Friday, 28 August 2009

Don't they know there's a bloody war on? Err, yes, I think they do.

Either Rebekah Wade is going out with a bang or Dominic Mohan is intent on being seen immediately as a "serious" editor for these serious times. Today's Sun splash, and an extra long editorial with short comment pieces from various individuals alongside it, all ask the same interminable question: "Don't they know there's a bloody war on?"

My guess is that they do (they being the politicians) and that you (us) also do. It's just that the war in Afghanistan is one which has little overall consequence for anyone outside of the military. We have relatively few troops in the country (around the 10,000) mark, they're all there because they want to be, which makes a major difference to wars where conscription is used, and their presence has no real tangible effects on us back home whatsoever, except for the families of those who return either dead or injured, not to mention mentally scarred. You can argue that this shouldn't be the case, that there should be more than simple passive support for what the soldiers are out there doing, even if this doesn't extend to political support, but what exactly does the Sun expect? For the country to be put on a war footing? For the prime minister to take personal control? It seems they do: they want him to "take charge and take responsibility for the war", and if he doesn't he should be replaced by someone who will. Has it not perhaps occurred to the Sun that the very last person who should be in charge of the conduct of a war is an unqualified politician? Or do they mean something different when they say take charge and take responsibility?

This point matters because the paper is not only not comparing like with like, it seems a little hazy on history as well, as this passage from the editorial makes plain:

Mr Brown has taken the country to war but is ducking responsibility for the conduct of it. The tradition of our country is that in wartime, the Prime Minister takes charge.

Lloyd George led us in World War One and Winston Churchill in World War Two.

Margaret Thatcher led from the front in the triumphant Falklands War in 1982.

John Major took charge in the first Gulf War of 1991. Tony Blair assumed full responsibility when we invaded Iraq to topple Saddam. And he did the same over the liberation of Kosovo.

Except Gordon Brown hasn't taken the country into Afghanistan; Tony Blair did, in 2001. We've been there ever since. Brown as chancellor provided the funds for the war, it's quite true, but was not personally responsible for taking us there. He also wasn't prime minister when we entered Helmand in 2006: the defence secretary then was John Reid, who famously said he hoped that we would leave without firing a single shot. Then there's the fact that we're there in the country, not just on our own, but as part of the ISAF NATO coalition. Additionally, if we're going to split hairs, Winston Churchill didn't lead us into WW2; Neville Chamberlain did. The war in Afghanistan is also not, in any meaningful sense, a war with specific aims like all of those the Sun lists. It's far more comparable to what we were doing in Iraq from the fall of Saddam up until our exit this year: peacekeeping, reconstruction and providing security. Missions, like Operation Panther's Claw, which had the specific aim of clearing out Taliban so that people could vote in the presidential election, have been few and far between. As also argued above, we are quite clearly not in "wartime".

It's perhaps instructive that some of yesterday's front pages screamed that up to 10 British soldiers had died so that a whole 150 people could vote. The message from that was unequivocal: what's the point? The Sun quite clearly believes there is a point, as it has argued in the past, but it certainly isn't suggesting what it is in this editorial. It seems intent instead on kicking people before they've even had a chance:

There is an air of unreality in the country. While Our Boys are dying, a fool who is out of his depth and with little experience is in charge of defence.


Bob Ainsworth is an appalling appointment as Defence Secretary, yet he's in charge of the war. General Lord Guthrie, the hugely-respected former defence staff chief, makes devastating criticisms of Ainsworth's shambolic Ministry of Defence.

Is Ainsworth a fool? I doubt it, and at least he was previously a defence minister, unlike some of the other recent secretaries which were put in place and which the likes of the Sun approved of a lot more. It's also hardly fair to blame Ainsworth for the problems at the Ministry of Defence when he's only been in charge for getting on for two months.

Guthrie is most likely integral to working out the Sun's real position. Guthrie was one of the founders of the United Kingdom National Defence Association, an organisation which pushes for a return to the levels of cold war defence spending, a ludicrous position when we face a threat that couldn't be more different to that posed by the Soviets. As also could be expected, Guthrie has interests in pushing for an increase in defence spending: according to the House of Lords register of members' interests, Guthrie is a non-parliamentary consultant to BioDefense Corporation, whose mission is to "play a key role in homeland security and the mitigation of bioterrorism", while also non-executive director of Colt Defense LLC, which supplies the American military with weapons.

As could be expected, the equipment provided, or lack of it, gets it in the neck, especially the lack of protective vehicles. Yet the Americans, who do have such vehicles, have experienced 45 casualties so far this month in the country. Jock Stirrup, the current armed forces' chief of defence staff, writing in today's Guardian has a slightly different take:

Equipment is a subject that has generated much debate, some of it well informed, some of it not. Our equipment is good and improving; commanders speak of it very highly. But the enemy adapt their tactics and techniques to counter our capabilities, so what is "the right equipment" in a campaign changes, and often very quickly.

The Sun isn't willing to acknowledge such challenges or nuances, and just blames the MoD entirely.

It comes to down three immediate steps which the paper demands, which attempt to be reasonable but which are in fact anything but:

First, Mr Brown must take personal charge of the war in Afghanistan and tell the country clearly where we stand.

Second, he must sack Bob Ainsworth and appoint a competent Defence Secretary who will work with the military, not against them.

Third, he must make available whatever money it takes to supply the equipment urgently needed on the ground.

The first step is far enough on the second point, not so much on the former as already discussed. The fact is though that there is no convincing argument for our presence in Afghanistan, hence the fallacious argument (which the Sun supports) that what the troops are doing in Afghanistan is protecting British lives on British streets. The reason why the government is obtuse is because it realises this, however inappropriate that is. The best argument that can be made, whether you agree or disagree, is in Jock Stirrup's piece above. Sacking Bob Ainsworth will solve precisely nothing, especially when the Sun doesn't even attempt to suggest someone who should replace him, just as there is no evidence whatsoever that Ainsworth is "working against them". Lastly, just where does the Sun expect the government to get "whatever money it takes" without raising taxes (which it loathes), borrowing yet more (equally) or cutting services (which?)? In any event, helicopters and armoured vehicles cannot suddenly be magicked out of thin air; they take time to procure.

The Sun, as always, wants things done yesterday, and wants more to be done with less. It's trapped in the fatal idea that we are still a world power when we are not, and demands the sort of military spending that a world power would require. We are instead an island nation that requires defence, but not of the kind which the likes of Guthrie support. Gordon Brown can be criticised quite rightly over many things, including the current lack of dedication and explanation vis-a-vis Afghanistan, but the problems can be traced back to both Tony Blair and John Reid, who had the main hand in the calamity currently occurring in the country. The real way to defend the forces is to call for them to be brought home, and for a realistic defence policy which accepts that the main threat comes not from Afghanistan, but in fact from its neighbour, Pakistan. Undoubtedly though, whoever the editor of the Sun, when the paper barks, politicians listen, and Brown and Ainsworth will be surely mulling over what their response will be.


Sim-O said...

Good post, Septiclisle.

It has so many examples of wrongness in it.

Jez Arnold said...

"It's also hardly fair to blame Ainsworth for the problems at the Ministry of Defence when he's only been in charge for getting on for two months." hang on, before this he was Minister of State for the Armed Forces for the prvious two years. He's seen both Des Browne and John Hutton in charge. I do agree with "Second, he must sack Bob Ainsworth and appoint a competent Defence Secretary who will work with the military, not against them."

Problem #1 - Labour has historically hated the Armed Forces. Thats the main problem here

bluepillnation said...

Not true Jez.

The officer class of the Forces has traditionally been Tory, and the pro-Union and nationalistic tendencies of the party may cause many in the ranks to trend similarly, but I think the traditional stance of the Labour Party has always been that war is traditonally antithetical to the well-being of the working man. This viewpoint stemmed from the horrendous losses in the First World War, and I'd be surprised if you didn't agree with it.

Jez Arnold said...

@bluepillnation - ok. Point taken. Labour is anti-war due to horendous losses in WW1. That was a LONG time ago. We are down to the last few surviving servicemen who fought in that war.

I agree. As an ex-serviceman, it was clear that many officers and soldiers were true-blue. Not many Labour fans, and very few LibDems amongst the army. Probably due to the fact that historically the Armed Forces benefitted from Tory Control.

Remember when Thatcher came into power in '79, she gave a 20% pay rise.

The problem arises due to the ruling party wanting to be a 'superpower', the Tories managed to provide some semblance of 'power' (knowing full well that we couldn't afford it), while Labour wants to do everything with limited funds.

For a long time, I believe the amount spent on the Forces was around 4-5%, apparently now we spend 2.5%. This is government that does not care.

At the end of the day, someone needs to sit down and work out what can and can not be afforded.

bluepillnation said...

Hi again Jez - I get your point.

"Remember when Thatcher came into power in '79, she gave a 20% pay rise."

In any other world, that would be considered a bribe.

I had a similar rant over at my blog regarding the British refusal (aided and abetted by media denial via jingoism) to accept our lack of superpower status - head over if you want. :)

Oriel boy said...

Wasn't there like 20% inflation under Thatcher though?