few years ago Niall Ferguson made the unexceptionable observation in The
Pity of War that Great War soldiers as much as anything fought on, and
fought to win, because they enjoyed fighting. This caused some of the more
po-faced reviewers of his book to tut-tut – and murmur about, 'what can a civilian
academic really know of war, eighty years on?' Well, what Dr Ferguson knew well
enough was not to anachronistically apply the values of the senior common room
to the Western Front. One thing that has struck me since starting writing this
column is the volume of correspondence from retired military folk. And what is
instantly – and again what ought to be, like Niall Ferguson's insight above, self-evident
apparent is that these are decent people. Put simply, soldiers, sailors
and airmen from Britain and America, whatever we might think of the ends that
they have been put to in service of deficient and delinquent foreign policies,
are not, on the whole, bad men. They have not, by and large, in the service of
empire done atrocious things.
reason to stress this is that we are never going to get anywhere if we keep handing
our opponents the open goal that we think the West, and specifically Britain
and America, is civilisation's cancer. We have to demonstrate that it is the policies
which we object to that are wrong, and not the servants of them. Showing that
despite the innate decency and the absence of evil from our side, there's a strong
case to be made why we're right really is a much better way of going about things.
In fact, by convincingly setting out why we're right and our opponents are wrong,
our agreement that our countries are basically benign notwithstanding, surely
goes a considerable distance towards demonstrating the strength and self-confidence
of our case? In other words, to win this fight, the first and decisive step will
come when we stop saying things that the rest of the world simply won't accept
as being true.
even than ranting about the special relationship or the failings of the Conservative
party, let us return to my favourite subject: the past. But before we go there,
let's just momentarily think about countries like Britain, and America, and Canada,
and Australia, and all the other pro-active, all-weather humanitarian bombers
out there. Are they currently terrible places to live? slipping inexorably towards
being police states? racial and sexual tyrannies the lot of them? I'd say No,
and I'd say that with an eye to the past – which is to say, I'd take the question
and try to place the answer in an historical context. Thus, Britain, compared
to what has gone before, most especially abroad, is not a police state, it bears
no relation to being a police state, and anyone who compares her to one has zero
idea of what they actually were and are like. This, it strikes me, is not a brave
or complex thing to assert. Unfortunately, all too many people who, like us, disagree
with the drift of, for instance, Anglo-American foreign policy, would pant, Yes,
Yes, Ye-ess to that list of questions from a sentence or two ago. Leaving
to one side every other consideration – most notably, trivia such as 'the truth'
- the honking great political problem with this is tactical: most people,
or voters if you will, just don't get the whole police state thing.
we're holding on to what it is that unites us – a certain scepticism about the
mutually reinforcing foreign policies that our governments pursue, aren't we?
We think that our governments' foreign policies are wrong, or misguided, or ineptly
conducted, or foolishly short sighted, or pig ignorant of anything that could
be meaningfully construed as being in the national interest. Yet, bureaucracy
and democracy being what it is – disposed to ignorance in the latter, thus facilitating
the attachment of the former to the carcasses of dead policies – it's difficult,
short of climacteric crisis, for sceptics to make headway. So, how are we going
to go about making some? The first thing (and I'm going to keep repeating this
until someone pays some attention) is that, given the difficulty of our position,
we're going to have to stop heaping still more problems in our way. We are, in
short, only going to make progress in changing the way people think about the
future if we start explaining the past to them more congenially.
Was Right About Everything
for a minute think that means we should sign up for some sloppy Churchillian-cum-New
Deal-boosterism view of the past. Holding what might by caricatured as British
Buchananite views – we shouldn't have declared war on the Hun in 1939; we shouldn't,
pace our little break during the Napoleonic wars for example, have kept fighting
the Germans to the point of insensibility; and you know the rest of it backwards
is not the problem. The problem lies in our habit of asserting that the
policies we pursued as countries, rather than being merely less good, less
sensible, and less agreeable to the public, were immoral, insane and undemocratic.
This won't wash. To break the stranglehold of the other chap's view of the past
– which is invariably at least the rhetorical foundation for their current conduct
of policy – we need first to knock down their walls, not scream that their arguments
are the embodiment of human wickedness. Then we can start raising up our own structures
- but they have to accord with what people are willing to believe.
take an obvious example, National Review Online recently serialised excerpts
from Eliot A. Cohen's, Supreme
Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. Now I've only
NRO presented, but I do know that Cohen is a very good historian – much better
for example than the rather two dimensional Victor Hanson – and these extracts
give us the flavour we have come to expect, which is the succulent taste of Churchill:
genius. Churchill, of course, was a genius, but what we're interested in is the
point that Cohen's understanding of the Great Man is being put to today. And that's,
as you would expect given the location of these chapters, to buttress the whole
NRO take on the war against terror. Nothing so vulgar as a direct link is made,
but we're presented with what the demigod did and really we're all clever
enough to draw the appropriate lessons about what should be done now –
us being at 'war'. For myself, I will never take seriously a word NRO says about
terrorism until someone explains why, oh, bombs in America or Israel are awfully
bad things, but a
character like this ain't. Anyway, moving on, as they say, let's have a quick
dekko at Winston.
Great Man Thesis
Cohen gives us a Churchill who, his flaws alluded to solely in order to magnify
his heroic achievements, is still the world historical statesman. His methods
and aims combined in blissful synthesis, and, he still has much relevance for
us today (why else write a book about him?) The key part of this is 'Churchill
- his grasp on disparate theatres'. This is always an attractive quality for historians
to be able to locate in the past as it reflects well on their judgements,
i.e. they, from the vantage point of the present, can see events in the round,
and opine accordingly, so it's extremely useful to have some historical actor
whom they can likewise project onto.
contrast to what fans of Churchill such as Eliot Cohen are apt to say, the man
most closely involved with him, and with the conduct of the war and the formulation
of grand strategy, Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, had a different, contemporary
view of the Prime Minister's abilities. Like everyone else Alan Brooke thought
that Winston Churchill was a genius, and a good man, but as to whether his life
represents a unique moral and political fable as to how Western democracies should
wage wars, well, think again. Brooke was Chief of the Imperial General Staff (head
of the army), and chairman of the chiefs of staff committee for most of the war.
His unexpurgated diaries, edited by Alex Danchev, have recently been published
and give us a more flesh and blood Churchill.
a combined (i.e. with the US) chiefs of staff in 1943, Brooke sums up for himself
the positions the various players took as to the work at hand, the determining
of the 'Global Statement of our Strategy'. He ran through his own, King's, Marshall's
and so on, and last of all he came to Churchill:
Winston??? Thinks one thing one moment and another at another moment. At times
the war my be won by bombing and all must be sacrificed to it. At others it becomes
essential for us to bleed ourselves dry on the continent because Russia is doing
the same. At others our main effort must be in the Mediterranean, directed against
Italy or Balkans alternatively, with sporadic desires to invade Norway . . . but
more often than all he wants to carry out ALL operations simultaneously irrespective
this is to say nothing of whether Churchill was fighting the right war, or whether
he fought well the war he had ended up fighting, what we're considering is the
Icon that people like Prof. Cohen wish to deploy at the head of their present
day crusade. To give, as we should, the final word on Churchill to Brooke, writing
in September 1943:
wonder whether any historian of the future will ever be able to paint Winston
in his true colours. It is a wonderful character – the most marvelous qualities
and superhuman genius mixed with an astonishing lack of vision at times, and an
impetuosity which if not guided must inevitably bring him into trouble time and
time again. Perhaps the most remarkable failing of his is that he can never see
a whole strategical problem at once. His gaze always settles on some definite
part of the canvas and the rest of the picture is lost. It is difficult to make
him realise the influence of one theatre on another . . . This failing is accenuated
by the fact that often he does not want to see the whole picture, especially if
this wider vision should in any way interfere with the operation he may have temporarily
set his heart on.
Ulster Won the War
you think that a man like Brooke should chiefly be remembered as the character
who successfully manipulated America in pursuit of aims Britain shouldn't have
had in a war we should never have started, or as a faithful and able servant of
the state, or both, he and men like him where the principle reason why Britain,
astonishingly, ended up on the winning side of a ruinous war. Although Alan Brooke
spent most of his adolescence in France, his family home, Colebrooke is in what
is today Northern Ireland. Most of Britain's successful generals from the second
world war have it in common that they all hailed from the same caste – the willingly
militaristic Ulster gentry.
most famous of this crowd was Bernard, later Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery,
whose family home, New Park, was just over the border in Moville, Co. Donegal.
My paternal grandmother, as her contribution to war effort, spent the war, up
until her marriage, at New Park – as companion to Maud, the general's mother.
Granny did this at the behest of the War Office because her distant relative,
Lady Montgomery, was viewed as a threat to the empire as, every time she attempted
to get in touch with her son, who loathed her, this enraged him so much that it
was felt the progress of the 8th army was set back at least a month. Once victory
was in sight, my grandmother went off to get married to another Montgomery, from
an entirely different family, who from proposition to wedding service to wartime
honeymoon wrapped that up in six weeks (he wanted to get the whole business over
and done with before the cricket season started).
this has been by way of a very roundabout defence of our own past, and our own
ancestors – we haven't been monsters, where plenty of others have, and we're not
villains today. Until we stop crying wolf, nobody is going to take our entirely
justified cries of 'let's leave the EU because of these perfectly reasonable ideas'
or 'let's not build military bases in Central Asia' or whatever the issue to hand
is, seriously. And they won't need to, for what have we left in the linguistic
locker to describe the crimes and follies that might be about to happen, given
how so many of us describe the world as it is? For a very long time the Sane Foreign
Policy movement has been its own worst enemy – it would be more than a pity if
when our cause were in some danger of mattering we, too many of us, ever more
determinedly sought ridicule and irrelevance.