Of wars, great and muddled, in the history of Britain
By Swapan Dasgupta
Last week, I took a leisurely walk through the town centre of Elgin in Morayshire, Scotland, with a 20,000 population. As a town, Elgin is undistinguished — my own curiosity was fuelled by my familiarity with the name, thanks to a road in south Calcutta named after a largely forgotten Viceroy. Its importance stems from its status as the main market-town of Speyside, the whisky centre of Scotland. There is also a ruined abbey, which had its lead roof removed after the Reformation, but which has persisted as an attraction for Scotland’s defiant Roman Catholics. The High Street is the usual mixture of estate agents, curry houses, indifferent pubs, Boots, the Oxfam shop run by sensible matrons and some lesser known supermarket chains; there are hardly any interesting, small, independent shops selling quirky merchandise at inflated prices. Elgin, in short, is just another undistinguished place made more unmemorable by the wanton destruction of many of its grand Victorian houses in the 1950s and 1960s.
Predictably, Elgin wasn’t without the one monument that is as much a feature of Britain as the pub and the curry house — the war memorial, built on the foyer of the town hall in 1922. A striking feature of the Elgin war memorial was that the names of soldiers who fell in battle between 1914 and 1918 took up all the four sides of the memorial. There must have been some 500 names of Scottish highlanders buried somewhere in France or Mesopotamia. For the tiny town of Elgin, the human cost of the Great War were staggering. By contrast, the two plaques in small adjoining memorials commemorating the local lads who fell in battle in the 1939-1945 war couldn’t have contained the names of more than 50.
Some nine decades after the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, it is sometimes difficult to gauge the extent to which the Great War scarred every community in Britain. Cutting across the classes, an entire generation of young men were sacrificed, sometimes out of sheer military ineptitude, in the trenches and in the killing fields of Flanders, the Somme, Gallipoli and Passchendaele. According to statistics, nearly 5.4 million people were mobilized in the United Kingdom, of which some 703,000 died — a staggeringly high casualty rate of 44 per cent. For decades after Kaiser was dead and buried and the Prussian aristocracy dispossessed, sensitive men and women with long memories persisted with their haunting memories of a “lost generation”. The “War poets” articulated an incipient pacifism, but the actual loss of sons, husbands, sweethearts and friends were expressed through symbolic poppies on coat lapels and wreaths at the local war memorial.
Last week witnessed the deaths of two of the three last survivors of the Great War. Britain commemorated the deaths of Private Harry Patch and Aircraft Mechanic (First Class) Henry Allingham, both well into their 100s, through touching memorial services and generous obituaries in the newspapers. Their deaths became the occasion for sensitive forays into the past — an exercise that the British are good at. The horrors of trench warfare and purposeless assaults on enemy lines were relived for the benefit of generations for whom even the Blitz is not lived experience.
The commemoration of the lives of the two veterans was also the occasion for many Britons to agonize over another war that is increasingly appearing meaningless to a great majority. July was a bad month for the British army fighting a strange war in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. It led to the deaths of 22 British soldiers, the highest monthly casualties from a war that is now nearly eight years old.
The bitterness generated by the feeling that Afghanistan is a redundant and unwinnable war has had an impact on the beleaguered Labour government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The government was mercilessly pilloried when it emerged that wounded soldiers were short-changed in the compensations by an over-bureaucratic ministry of defence. The parents of some of the soldiers killed in action also drew attention to the missing military hardware, which may have saved the life of their sons. In a letter to the Times earlier this week, Bruce Kent, a veteran anti-war activist who first shot into prominence during the Margaret Thatcher era, argued that the British involvement in the Afghanistan campaign was “illegal”. The Taliban-led Afghan government, he argued, hadn’t mounted any assault on British territory. Kent, it would seem, was taking the discovery of the “moderate” Taliban by the foreign secretary, David Miliband, to its logical conclusion.
As of now it is unlikely that there will be an abrupt British withdrawal from Afghanistan. Indeed, the government is floating vague proposals of sending another big chunk of Britons to the disturbed country to train the Afghan army and the police — a classic version of the ‘helping people to help themselves’ philosophy so earnestly championed by NGOs. However, in political terms, Britain has more or less signalled its desire to get the hell out of Afghanistan. The war, it is generally conceded, has been lost. The debate now centres on managing the defeat and the efficacy of allowing Pakistan to re-acquire its “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.
To those accustomed to viewing Britain through the prism of its imperial past, the kerfuffle over Afghanistan is bewildering. That there has been a complete cock-up over the objectives of the war is undeniable. In 2001, Tony Blair was clear in his mind that operations in Afghanistan were part of the larger “war on terror”. Subsequently, the war aims were modified to imply a war on drug-linked criminality and extremism. Now, the likes of Miliband take the cue from an equally confused Obama administration in America to suggest that the war is all about saving Pakistan from the jihadi extremists. What began as the war to save Western civilization has quietly been painted as a conflict to revive Pakistan — with predictable consequences on morale.
However, policy blunders in Whitehall are only a small part of the problem. At the heart of the agonizing over Afghanistan is a larger question of Britain’s role in the world. As long as the empire existed, military involvement overseas was seen as a part of the imperial burden. However, apart from Margaret Thatcher’s brave attempt to arrest the tide of history in the Falklands campaign, the overall British inclination has been towards disengagement and non-involvement. To blame politicians for this retreat is unfair. The truncation of strategic objectives has become a national consensus in Britain, the reason why Blair was edged out despite his awesome electoral record. Patch and Allingham may be celebrated for being the last links with an earlier age, but the war they fought for king and country are no longer seen as a necessary part of British endeavour. Britain cannot countenance the deaths of its boys in faraway lands.
In a curious sort of way, Britain’s contemporary priorities reflect the mindset of the much-reviled Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. Horrified by the trauma of the Great War, both these prime ministers believed that it was important to save British lives at all costs. That is why they were willing to engage with the dictators and turn a blind eye to evil.
The wheel has come a full circle. For those whose mental image of Britain was frozen by the raj, it is difficult to believe that 60 years has made such a colossal difference.