Parliament Sketch: It's military action - but don't mention the word `war'

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The Independent Online
DECLARATIONS OF war have become almost commonplace these days, a routine so familiar in its language that you need to remind yourself exactly what it is you are listening to. Mr Blair, for example, had not been in office for two years and yet he has twice had to perform the gravest task that can fall upon a Prime Minister - that of sending troops to attack a foreign state. It helps that nobody uses the word war, naturally, or feels the need for any solemn inauguration of hostilities.

Mr Blair's statement yesterday on Kosovo had its moments of Churchillian apostrophe, it's true, moments when his deliberate cadences were aimed at a national audience, but the fact that he talked always of "military action" inevitably took the sting out of his words. Military action sounds reassuringly like a one off, an in-and-out operation, and it is crucially qualified by its adjective, which will reassure most people watching the evening news that this has little to do with them. War might conceivably involve us all, "military action" is something performed somewhere else by trained professionals.

Mr Blair needed to warn people that this would not be a bloodless engagement so he did, coming as close to saying that troops would die as any politician could in such circumstances. He needed also to describe his objective in such a way that opposition sceptics couldn't secure a bridgehead, and he did that too, declaring that the aim of NATO air strikes would be to "curb continued Serbian repression in Kosovo".

What he couldn't concede was that these objectives are virtually impossible to achieve from the air, with surgical strikes on Serbian military capability.

Mr Hague began by offering his support in the ritual manner (quick genuflection to courage and dedication of the armed forces, brief execration of the dictator in question, matching solemnity of tone). But the support was heavily qualified. The Conservatives he said, would back bombs but not boots - there should be no ground troops used.

Labour backbenchers muttered unhappily at this reservation but the anxiety was shared by others, and most flamboyantly expressed by the Sir Peter Tapsell (Con. Louth and Horncastle). "Using weasel words to the British public is very wrong," he spluttered, as he outlined his conviction that British blood would inevitably be spilt in the Balkans. For the first time Mr Blair looked heated as, finger jabbing, he repeated the terms of engagement. "Tell the country the price of your policy!", shouted back Sir Peter thus forming a slightly startling crossbench alliance with the Labour Party long-standing Cassandras, Tam Dalyell and Tony Benn. True to form, the latter managed to convey the sense that the gravest element of this crisis was the Prime Minister's constitutional impertinence in not allowing the House of Commons to debate the matter first. Alice Mahon (Lab. Halifax) did the sceptics' cause no favours either, with a tremulous insistence that dialogue was preferable to force, a remark that drew disbelieving mutters from disillusioned veterans of Rambouillet.

"It takes two sides to make peace," Mr Blair had said in his statement underlining Milosevic's culpability (the Serbian leader had a "Mr" in the original text but had been stripped of it in the delivery, a tiny shift which marked his transformation from negotiable obstacle to justifiable target). There was really no contradicting that yesterday but, whatever he says allowed, Mr Blair must know that it takes two sides to make war, as well, and that the Serbs will almost certainly not want the same kind as he and his allies.

They will want to fight theirs on the ground.