Declaring War

CenotaphAn RAF Nimrod crashed in Afghanistan on Saturday, killing everyone onboard. It was the single biggest military loss the UK has suffered since the Falklands War. A NATO spokesman has announced that it was a technical failure and that the claims of Taliban fighters to have shot down the aircraft are lies. Regardless of the real cause of the crash, it is interesting to note how this event has been reported. As with pretty much every military death in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is reported as if it were a humanitarian tragedy. When members of our armed forces engaged on a military operation suffer losses, it is reported in exactly the same terms and in the same tone as an unfortunate road accident or a natural disaster. But this is not an earthquake or a car crash: this is war.

It is amazing that most people in the UK do not consider themselves to be at war. The Cold War was largely fought using covert actions and proxy wars but, even if civilians did not have the same attitude as they did during more obvious conflicts such as the world wars, there was at least some sense of being at war. Today there is no such sense. We have some soldiers, sailors and airmen engaged in “dangerous missions” or “peacekeeping operations” but we are not at war. We invaded and conquered a sovereign state but the Iraq War seems to be a ‘war’ in a very abstract sense – it isn’t a real war like the Second World War or the Napoleonic Wars.

There seem to be two major differences between today’s warfare and warfare before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first is its remoteness. Although it probably seemed a lot like war to the Iraqis when our troops landed on their shores and our tanks rolled into their cities, it was all just a lot of exciting news reports to most people in the UK. There was no threat to us. Even if we lost, the worst that would happen is that our troops would have to come home again. In contrast, during the Cold War there was a constant sense of danger. Nuclear warfare was a real concern, people speculated about how an attack might come and a Soviet invasion of Europe was considered a real possibility. People genuinely felt threatened.

Of course, some people today feel threatened by terrorists. But who are the terrorists? This is the second difference: today we have no clearly defined enemy. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was very definitely the enemy, even if we were not engaged in open warfare with them. In earlier wars the enemy was more obvious still. But today we have a ‘War on Terrorism’. How exactly does one engage in warfare with an abstract noun? We are supposed to be liberating Iraq so the Iraqis must be our allies, right? We are protecting the Afghan state from guerillas, so the Afghanis must also be our allies. So who is the enemy? There doesn’t seem to be any people or state that fits into that role. People talk about Islamic terrorism but they are usually just as quick to point out that most Muslims aren’t terrorists, it’s just that these terrorists happen to be Muslims. So we aren’t fighting Islam. Who are we fighting?

We don’t seem to be engaged in warfare at all – it seems much more like a world-wide police operation than a war. But if it’s a police operation, why are our armed forces invading other countries? I find it amazing that a country can go to war without most of its countrymen truly realising it. I think it’s also worth noting that since the Second World War, no Western nation has formally declared war. There have been many wars – probably more than most people realise – but they have never been formally declared. They are always “police actions” or “armed responses” or some such. Perhaps this isn’t war. Perhaps the cause of this cognitive dissonance is simply that this is an entirely new phenomenon and we do not possess the terminology we need to talk about it accurately and rationally.

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Published in: on September 4, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I think your last lines are the most succint, we don’t understand the phenomena and as such we are using outdated tools and techniques and jealously sticking to those. I think the description you give is similar, although perhaps even stronger, in the States, unfortunately.


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