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August 22, 2007

Martin Samuel is wrong to say that John Reid should be sent to Helmand - Brendan Simms explains why it is nonsense to argue that politicians who support military action should be sent to the front-line themselves

Posted by Brendan Simms

Martin Samuel has argued in The Times that politicians who support sending our troops to Afghanistan should themselves be sent to the frontline. Brendan Simms explains why this is nonsense.

In yesterday's Times (21st August 2007), the columnist Martin Samuel proposes a drastic solution to concentrate the minds of politicians, and - one supposes - columnists, intellectuals and analysts. He notes the security practices at El Al with approval. Not only do these involve "unapologetic racial profiling" of passengers and careful screening of luggage, but a random member of the security ground staff is selected to travel on the aircraft as well. "You say this plane is safe, Amit", Samuel jokes, "you get on it". He then goes on to suggest that if this practice were adopted for wars - if politicians were forced to fight in those they started themselves, or at least had experience of war - then they would be less trigger happy. The individual Samuel himself wishes to so conscript is the hapless John Reid, a former Defence Secretary who notoriously hoped in 2006 that the additional forces he was sending to Helmand in Afghanistan might return home without "firing a shot". Samuel suggests that "if the ministers had to accompany the troops", then rather than facing into a decade-long struggle, the mission would be called off within ten days.

The point Samuel makes is an old one, but it is becoming increasingly relevant in an age where the western democracies are deploying troops ever more frequently, in greater numbers and for longer periods. It comes at a time when the role of the armed forces has never been more visible in the public mind since 1945, but when the "contract" between the services and the nation, or at least its elected representatives, has come under ever greater strain. The men and women in uniform feel that they have been left to pay the price for an ambitious foreign policy with their lives and health. For those - such as the present author - who supported the interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, but who are unlikely ever to have to risk their own lives in support of them, Samuel's question also touches a raw nerve. Would we be so keen to use military force if we knew the horror of war at first hand? Would we order our service men and women into action so extensively, if we had personal experience of the stresses which long deployments and their attendant separations from family and loved ones impose on them? No doubt, these questions will be asked again as the inevitable conflict with Tehran over Iran's nuclear ambitions looms.

At its root, however, Samuel's argument is flawed. It runs contrary to the very spirit of modern society in which the emphasis is on diversification of skills. Thus in the eighteenth century, men might - as Samuel Johnson put it - think less of themselves for not being either soldiers or sailors, but they did not alow that to colour their political judgments. Contemporary political invective was rich and unrestrained, but the charge of naked cowardice was rarely made. When the Elder Pitt argued in 1761, for example, for a pre-emptive strike on Bourbon, there were many who doubted his wisdom, but nobody suggested that he go to sea himself. Our politicians have been elected to make political decisions - including strategic ones - not to engage in physical brawling. We would want the Home Secretary, to order police to disperse rioters if necessary, but we would not expect him or her to charge them in person.

Moreover, there is no evidence that politicians who have past personal experience of war are any more pacific than their civilian counterparts. Thus Willie Redmond, the Irish Home Rule MP who urged his constituents to join the British Army, did so himself and was killed in the trenches in his mid-fifties. Prominent among the appeasers in the 1930s were men such as Chamberlain who had been too old to serve in the Great War, but were haunted by its sacrifices; others, such as Lord Halifax, had served at the front. Many of the resisters, especially Duff Cooper, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan had fine war records. There is no particular link either way between military experience and robustness in foreign policy.

The memory of appeasement is much-abused, but it does remind us that there is a cost to inaction as well as action. Let us assume - it is not a great leap - that Martin Samuel opposes military action to neutralise the Iranian nuclear threat. He will, one imagines, repeat his demand that all those who support intervention should do the job themselves. In that event, the banter with Samuel might run as follows. "You think that it is safe to let the Mullahs get the bomb, Martin? You reckon they pose no serious threat to millions of Israelis? Tell you what, why don't you go and live there?". Or how about this: "Alright Martin, I will accept your belief that there is no need to fight Iran now, not least because you want me to do it personally. But I will only do so on condition that when you accept that the moment for action finally has arrived, by which time it may be too late, or at least much more difficult, then you should go and fight, and not I".

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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I can certainly understand the sentiment - usually given by people who don't agree with a particular military action, or plain do not like a particular government. However the implication is that either all our leaders must be former professional soldiers, or seamen or airmen, or else we have to have a major war at least every 20 years so we can have a pool of leaders "qualified" to make decisions of war and peace if it ever arrives.

I somehow don't think that either prospect would be considered appealing by most people who voice such fatuous statements. Even if we were to implement such a limitation to our leadership, it wouldn't end the complaints. Bush Senior did actually serve in a war, being a torpedo bomber pilot in World War Two. But he wasn't exempted from similar criticism during the lead up to the Kuwaiti War in 1990/91 - I believe protestors in the US said words to the effect of "send your sons not ours".

The truth is that we have delegated decisions of war and peace to our "elected representatives". With calls to make a vote of Parliament necessary to go to war we would have to restrict membership of the house to those who have served in the military - would this smell of military government? They are also voted in by their constituency, most of whom have never served in war either. Perhaps only current and past members of the armed forces should be allowed to vote. This, surely, is the ultimate and logical extension of this line of thought.

Posted by: PT at August 23, 2007 10:36 AM
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