Parliament is to be recalled on Friday, to discuss UK involvement in air strikes against the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (neither really Islamic nor a state – in the same way that in the past the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ was not ‘holy’ nor ‘Roman’ nor an empire). Unlike the last time parliament voted on military action in Syria (that time against the regime of Assad – who would almost certainly be amongst the beneficiaries of the military action that is now being proposed), it seems pretty certain that both houses of parliament will approve this action. The ‘Islamic State’ (‘IS’) has performed so many atrocities – some of them on British citizens, some televised – that it is hard to see how military action can be resisted. And yet I do still have doubts. Big doubts.
I always doubt war. I’d like to think that we all do. The idea of using military force should be a last resort. People die – and that’s something that we need to take seriously. It’s not a game – though often it seems to be viewed in that way. People have played war games from the days of pushing toy solders about on a big map to playing Call of Duty on their X-Box – but real war isn’t like that. I haven’t experienced war myself, but I’ve spent a lot of time with people who have – from old relatives of mine who fought in the Spanish Civil War to working with kids who lived through the war in former Yugoslavia. War is a hideous, horrible, messy business. The sanitised language used these days – ‘surgical strikes’ is the one that gets me the most – can make it seem as though it’s easy, precise, and controllable. It isn’t. Precisely the opposite.
Learning from history
In this case, there seem to be very particular reasons to have doubts. Our recent experiences should make those doubts inevitable: the invasion of Iraq should be fresh in all our minds. Forgetting for a moment the farce of the WMDs, we went into Iraq to try to remove someone we believed was doing hideous things to his own people – and though we did remove him, we did it in a way that left hundreds of thousands dead, and resulted in a state in chaos. It is hard not to conclude (unless you’re Tony Blair) that it also played a very significant part in setting in place the conditions that brought about the emergence of IS. Our intervention cannot, except in the eyes of the blindest of optimists, be seen as having been a success. We created chaos, fostered resentment, and killed countless numbers of people. Can we be sure that what we are contemplating now won’t have similar results? IS emerged from the ashes of our earlier work: what will emerge from the ashes of this plan? It may be hard to imagine, but something still worse is possible.
Have we learned the lessons of last time? Or even from last year – when we were looking at action on the opposite side of the same conflict, so far as Syria is concerned? Listening to people like Tony Blair and his advisors, like Jack Straw – or, on the other side, the likes of Liam Fox – it seems as though we’ve learned almost nothing. It’s a bit like watching a bee buzzing against a window, again and again and again. This time it’ll be OK. No, this time. This time!!
Who wants this war?
We really should be asking this question. There are many answers – and they should at least make us pause for thought. One group who seem to be pretty keen on the war are IS themselves. They’ve been goading the West again and again. Challenging us to take action. Now it’s possible that they’re doing so expecting us to refuse, so they can portray us as cowards – but is that really likely given the past record? It seems far more likely that they want us to attack. They want us to demonstrate that we are as they suggest we are – we’re the Great Satan, out to destroy Islam. The more we attack, the more their case is proven – and the more they can recruit people to join them. Yes, their fighters will die, but they’ll die for the cause, and the cause itself will grow.
There are also people here in the West who clearly want this war – and for many of them the reasons should raise even more doubts. Tony Blair himself is one – whether to try to vindicate his original decision to join George W Bush in invading Iraq in the first place, or because he genuinely believes that this is the only way, he’s scarcely the person that we should be listening to in making a decision about military action. Liam Fox is another – a man with very close connections to the arms industry. Indeed, there are many amongst those calling for war who are likely to end up making money out of it, just as so much was made in both the war and the ‘reconstruction’ efforts in Iraq after the invasion back in 2003.
There are others who want the war for much more genuine reasons – from the Kurds themselves to others with close connection to the situation on the ground. They should be listened to – but so should those who doubt.
‘They threaten our way of life’
The portrayal of IS as the worst demons imaginable is a convincing one. Some of the stories coming out of Iraq and Syria are truly harrowing, and there’s little doubt that they commit atrocities on a nightmarish scale – but we should be careful about claims made about them even so. The idea that a group, or an ideology is ‘threatening our way of life’ is one that has been used before. Saddam Hussein was compared to Hitler. Al Qaeda portrayed as even worse. Assad, just a year ago, was described in similar ways. Going further back, the menace of Communism was seen the same way – and used as a justification for war all over the world. That’s not to say that any of these things are not true: in many ways they are. That, however, is not necessarily a justification for war – particularly if the war may not really have the effect of destroying them. The idea of a hydra, where if one head is chopped off two more grow in its place is one that should be familiar to all. Attacking IS may end up quite similar.
‘But what do you suggest?’
This is a question that I’ve been asked pretty much every time I’ve expressed doubts about military action against IS – and I don’t really have an answer except to say that right now, what is being suggested seems likely to me to do more harm than good. If that’s the case, then, painful as it may seem, right now the best thing to do might be nothing at all. To think. To try to find other ways. Arming the Kurds, for example, might be a far better way forward than air strikes or other direct military involvement. But, and I think this is crucial, not having an active alternative to suggest should not mean that we can’t express doubts about what is being proposed. Given the leaders that we have, we cannot – we must not – give them free rein to do whatever they want. We can’t trust them to run our own country – why could or should we trust them to wage war, to risk other people’s lives?
Being serious about peace and human rights
Even if this time war is appropriate – and I’m far from sure that it isn’t – what bothers me the most is that we don’t seem to be serious about peace, or all the things that are connected with peace. We have a government that is seriously considering withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, and that seems to have little concern for or respect for the rule of law – Chris Grayling’s recent court defeat over legal aid ‘reform’ is just one example. We continue to supply arms, surveillance equipment and so forth to oppressive regimes all around the world – including regimes that behead people, oppress women and religious minorities and many of precisely those things that we see as being so evil in IS. Our governments overlook and even support the actions of the Israeli government in Gaza. While we do all these things, it’s very hard for us to be seen as anything but hypocritical in our actions – and it’s easy for people like IS to portray us as the enemies of the good. The starting point for creating peace and fostering human rights around the world is to support it at home. Yes, I know I’m being idealistic, unrealistic and living in Cloud-cuckoo-land to ask this, but sometimes it’s good to be idealistic.
There’s nothing wrong with doubt.
…and sometimes it’s good to have doubt. Sometimes it’s right to have doubt. I want to be quite clear about this – I may well be entirely wrong about this action. It may be that this is the time that military action is needed. I’m not a pacifist: my family fought against the Nazis, and in the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes military action, sometimes war, is needed. And, what’s more, delaying action can be critical. Leaving off action could have disastrous consequences. I know that. And what’s more, I know that my doubts will almost certainly not be listened to. That doesn’t stop me having them. I hope more people do have them – because what we should really worry about is people who are certain. That kind of certainty makes me shudder.