Posts

Homage to a Government

Next year we are to bring all the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.

It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings, 1964.

Plus ca Change…

Gentlemen,

Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as the the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain.

This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below.

I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London

2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,

Wellington

The above was sent to me by an Officer currently trying to fill posts on operations in the teeth of bureaucratic nit-picking in Whitehall and HQs elsewhere. I am not sure of its veracity, but it’s the sort of irracible thing the Iron Duke, and every great commander of the British Army since has felt:
The dead hand of the bureaucracy, preventing victory since 1707.

Strategic Failure

The most tactically perfect army ever to take the field was the Wehrmacht of WWII. German soldiers (and often their equipment too) was so consistently superior that they could be relied upon to defeat any adversary, given roughly equal numbers. Thence sprang the belief that if you look after the battles, the war will win itself and the German army found itself fighting in North Africa, Greece, Cyprus, Norway, the Atlantic, in the Air over Germany and disastrously, Russia; all simultaneously. In losing sight of what the third Reich wanted to achieve (or never having a realistic vision of such) the supreme competence of the Wehrmacht led directly to overstretch and then being confronted by OVERWHELMING force deployed by countries who had thought strategically enough to deliver numerically superior, but technologically and motivationally inferior, forces in a hammer-blow which came quite unforeseen.

Nazi Germany thought tactically. Churchill was tactically naive, but strategically sound. Biff the Nazis where they can be found, in order to keep the Soviets onside and the Germans on their toes until we’ve gathered enough strength (ie get the USA into the war) to deliver the coup de grace in Normandy.

The strategic failure of Nazi Germany is similar to the that of ‘the West’. Western soldiers (since Korea, when the US at first fielded the worst army ever deployed by a democracy) have been better trained and equipped than any army or group they are likely to face. British, American, Dutch, and even French soldiers can be relied upon to prevail in any shooting match they go into.

As a result – a direct result – of this competence, the British Government for example though that fewer than 10,000 soldiers could pacify a querulous Afghan province, and NATO in General has completely lost sight of what it wants to achieve from its military adventure in Afghanistan in a global context. We’re bogged down in Tactics, as was the US in Vietnam, focusing on tactical-level measures and losing sight of the strategy. The AfPak ‘strategy’ for example is more a mantra than a reality.

Whilst this is of no great import when the maximum downside is the appearance of getting kicked out of a broken 13th century country, but in a dangerous world, if we lose sight of what the point of acting as a world policeman is, then the downside and cost could be much greater – catastrophic military defeat. Like it or not, we’re in a toe to toe fist-fight with radical Islam. To continue the boxing analogy, the Islamists are the smaller and less skilled fighter, but with an Iron jaw, he keeps getting up. Oh. And he fights dirty.

Thinking strategically, Iran’s nuclear bomb is a far bigger threat. If there’s a country asking to be invaded, like right now, it’s North Korea. But our armies are bogged down in Iraq (90 -odd thousand US troops) and Afghanistan (100-odd thousand Nato forces). That’s as near as damn it a quarter of a million fighting men who could be saving the world from a nuclear armed Iran or North Korea.

And the sad thing is that they would be better providing the means to deal with this threat with their feet up in Minnesota or Surrey than eating dust in Southern Afghanistan. After all, what’s scarier to Kim Jong Il: An Army at war in Central Asia, or an Army who could be on his border in 2 weeks? Whilst I have confidence the of the Strategy of ISAF in Afghanistan with respect to that conflict, in the big, global picture, that’s Tactics. We’re bogged down and overstretched and cannot therefore threaten great violence to those who deserve it. That is why nation building is so dangerous. It’s a nebulous concept, there’s no finish line where you can declare victory so it ties up troops, money and resources; and it stores up just as much resentment as colonialism. The temptation is to outstay your welcome.

The fact is the Neo-Cons were right. We shouldn’t do nation-building. We should go in, shock and awe, biff those we don’t like and then leave; leaving the aftermath to the locals and do-gooding NGOs to rebuild. Take sovereign bases if desirable, but otherwise fuck off once the shooting stops. American and British forces shouldn’t need to stick around to provide targets to suicide bombers, and so shouldn’t be in a war with anyone who can’t surrender on the deck of a battleship. If I was convinced that Iraq and Afghanistan were ‘clearing the decks’ before a Pincer-move on Iran, I could be persuaded, but I don’t think there’s the stomach for the fight.

That’s the reason the Boys should come home. Not because they “can’t win”, they can; but because they are better unused except as a threat.