Accessed 18 April 1999
April 18 1999
The peacemongers rewrite history
You didn't have to be a military genius to guess that this was going to be an appallingly hazardous enterprise. There will be more tragic accidents, more civilians killed by those who are trying to help them, more villages burnt and more villagers raped and murdered. Yet this is also a just and necessary war, worth fighting and worth winning.
If we had stood idly by while Milosevic went straight from the Rambouillet peace conference to expel more than 1m Albanians from Kosovo, then Nato might just as well have celebrated its 50th birthday by closing down. We would be accomplices in the last great crime of the 20th century.
But this is not how many military experts and media pundits, perhaps a majority, see it. For them this is the wrong war, fought on the wrong terrain, with the wrong methods - "a total mess", "a nonsense", "a disaster". They hanker after the rolling deserts of Iraq or the treeless wastes of the Falklands, anywhere but the fogbound mountains of Kosovo.
From right and left they come, Lord Carrington and Lord Healey, Tony Benn and Alan Clark, with a swarm of armchair Clausewitzes and south Balkan Strangeloves behind them, to denounce the whole business. They reserve their fiercest scorn for the surrender of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to the "emotional spasms" of public opinion. For the public are "volatile", "sentimental", incapable of the cool and sustained objectivity of . . . well, of people like themselves. In the good old days, we are given to understand, British statesmen declared wars only in defence of the national interest with clearly defined goals and a well worked-out strategy.
Out of my innate charity, I pass over the record of, say, Denis Healey as a military strategist and prophet. But I do object to this rewriting of history. For these condescending critics are under the same delusion as the war's most enthusiastic supporters, such as the bombardiers of The Guardian and Tony Blair himself.
Both camps believe the war against Milosevic is a new kind of war, being fought for humanitarian purposes and not in pursuit of the national interest. The experts think this is terrible and bound to end in tears. The bombardiers think it is absolutely splendid and heralds the beginning of a new dawn for human rights everywhere.
The reality is surely that long before television, ever since the coming of democracy, in fact, public moral indignation has been the petrol that starts wars and keeps them going. Throughout the 19th century, as Professors Steven L Burg and Paul S Shoup point out in their new book on the war in Bosnia, "then as now, Europe intervened reluctantly in the Balkans, driven by emotion and public reaction to atrocities committed by combatants, as well as by larger policy considerations". It is unfair to dismiss this public outrage as synthetic stuff, manufactured by the mass media. As often as not, the media tamely follow public opinion, rather than leading it. One minute, the Daily Mail is protesting against vicious Albanian asylum-seekers. The next, it tries to get in step with its readers by calling for action to help the innocent Kosovan refugees - ie, the same people. Politicians, too, are as much responding to the public mood as helping to create it. Is this such a bad thing? After all, it's the public that provide the troops and pay the taxes.
I confess that, unlike 80% of the population, I wasn't very enthusiastic about going to war to regain the Falklands. Yet even the wettest of us has to admit that the public indignation in that case was utterly justified and that no prime minister could have ignored it and survived. That war, like both world wars, was fought primarily to rescue the victims of unprovoked aggression, not to gain or regain territory. If the public had been indifferent, or the Falklands had been uninhabited, would it have been fought at all?
The public mood often seems to me less volatile and more rational than the mood of the pundits. Once roused to anger by the horrible maltreatment of the Kosovo Albanians, the public have been surprisingly ready to accept the logic of sending in ground troops. By contrast, Dr Kissinger has changed his mind at least once, and Blair and Clinton seem to be changing theirs. Nor is the public mood either as impatient or as easily inflamed as the pundits allege. Throughout this century, the public in western democracies have stoically supported long and costly wars. By contrast, they have steadfastly refused to regard the ghastly events in Bosnia as anything other than a nasty civil war that outside intervention would only make worse.
And quite right, too. The independence of Bosnia was barely five minutes old. The representatives of the Muslim and Croatian majority grabbed sovereignty after the Serbian minority in the parliament had walked out. Of course, this did not justify the subsequent Serbian massacres, but nor did it suggest that arming the Muslims - let alone sending in British troops to defend the integrity of Bosnia - would have been the way to minimise the slaughter.
The pundits sneer at the present "timid half-measures". You must be prepared to go in full-bloodedly at the start or not at all, they say, blitzkrieg or nothing.
But what are they suggesting instead: that for the past six months, before there was any evidence of large-scale ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Nato should have been building up a huge army of invasion? Or that, on the contrary, we should now wait until such a force is ready before dropping the first bomb - by which time there might be scarcely an Albanian left alive in Kosovo?
In the real world, a government has to respond to public indignation with those forces that are at its disposal. Nor can war aims and war tactics be set in stone from the start. In Napoleon's words, "you engage and then you see". In modern terms, some "mission creep" is inevitable.
Western governments are, I think, more to be criticised for their peacetime sins of omission than for their present conduct of the war. Ten years ago, we should have poured money into Yugoslavia before it broke up and tried to keep the federation together until it had completed the transition from communism to democracy. If the republics then still wanted to go their separate ways, there was at least a chance they might have done so peacefully.
As far as I know, only the late Sir Fitzroy Maclean urged this course, and he was denounced as a Titoist stooge.
The other legitimate criticism of recent British governments is their shameful neglect of defence. We have spent the "peace dividend" about three times over. If defence had merely maintained the share of public expenditure it had only five years ago, the armed services would now be receiving 30% more. And even five years ago, it wasn't hard to predict that more dangerous times were coming. Now we are cruelly stretched with our commitments to Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Macedonia.
It is painful to recall the 19th-century music hall verse that gave rise to the J word:
We don't want to fight, but, by
One couldn't sing the second line with such confidence today.
The "defence community" has been strangely acquiescent in these cuts. Indeed, George Robertson, the defence secretary, has received many plaudits for his moves to make our armed forces leaner, more streamlined, more flexible - and smaller. If the experts had voiced alarm that we were leaving ourselves dangerously exposed, they might have persuaded the politicians to think again.
This war is as dangerous and uncertain as any conflict to which Britain has committed herself this century. It is a pity that its critics have not agitated more vigorously to improve our capacity to fight it.
Copyright 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.