Saturday, 28 February 2015


I’ve been struck during the debate on Scottish independence by the attitude of nationalists to the issues surrounding defence. For reasons that have always been obscure to me independence supporters are almost universally opposed to military action, and especially to nuclear weapons. Strangely, however, they are in favour both of NATO membership and maintaining a strong Scottish military. The peculiarity of this position can be illustrated in the following way.

There are really only two logically defensible positions with regard to the military. They could be described as the isolationist and the interventionist positions. It would be perfectly reasonable for us to make a declaration that we will never attack unless attacked ourselves. Britain is an island, the last time we were invaded was 1688.

We could have sat out both World Wars. There was no direct threat from Germany towards Britain at the beginning of either World War. Quite the reverse, Germany was desperate not to fight Britain. A threat may, of course, have developed, and Britain’s interests either in Europe or elsewhere may have been threatened, but if Britain had remained neutral, it is no more likely that we would have been invaded than Spain, which remained neutral in both World Wars.

At no point during the wars in Korea, Malaya, Falklands, Iraq or Afghanistan or any other military action since 1945 has there ever been any threat of invasion to our island, though, of course, we have been threatened in other ways and there have been threats to our national interest.

The UK could logically revert to the position of ‘splendid isolation’. If we did so, we could cut our military spending to the extent that it was enough only to defend our island. We could in this way spend a similar amount of GDP on defence as Denmark, or even Iceland, which practically speaking has no military at all. Afterwards, we could say to the world: if you leave us alone, we will never again set foot on your soil. But this position of isolation and military cuts would, of course, be very vulnerable to a bullying foreign power unless we retained nuclear weapons. With the credible threat of retaliation we could point out to such a power, we may no longer be able to defend our interests with an army or a navy, but we still have nuclear submarines that can sail within range of your capital. Far then from nuclear weapons being costly, they are really all the military you need if you take an isolationist approach. This position it strikes me is logically defensible. Let’s look at the alternative interventionist approach.

Britain intervened in 1914 and 1939. We fought because someone else was attacked. It’s important to remember, however, that although we fought to defend someone else, we were also fighting to defend our own national interest, which would have been damaged by German dominance of Europe. Since World War II, we have continued to intervene internationally in order to defend the aims and interests of the West. We fought communists in order to defend democracy and free markets. We have tried to act as the world’s policeman removing tyrants when we decide that we don’t like them or when we think it’s possible to get rid of them. The problem in recent times however, is that we keep losing.

Look at the pattern of modern warfare. The USA is by far the strongest army in the world, so much so that in a traditional army to army conflict no-one else can even compete. But it makes no difference. US armed forces have had absolutely no answer to insurgency since Vietnam. Wars in Iraq were won twice decisively on the battlefield, but lost afterwards. Wars in Afghanistan were lost first by the Soviets, and a few years from now it will be clear that we too have fought there and lost. Our intervention in Libya has left a country in a worse state than it was before. Our intervention in Iraq together with our encouragement of revolution in “The Arab Spring” has left the whole region incomparably worse than it was before.

Is this an argument not to intervene? Perhaps. It would be fine if we could just live in ‘splendid isolation’ and ignore the goings on in the Middle East. Let them live as they please so long as they don’t threaten us. Does that work however? What if Turkey were attacked? We have our NATO obligation to defend a fellow member. What if terrorism spreads ever further, becomes stronger, so that at some point it comes here as an everyday threat that must be faced every day? The problem is that we are likely at some point in the future to have to fight against insurgency again, but whenever we do so, we lose.

The difficulty is that  reverting to ‘splendid isolation’ is only really effective against nation states. Who do you retaliate against if attacked by insurgents? What do we do if they see our commitment not to fight anyone unless attacked first as weakness to be exploited? What if our plea to be left alone in our ‘splendid isolation’ falls on deaf ears? Pacifism only works against a reasonable opponent. Stalin would have laughed at Ghandi and then crushed him.

So let’s assume at some point in the future we have to fight against insurgency. How do we do it without losing?

Was there insurgency in World War II? Yes. Why didn’t it win? Think about the Red Army on its journey from the gates of Moscow to Berlin. What would have happened to a German town that had been captured, but decided to continue fighting through insurgency?

We have forgotten the lesson of history that was taught to us by General Sherman when he said “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it”. It is indeed a horrible thought, but the alternative is worse. Sherman’s point is that we must make war so terrible that those who are fighting against us want to give up. He took his army from Atlanta to the sea and destroyed more or less everything in his path over an area fifty miles wide. By doing so he shortened the war and thereby saved lives.

In the Second World War it was the fear felt by Germans and Japanese that made them cease fighting. We conquered their countries and then ruled them for years. Imagine if we’d allowed insurgency to continue in those countries. Imagine how many lives it would have cost in the end if we’d left them as failed states. Instead we taught them democracy at the point of a gun.

There is another lesson we have forgotten since the Second World War and which is likewise the reason that we keep losing. Think about the difference between how we fought in the world wars and how we fight now. News used to be tightly controlled and when we reported a story we did not help the enemy. Imagine if the BBC had made interviews with the residents of Hamburg after the fire storm or if the parents of every British soldier who died were interviewed. Imagine if during the Second World War the morality of each battle and each tactic was questioned by commentators. If we had fought World War 2 like we fight modern wars, we would have lost.

Casualties are tragic for each family who loses a loved one. But we have lost the distinction between heavy casualties and light casualties. In thirteen years we lost 453 soldiers in Afghanistan, while on one day in July 1916 we lost 19,240. Each life is equally tragically lost, but we need a little perspective. If you are not willing to lose 35 soldiers a year, you shouldn’t be fighting anywhere.

There was a moment during the battle of Gettysburg where it looked as if the Confederates would pierce the Union line. Union General Hancock needed ten minutes to bring up reinforcements so he sent in the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment against a force five times as large. The Minnesotans were destroyed as fighting force suffering 82% casualties, but their sacrifice may well have saved the Union. No general would be so reckless with troops today. It is for this reason that we continue to lose. We have lost the sense of seriousness with which armies and generals fought in the past. We think war can be fought without loss on our side. It is as if we wish to play with tin soldiers. This is fundamentally decadent. It is our weakness. It’s why for all our technology our enemies laugh at us.

Insurgents are winning because they know they have a simple task. Kill enough of our soldiers and we’ll give up. We’ll parade them in flag draped coffins which simply helps our enemy whose only goal is to repeat this spectacle as often as possible. In Vietnam they had to kill over 50,000 Americans before the US decided it wasn’t worth it. It only took the deaths of 18 soldiers to drive the United States out of Somalia. At the moment we don't dare fight anywhere. 

Insurgents know that their task is not to defeat our armies in the field, but to defeat us at home. They are allowed to do anything when they fight us, but if one of our bombs kills civilians, if one of our soldiers in the heat of battle does something he shouldn’t, there will be hell to pay in our media. They fight with no holds barred, we fight with one hand tied behind our back. It is simply not serious. If we had fought this way in the Second World War, we would have lost. We must accept that bad things happen in war. I would not fight if I knew that one mistake puts me in jail, while my opponent can do what he pleases. If I’m captured, I’m liable to get my head chopped off, but if he’s captured, he’ll discover all his human rights even if he’s not wearing a uniform. Our grandfathers and great grandfathers lost their tempers on the battlefield as soldiers have done throughout history, but they knew that they wouldn’t go to jail unless they did something grotesque.

In fighting insurgency, we must fight as we did during the Second World War. Let’s have a tightly controlled media and news blackout if necessary. Above all, let’s do everything to defeat and conquer the enemy, and do nothing that helps the enemy fight against us. If we had fought this way in Iraq, with our firepower, we could have won quickly. Iraq could now be a democratic prosperous state if we’d fought like we did against Germany in 1945. We would have saved thousands of lives, too simply by making the population realise that insurgency isn’t worth it. We should fight no more wars until and unless we decide to be serious about it. Fight to win and do everything that’s necessary or don’t fight at all. In that case let us live in ‘splendid isolation’, disband the armed forces, but sorry, Nats, we’ll keep our nuclear weapons as the cheapest form of security. Either fight or don’t fight, but above all, give up this modern way of fighting. Any way of fighting war which inevitably leads to defeat is simply folly.

In Scotland the SNP would like to have ‘splendid isolation’ but without the one thing that might deter a serious enemy from attacking us, nuclear weapons. They would like us to have all the historic regiments of Scotland, but for these regiments to do nothing but remain safely within Scotland’s borders. But these cap badges look rather expensive if there is no circumstance in which you would actually use these regiments. For that reason having no armed forces, but keeping nuclear weapons gives us by far the most deterrence for each pound spent. After all no-one is planning to invade North Korea no matter what they say or do. The SNP’s defence policy amounts to soldiers wearing their precious cap badges painting coal white. It only makes sense to pay for armed forces if you can imagine a circumstance in which they might fight and given that we’ve not been invaded since 1688, defending this island might involve a rather long futile wait. If we want to have regiments, we must accept that their purpose is to be involved in battles. But there is absolutely no point paying for soldiers to fight unless we intend for them to win. Let’s fight no more wars unless we fight them in such a way that our troops can come home victorious. Let’s fight no more wars which we are destined to lose because we’ve forgotten how to win. Better anything than that, better by far to disband all those regiments who no longer can fight as their grandfathers did.

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  1. An independent Scotland will find it hard to implement an isolationist policy whilst at the same time seeking NATO membership, which would place obligations on Scottish troops. I cannot imagine NATO accepting a Doctors note listing out the circumstances in which Scottish troops would be refused to get involved in fighting.

    Also, the anti-nuclear SNP stance and rhetoric plays well with the crowds but is incompatible with NATO membership, which is ultimately backed by the atom. Nuclear weapons are endorsed by NATO members by association. To seek membership whilst at the same time vilifying them is hypocritical. Excluding nuclear weapons from a territory is not the same as the anti-nuclear weapons stance taken by the SNP.

    Technology continues to evolve and it is increasingly changing the nature of combat on and off the field. It raises all sorts of issues, hopefully the positives will outweigh the negatives, for example reductions in the numbers of direct and indirect (collateral) deaths for starters.

  2. The SNP's defence policy is as you point out a non-starter. Unilateral nuclear disarmament went out with Michael Foot. We have learned in the past few months about the power of the US to influence policy. A phone call to Merkel can prevent Grexit. The key question however for all of us is how to fight insurgency and how to win. The US and NATO looks impotent in the face of challenges from Putin and IS. Western public opinion created by a media hostile to all military action has meant are armies can no longer fight effectively. This is very dangerous for all our security. Putin knows he can push with impunity. IS knows we can and will do nothing no matter what outrage they do next. For all our technology we are no better off than if we fought with clubs.

  3. On the subject of our Nuclear weapons, there is both a moral and practical argument against. The moral argument speaks for itself: for the weapons to be used the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) must have failed and given UK Trident's 2nd use only status, we'd be involved in the pointless retaliation - obliterating 100,000s of people in an all consuming fireball that will render the area unlivable for generations for any poor folk who lived. I cannot countenance that, I will never have that done in my name.
    The practical argument may be more persuasive, however. MAD is only a workable theory when both sides have the ability to utterly destroy the other. This works on the level of the US vs Russia - but what about the UK? A historical look at UK nuclear strategy reveals two things. One, diplomatically, it was felt necessary to possess such weapons to be taken seriously at 'the big table' - in other words it's a national codpiece. Two, European nations were scraed to death of the idea that the US might not abide by article V of the NATO charter if it came to the crunch - indeed, look at the deployment of Soviet IRBMs like the SS-20 Saber in the 80s: missiles that could effectively ruin Europe but wouldn't reach US targets. Like the current government mantra of 'all in it together' there were doubts in Europe that an attack on them that eschewed US targets would lead to the US venting their full nuclear fury on the USSR.
    The V-bomber, Polaris, Polaris-Chevaline and Trident then were envisaged as 2nd strike weapons of last ditch, last resort - incase the US nuclear umbrella failed. Was it enough, however? Even today with it's massively decreased arsenal, the Russians can still flaten Europe several times over: does our one on patrol sub, with it's 48 warheads have enough 'killing power' to make the Russians think twice? (yes, we have four subs and more missiles, but the one on patrol is the only one guarenteed to be available 'on the day', as it were). Basically, if the Russians really, really wanted to smash us up, then no, it isn't. Frankly, the Russians would be damaged by the limited UK (and psosibly french) retaliation, but it would still exist as a functional nation state - more than can be said for it's European opponents.
    The US missile shield then, is the only effective weapon against Russian agression - why then keep the UK system? it's 16 missiles with Royal Navy proudly stamped on the side of them will only provide a nominal increase in the level of armageddon unleashed on the world, while at least some of the money saved on not renewing them could well be put back into conventional forces, reversing recent cuts and making us more effective in defending our borders and if need be, in getting involved in pointless bloody incursions elsewhere.
    So then, is unilateral disarming of the UK Trident system a non practical, non starter? I'd argue not, if the point of the UK armed forces are to provide adequate protection of UK interests at home and abroad, then more powerful conventional forces acting in concert with our NATO partners are far more useful than the load out of one Trident sub that would not deter the one nation it's aimed at, if that nation were so taken with the idea of ending the UK as a nation state.

    1. Unilateral disarming of the UK Trident system may not be in the spirit of European collaboration and integration.

    2. There is nothing in the spirit of collaboration and integration that requires you to have a certain asset, all it says is that you share and play nice. Even the NATO treaty (which practically no one bothers to try and hit the target) only stipulates a certain percnetage of GDP spent on defence (2%) - what it doesn't do is stipulate what systems and assets each member state has, that is a sovereign issue. So really, there is nothing in UK nuclear disarmament that goes against either EU, or NATO principles. Indeed, not renewing Trident might allow for a far better balanced set of conventional forces - something the US would certainly like to see based on recent interviews with US Generals - and I'd bet our partners in central and eastern Europe would much prefer material backing from the UK in the form of more fighter jets to patrol the baltic, than the abstract backing of Trident.

    3. Throwing away those assets before a European defence force has decided what assets are appropriate could be premature. Will Russia's arsenal be the only one against which a European deterrent is measured over the lifetime of these weapons, today it might but tomorrow who can tell. Until technology renders them obsolete, why discard a capability when the hurdles to re-acquiring it would be substantial. The barriers to bolstering conventional forces across Europe are just money and the burden for that falls across many countries not just the UK. The UK has been eager to please US generals but recent campaigns met with growing domestic opposition, if an investment were made there is every chance it would struggle to get the public support needed to deploy it as US generals saw fit.

    4. Well, from the point of view of any notional EU defence force, Trident isn't really their purview. As weird as that sounds, while the maintenance and deployment of such systems falls to the armed forces, they do not fit into any deployment strategy those forces might have - their deployment is political, not military so I'd argue that our theoretical pan European army probably doesn't really care about Trident in the same way it wouldn't care about the NHS - so long as UK spending levels were met, then it's all the same to them.

      As for comparing it to Russia, or even China - they are the only relevent neer peer competitors with whom we are not treaty bound allies. Trident is useless against non state actors, of course and it's tactical usage is practically nil (in the 98 SDR it was mooted that trident could replace the WE177 free fall bomb as a tactical weapon - i.e. for use on the battlefield as opposed to city busting) given what the launch of an ICBM would do to everyone's heartbeat. Meanwhiel we don't have the infrastructure to use it proactively as a first strike weapon.

      As I've argued above, the UK deterrence will not generate enough killing power to stop a neer peer competitor -so what's the point? You could scrap them, put money back into the welfare state and reverse defence cuts to provide Europe with a real leader in the sphere of common defence. Much more useful than a primarily political tool. YOu don't even have to throw the tech away, you could still use the AWE to keep a pilot light in the design of the weapon's going. We'll still be building nuclear powered attack subs and we buy the rocket bodies from the US anyway.

  4. Also, actually, the UK had little choice in both 1914 and 1939. At least in so far as the integrity of the empire was at risk - particularly in the first war. Germany had been building a massive surface fleet, the only logical opponent of which was the RN home fleet - the effect of losing the low country ports to Germany would have altered the entire balance of power in the north sea. It would have meant the Germans being able to dominate the channel (the UK's main access to Europe) and being able to sorties more ships, faster. This situation was encountered 20 years later with the fall of France, where the Germans used the port of Brest to greatly amplify the hitting power of their U-boat fleet to put the entire atlantic trade route in peril. You can look at every British intervention on the continent from WW2 all the way back to the war of Spanish succession and it all comes back to the same point: British political and (above all else) commercial interests were best served when no single power dominated the continent, and when no major power controlled the western ports into the north sea. All our wars in those 200 years on the continent have been to maintain those ports as 'friendly'

    To assume altruism on the part of the British empire in both conflicts then is naive. Even Churchill's decision to stand and fight in the Summer of 1940 when there was no realistic route to success must be seen in the light of the man's perspicacity about what future there would be for the empire in the long run, even if the home islands were not invaded - and also his unwavering faith in the idea that the US would eventually enter the war (and that Hitler would commit the mother of all sins and turn against the Soviets).

    So, I reject fundamentally the notion of Great British altruism, and our realistically being able to stay out of either world war.

  5. Finally, I find your take on fighting insurgencies bewildering - you want to teach democracy to these people by abandoning at home the pillars of a free, liberal democracy such as a free press? This is not total war, and insurgencies cannot be 'won' by the military alone, or even by them primarily.

    If you want to double down on brutality, to take an eye for an eye, bring back the ol' mass bombing technique - then all you do is radicalise future generations who will look at you and recognise in you the monsters that their parents always told them you were.

    The kind of asymmetric warfare we've been stuck in the past two decades are onyl resolved by political compromise. Best case scenario for the military is that it holds the ring and exhausts the militants to the point where saner political voices can be heard. Such as it was from Malaya to N.Ireland. You cannot 'win' in a military sense as there is no organised military force to drive from the field, more there is an amorphous organisation that resists defeat in detail by massed military hardware.

    You mention that we should 'man up' when it comes to casualties. Fact is that the western public will accept injuries and death, even on relatively large scales - so long as public opinion backs the excursion, and stays behind it. From Iraq to Afghanistan, our reasoning for being there were murky at best, and at worst made things far, far worse - no wonder then that every death is rendered poignant by the seemingly sensless waste of each live.

    There is no doubt IS are malevolant, extreme and not representative of the faith they claim to hold. We, the uK and US are to some extent responsible for them - our actions already have radicalised so many folk - the law of unintended circumstances. In my opinion, invoking Sherman's 'war is hell' doctrine will only make things far, far worse.

    in the end, the only lasting solution can come from those with a vested interest on the ground, only local forces can win a permanent peace and only when the will of the people is recognised can IS be isolated and subsequently defeated.