The squaddies’ view

In case you missed it, the Cleggster has been in Afghanistan over the weekend getting shot at. With real rockets. Presumably not accompanied by any of the usual Westminster bubble media hacks – “Nick, would you mind doing that again for the cameras? Yeah, just a bit of a flinch when the great big bang comes… Perfect.”

I don’t tend to write about war very much. It just isn’t very funny. (Actually, that’s not true. I have it on good authority from people who have done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan that it has moments of absolute gibbering hilarity. You couldn’t get through it otherwise. “Shall I take’em out, sir?” “No, corporal.” “But they’ve got a gun, sir.” “Yes, corporal. We’ve got a tank.”)

But the main reason I don’t write about war is because, obviously enough, there isn’t a liberal perspective like there is for every other aspect of policy-making. Liberalism has no answers to offer on a logistical and strategic problem like how to succeed in a theatre of war – though it has a great deal to say as soon as the last shot has been fired. Once you’ve committed to war, as the party did in this case, there’s little to do other than see it through.

So Clegg’s concerns are the universal ones – why isn’t the British purpose in Afghanistan being driven home to the public more clearly? Why haven’t we got a decent strategy for tackling the opium trade? Why isn’t the international community providing more co-ordinated support for reconstruction, without which the whole exercise will have been worse than useless? Why aren’t the troops being paid enough? And why, even after a great deal of improvement, have they still not got enough decent kit? (The answer to a lot of these questions, of course, insofar as they involve stretched resources, is a great big fat “Iraq”.)

But what, I hear you cry, does The Army Rumour Service (ARRSE) make of the party leader’s visit?

“Oh great,” says one poster, wearily, “More vote-grabbing by our dear (wannabe) leaders. Does it matter? Not like we will have a general election any time soon.”

You might just have answered your own question there, soldier. Still, another poster is more forgiving: “Well least he has gone out there to see for himself. More than a lot of MPs have done.”

Others, meanwhile, muse with gentle cynicism on Clegg’s opinion that Afghanistan is “the most important conflict of our generation”.

Poster 1: “Er, until the next one, presumably?”

Poster 2: “Beat me to it. I was going to say ‘Until IRAN!'”

Ah! as General Melchett would say, the healthy humour of the honest Tommy!


  1. Alix, much as I tend to hang on your every word you got me riled here. Liberalism is essential in war.

    Liberalism provides the only philosophic underpinning to prevent or ever justify war. Liberalism provides all the necessary theoretical and practical background to be successful in combat or conflict. Liberalism explains the weary knowledge gained by experience in war.

    With death so close and constantly at hand the only true sustenance is provided by the fruits of liberalism.

    The armed services sometimes seem like a bastion of backwardness and conservatism, but don’t let that fool anyone, those in charge know they have to face up to constant challenges on all fronts and cannot tolerate any arrogance or complacency: their greatest strength is in their humanity.

  2. Of course, liberals have abhorred war from the beginning. Our forefathers, campaigning against the vested interest & privilige of the Victorian state (that’s why liberalism was so radical, and why it was anti-state, and those lessons are still relevant today) were opposed to, for example, the Crimean War (Cobden, Bright) the repulsive Tory jingoism (Gladstone), World War One (all those ministers who resigned). Not counting wars like World War 2 and Afghanistan which had to be done, but we still oppose jingo nationalism and wars of aggression today. It is in our blood.

  3. Hm, you may have misunderstood me or I wasn’t being clear enough. I was talking about the “strategic and logistical” questions once the decision to go to war is made. Obviously liberalism has enormous input before that point, and as asquith says we’ve made a lot of our self-identifying history from that.

    This is in contrast to, say, the strategic and logistical implementation of education policy, where liberalism does have important, practical, on-the-ground things to say about who gets education and how much. There are differences between, say, liberal implementation and conservative implementation of education policy – down to the finest detail, like whether or not to legislate on school blazers. There’s no difference between liberal and conservative implementation of warfare at a strategic, logistical or tactical level. The differences come before the war has started and after it has finished.

    So once the war is in progress, it’s not particularly fertile ground for application of liberal thought – we just want the bloody thing to be over, like the conservatives and lefties do (in the modern day, that is. Obviously there have been times in history when the other two groups had much invested in wars continuing!)

    I also think you’re reading *way* too much into the post if you think I’m implying that the armed forces are backwards and conservative. I suspect you’re continuing an argument you typically have in another context?🙂

  4. Let me take the opportunity to respond then, please.

    I like both your and Asquith’s line of reasoning which I accept and agree with, however you are also right in saying I am continuing an argument from elsewhere.

    This is about the relevance and applicability of liberalism to all circumstances and situations, so forgive me I get wobbly when I see attempts to create limitations – it is as much about attitudes as as practicalities.

    On strategic and logistic questions, there are many examples of military action where an application of liberal philosophy did or may have helped – I’m particularly fond of reading histories which outline battle orders to get an insight in the mindset of successful and unsuccessful leadership, for which warfare provides the most vibrant arena to test contrasts.

    Probably the most celebrated individual example from a British point of view is Nelson and his efforts in the reconstruction and reorganisation of the Royal Navy (logistic) through to his four great personal triumphs in naval warfare (military tactics and political strategy), which is mirrored by his colourful and controversial private affairs and have served to portray him as a true popular and romantic hero (admittedly his legend cannot be ascribed to him for his single-handedness in and on the Victory, but the glory must and has, for the largest part, been attributed to his single-mindedness).

    In particular Nelson’s liberalism as an Admiral comes through in his insistence on an end to, and the outlawing of press gangs and flogging, while he ensured the motivation and loyalty of his sailors through good pay, good rations and better health and medical provision on board ship and recognising family parnterships on board (in full diversity by all accounts), as well as organising early veterans associations. Within his command he devolved responsibility to his commanders and ships, making sure this was possible by developing communication methods and encouraging the innovation and adaptation of new technologies. And that’s just for starters.

    Every conflict pits sides against another, whether it be in armed or academic conflict, and everything from the rules of engagement to the measure of success are universally transferable and applicable to other spheres – the old truism ‘war is politics by other means’ bears this out.

    So in one important sense I’m not disagreeing with either of you, but am trying to encourage full extension of philosophy into areas which may at first seem detatched.

    I also recognise that the place for drawn out argument and debate is not in the face of enemy fire, as a certain ruthlessness and decisiveness is required, however, as a fast paced environment where everything is a matter of life and death it is definitely no place to stick to the dogma of the pre-arranged battleplan once events start to stray outside of prepared parameters: it is important to be prepared for all eventualities, so that the fight is never lost.

    The cross-fertilisation of military metaphor into politics, especially around elections and by-elections, dramatises the urgency and applicability in one direction and creates a sobering seriousness of determination in the other.

    I do think that the conduct of warfare is one area which has become alienated from mainstream liberal political discussion (especially among many of our fellow members), but this again follows our habit of secularising, or depoliticising, matters of vital importance to avoid the distraction and time-wasting of ideological finger-twisting, yet simultaneously, it singularly and unequivocally points the direction for our political troops.

    So I see it as a necessary sacrifice to give up our proprietorial claim to the liberalism of successful leadership in war in exchange for the real spoils, nevertheless this unspoken truth shouldn’t remain unacknowledged or ununderstood behind the front line.

    Retreating from that however, to say so also betrays the uneasy but dynamic alliance between the idealism and realism which comprises the different measures used in all our rhetorical and statistical descriptions.

    War is a messy business, but then violence and suffering and death have yet to be disentangled from the history of human existence.

    I’ll stop there before I betray my enthusiasm…

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