ba’athist functionary Saddam Hussein, who had risen unobtrusively to Iraq’s vice-presidency before pushing aside the weakened Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr in July 1979. He inherited his party’s pan-Arab and nationalist ambitions, but turned them into an instrument of aggression against neighbouring states (in the war with post-revolution Iran of 1980–88 and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990) and domestic enemies (with large-scale purges of political rivals, including fellow Ba’athists, communists, Shi’a and Kurds).

The 1980s were a time of fear and national mobilisation, as a centralised security apparatus imposed a form of totalitarian control on a newly cowed society. The Ba’athist debt to Europe’s fascist models of the 1930s is familiar, but Saddam’s biographer and sometime confidante Said Aburish also cites direct evidence that Stalin was the leader’s inspiration. None of this prevented Western (and of course Soviet-bloc) states trading with and indulging him in the 1980s, not least because of hostility to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. But when Saddam’s forces occupied Kuwait in August 1990 – fulfilling a territorial claim Iraqis had harboured since Britain (who else?) had separated the Gulf emirate from former Ottoman land in 1921 – the result was diplomatic isolation and then military retreat amid a pulverising US-led assault.

Saddam’s regime was exposed, as Shi’a in the south and Kurds in the north stirred in expectation of change. But they needed help, and in a turning-point moment the United States and Britain allowed Baghdad to regroup. Saddam crushed the Shi’a, with an estimated 50,000 killed, and only the desperate recourse to a “no-fly” zone in the north protected the Kurds from a repeat of the Anfal campaign of the late 1980s, when up to 100,000 had died. In the aftermath, the regime was squeezed by a UN-approved sanctions package and a weapons-inspection process to curb the regime’s WMD capacity. The ensuing decade of “containment” allowed Saddam to consolidate power with sufficient boldness to seek to thwart sanctions, circumvent the “oil-for-food” program and stymie the inspectors’ work. By December 1998, a year after the inspectors had been expelled, American and British warplanes were being dispatched to conduct raids of doubtful value, which prompted the other three members of the Security Council to call for an easing of the sanctions on Iraq (including the crucial oil embargo).

The combination of 9/11 and the new political environment in the United States was decisive. Plans were laid inside the George W. Bush administration to “deal with” Saddam almost as soon as the anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan in late 2001 was concluded. A year of inflationary rhetoric, diplomatic manoeuvring, bureaucratic infighting, exile politicking, military preparation and intense worldwide protest culminated in the air assault and land invasion of March 2003. Britain was foremost among the forty-nine states that committed themselves to a role in military operations or (the vast majority) post-war security and governance. Its initial deployment, tasked with occupying Basra and the region, reached a maximum of 18,000 troops in May 2003. (The US figure at this point was 150,000.)

So this British invasion of Iraq sent the infantry and naval forces of 2003 to the very place from which their (predominantly Indian) antecedents had trudged north in the ill-fated venture of 1915. As ever, most performed with valour and a few were responsible for gross abuses and violations of discipline (some of which are still going through the courts). By the end of operations in April 2009, 179 had been killed, 136 in action. Troop numbers had fallen gradually over these six years, to 4100 at the point of withdrawal.

In military terms, the verdict on the overall strategy and performance is as bleak as in 1915. The case is made in Frank Ledwidge’s book Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, a pitiless analysis of inadequacies in understanding, leadership, planning and operations. The author, a former officer in naval military intelligence, charts the British forces’ inability to prevent Basra’s descent into chaos or to subdue the militias who took control of the city. He exposes their retreat to ineffectual confinement in a local base and the unfounded complacency of their claim to superior expertise in counterinsurgency vis-à-vis the Americans. His judgement is stark: “The British were at sea in both places, devoid of viable doctrine, without awareness of their environment, lacking adequate forces and minus any coherent strategy to pursue. All this was coupled with a hubris which attracted its inevitable riposte – nemesis.”

The Chilcot report will provide the official version of the military and political aspects of the Iraq campaign. But even if it confirms Ledwidge’s assessment, it won’t turn a searchlight onto the much longer context of British military involvement in the country, and nor will its equivalent do that for Afghanistan. This is in part because Britain’s inquests on matters of state tend to remain circumscribed, not just by their terms of reference but also by the informal formalities of the elite political culture. It’s also because much of the past – empire and all that – is still too uncomfortable to examine closely. All the more reason, many would say, to do just that.

BUT Afghanistan and Iraq are not just a retread of old wars. They also belong to the geopolitical era that arrived with – or perhaps was bookended by – the collapse of communism in 1989–91 and the collapse of the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001. The end of a “short twentieth century” dominated by world wars, superpower rivalry and grand ideological schisms vindicated the West’s economic system and political values, and seemed to herald a “unipolar” world in which American-led power would secure a “new world order.” In the 1990s, however, a series of regional conflicts and ethno-nationalist eruptions – from Somalia to Rwanda, from the Caucasus to the Balkans – put the schema to the test of reality and made it look naive. (The sparkling analyst Ivan Krastev even suggests that 1989–2001 might be regarded as “the short twenty-first century.”)

Britannia, as is her wont, claimed more vindication from the fall of the “evil empire” than anyone bar the United States itself. The evidence included Margaret Thatcher’s co-starring role with Ronald Reagan in the “second cold war” of the 1980s, and the profile she had established in the Soviet Union and its bloc. More broadly, London was both Washington’s most loyal ally and a nuclear-armed state that had never quite abandoned its pretensions to an independent world role (indeed, these elements worked at different times to reinforce each other). But these certainties, too, were put under pressure by the changed strategic circumstances of the early 1990s.

The wars in a disintegrating Yugoslavia in 1992–95 became the crucible of trans-Atlantic tension when the Conservative government of John Major made strenuous efforts in every diplomatic arena (NATO, the United Nations, the European Union) to resist any “humanitarian intervention,” far less measures that could halt the “Greater Serbia” genocide project. (The fiasco of British policy in these years is dissected in Brendan Simms’s brilliant work, Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia. One of Simms’s themes is the astonished fury of American politicians and diplomats at the lengths to which their British counterparts would go to block any initiative that might constrain the perpetrators.)

The massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995 at last shamed – or at least forced – Britain’s government into giving consent to a more proactive NATO policy. But the Dayton diplomatic agreement that ended the war also left the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo in the line of fire. When the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic prosecuted his latest ethnic-cleansing campaign there, the inglorious NATO air campaign of March–June 1999 – of which the government of Tony Blair (prime minister since May 1997) was the most vigorous advocate – eventually precipitated his withdrawal.

It was in the very midst of the eleven-week war that Tony Blair, in a speech in Chicago, made Kosovo (“a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values”) the instance of an ambitious “new doctrine of international community.” His sweeping appeal was to “a new internationalism” bound by “new rules” and backed by “reformed international institutions with which to apply them.” He cited Saddam Hussein alongside Milosevic as “two dangerous and ruthless men [who] have been prepared to wage vicious campaigns against sections of their own community. As a result of these destructive policies both have brought calamity on their own peoples.”

The speech made almost no reference to military action, beyond saying that war “is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress; but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators.” If this echoed the protection of the Kurds in 1991, the “Desert Fox” operation of 1998, and even the modest peacekeeping contingent sent to East Timor in 1999, it also anticipated the British operation in Sierra Leone the following year. This saw an 800-strong military force charged in May 2000 with ensuring safe evacuation of foreign citizens from a vicious civil war supporting, by default, a weak government and a fragile UN military mission against the threatening Revolutionary United Front militia. This force and its replacements altered the dynamic of the war, which ended in January 2002.

The Sierra Leone operation was shadowed by fears of “mission creep” and – like Kosovo – conducted against vocal domestic political and media opposition. Perhaps because it can be judged – again like Kosovo (albeit more qualified in that case) – a success, not least in the eyes of those in whose interests it was fought, it tends in Britain to be consigned to the memory hole. (A rare and neglected study is Andrew M. Dorman’s book Blair’s Successful War: British Military Intervention in Sierra Leone.) In any event, these four interventions in the three years of Blair’s premiership – which also saw the settlement, in April 1998, of the thirty-year war in Northern Ireland – represented a new burst of military activism justified by national interest now clothed in internationalist and humanitarian dress. Blair’s “Chicago doctrine,” as it was inevitably called, seemed more the beginning than the end of something, or more accurately part of a wave that had been gathering force since Bosnia and Rwanda.

In September 2000, for example, an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty – founded by Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, and working under the auspices of the Canadian government – began to examine how the international community should respond “to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity.” This culminated in a report, The Responsibility to Protect, which was published in December 2001.

The timing was fateful. Two months after the commission was created came the election of a new US president armed with a self-aggrandising vision of restoring the country’s greatness after the perceived drift of the 1990s. The George W. Bush–Dick Cheney administration was committed not to any sort of revived internationalism, but to securing “a new American century.” Where Iraq was concerned, this meant completing the unfinished business of 1991. Whatever else happened in coming years, here at least Bush and Blair were bound to converge, even if in other respects they were slaves of different histories.

The immediate post-9/11 global mood plausibly supported the belief that something like “R2P” – the responsibility to protect – would gain real traction. The gathering response over Afghanistan just about kept the hope alive, though the stridency of Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2002 – whose “axis of evil” included Iran, which had condemned the 9/11 attacks, as well as Saddam’s Iraq, which had celebrated them – drenched it. After all, it was indeed the beginning of something else, although Tony Blair was not about to concede it.

BEFORE it could be waged, the “war of choice” over Iraq had to overcome immense diplomatic and political obstacles. How and when Britain’s participation was assured continues to be bitterly controversial. But the thing about history is that it doesn’t stop, and ten years on the argument is being restaged in an environment part-shaped by that war but also transformed by subsequent events, and by the popular uprisings in the Arab world in particular. The success of Tunisians and Egyptians in replacing their rulers by their own efforts and with relatively little bloodshed was the high point of the “Arab awakening.” But the repression of the second wave of revolts in Libya and Syria, as well as the Islamist advance in Mali, made the issue of intervention relevant again in ways that not only echoed the concerns of the 1990s but also posed fresh challenges to a new generation of British politicians.

As the poisonous fallout of Iraq seeped across the public culture, the Conservative opposition leader David Cameron qualified his admiration for Tony Blair with notable scepticism about any foreign adventures. It was a stance he carried into government in 2010 and shared with most of his senior colleagues, including foreign minister William Hague (though the clever Michael Gove, now education minister, and the ambitious hawk Liam Fox, briefly defence minister, had always been more gung-ho). The eruptions of 2011 forced a rethink, in practice if not in doctrine. Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy were in the vanguard of military and diplomatic support to the anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya, and the prime minister forged a similar alliance in 2013 with Sarkozy’s successor François Hollande over Mali. The jihadi offensive there, in the wake of an insurgent assault on a multinational gas facility in Algeria, provoked Cameron to Blairesque rhetoric about the need for a “generational struggle” against Islamic extremism.

This more proactive stance is partly a reaction to Washington’s greater caution after its chastening decade and its strategic tilt towards Asia. The tone of command also has something of the enthusiasm of the convert, though even without grand foreign-policy ambitions Cameron has never had a problem looking “prime ministerial” (an important requirement in Britain, and a facility his Labour opponent Ed Miliband has still to acquire). There is also a certain relief in the government’s repositioning, even amid widespread suspicion that it might entail further open-ended wars. (That sentiment has helped restrict engagement with Syria, where the death toll in two years is fast approaching Iraq’s.) Britain, after all, seems to prefer leaders who cut a dash – within limits that they must periodically renegotiate – on the world stage.

But the domestic circumstances in which this new phase of intervention is evolving are also very different from even a decade ago. Under way, for example, is a welcome “process of introspection, reappraisal and adaptation within the military” in light of the recent wars (see the well-judged study by Aaron Edwards, Britain’s “9/11 Wars” in Historical Perspective: Why Change and Continuity Matter). But the most obvious constraint comes from the seemingly permanent slowdown of Britain’s economy, where a mixture of zero growth, low productivity and escalating debt is reinforcing structural weaknesses. Any international security policy has to be calibrated in terms of what a state can afford, and Britain, with its multiplying spending obligations and its shrinking capacities, is able to afford ever less.

The mismatch between ambitions and resources is exacerbated by the longstanding problem that Britain continues to “want it all” in strategic terms. The headline commitments are an expensive upgrade or renewal of its notionally independent Trident nuclear force and the construction of two giant aircraft carriers (both to guarantee a “global reach”). The routine commitments are to maintain its core services and upgrade their capability, defend overseas territories such as the Falkland Islands, and play a full part in NATO. The low-profile commitments are to protect domestic security and core infrastructure (including from terrorist threats) and sustain a strong intelligence network with up-to-date risk-assessment. And the emerging commitments involve adapting to new challenges such as cyberattack and biosecurity.

For a middle-ranking European power with an infirm economy, amid international trends that press ever harder on its ability to compete in a “global race” (a favourite David Cameron phrase), this range of tasks looks Sisyphean. Even more so since, under the strategic and defence review published in October 2010 – A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty – spending in these areas is being reduced by 8 per cent over a decade. The personnel of all three services is being cut, with Britain’s army scheduled to have only 82,000 regulars by 2020, its smallest in modern times.

Yet any major rethink seems remote. The review says that “Britain’s interests remain surprisingly constant,” and that “in order to protect our interests at home, we must project our influence abroad” via “continued full and active engagement in world affairs.” For Britain’s leaders, the desire to “punch above our weight” (as Douglas Hurd put it in 1993) is a given. Britain, it seems, both needs and can have it all.

THE broad public opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and scepticism over any further large-scale interventions, might be expected to pose a challenge to this elite consensus. But as so often in Britain, behind the brutal certitudes of public argument – on full display in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death on 8 April – there is much ambiguity. For example, the military experience of the past decade and more has worked its way into the media, popular culture, and the orchestrated routines of national memory. (The Armed Forces Memorial, for instance, instituted in 2007, honours those killed “in more than fifty operations and conflicts across the world” since 1945.) There has been a palpable increase in the social visibility of Britain’s military, from homecoming parades and charity collections to public demonstrations and TV programs (which in their focus on women personnel or family members, for example choirs of “military wives,” reflect a notable gender shift).

The media aspect of this phenomenon at least tends towards a glutinous patriotism, and more generally recycles a discourse of the brave, chivalrous British soldier that – as Michael Paris’s Warrior Nation: Images of War in British Popular Culture, 1850–2000 shows – has been current for generations. At the same time, some senior military figures reportedly worry about the consequences of sentimentalisation: that bringing the army closer to the people may, for example, also undercut the latter’s ability to “take” mass casualties in any future conflict. The deeper point, though, is that the military history of the post-2001 years is being assimilated into what went before, and this works – in a coded but also powerful way – to legitimate the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq if not the wars themselves.

A striking illustration hit me when visiting my local branch of Waterstones – the only national bookstore chain to survive the Amazon hurricane. The history section has sixteen large stacks arranged according to category: one on Ancient history, two on World, two on European, four on British – and seven on Military (“chronological by campaign/war/conflict”). Beside the narrative accounts and scholarly analyses, a few of them admittedly dealing with wars in which Britain was not involved, are many autobiographical tales of derring-do in regiments, bomb-disposal units, or “special forces” such as the SAS whose clandestine image reinforces their glamour.

Perhaps this gradual assimilation of the recent past into the national story is yet another example of “the way Britain, and especially England, works” – namely the ability to “keep everything as it was, so that everything can change.” It hints that the appeal of what might be called military patriotism is capable of taking new forms which too can become part of the legacy of wars otherwise regarded as inglorious. In turn this will make the argument for a substantial reorientation in Britain’s security policy – including intervention – even harder to carry through. After all, martialism in Britain is self-replenishing: since the late nineteenth century, 1968 is the only year that no British soldier has died in action (and that was the very eve of troops being deployed in Northern Ireland at the beginning of the long “troubles”).

From the imperial and colonial eras, through world wars, cold war and small wars, to the present age of multipolar governance and asymmetrical threats, Britain’s military adventures have remained at the heart of the way the country likes to see itself. Iraq and Afghanistan, like Suez, have left Britain chastened. But it is hard for kings, even – perhaps especially – when reduced to pauperdom, to break free from one history and begin to write another. •