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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