Christina Patterson: A war of terror and cynicism, but not security

In Britain and America we treat the men and women we expect to die for us appallingly

When my friend Steve told his children that a black man had just become the most powerful man on the planet, they were confused. "But, Daddy, what about you?" said his three-year-old. They already knew that a black man was the most powerful man on the planet, and now he'd been supplanted. The response at the nursery, however, was more enthusiastic. The staff (all black) and the parents (nearly all black) were beaming. So were the "brothers" on the streets of Clapton, all, said Steve, holding their heads higher.

A few hours later, however, at a discussion on "What does the election result mean for us?", I discovered that their enthusiasm was unwarranted. "I never thought of America as a racist country," said the historian Andrew Roberts. "I think that's a 40-year-old story." This, he explained, was evident from the fact that the BBC had, during its election night coverage, used black and white footage. "I was under the impression," he also said, "that I was going to be speaking last. My opening line was that the panel are all extremely nice people, but they're all completely wrong." Nothing like a considered response to other people's arguments, is there?

But then, like those McCain supporters who stood, grim-faced and petulant, through his gracious concession speech, moving their pursed lips only to boo Obama, he has reason for sour grapes. This, after all, is a man who has been guest of honour at the White House, one of President Bush's favourite writers (along with the author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar) and one who has been spoken of as potential ghost writer of Bush's memoir. (Provisional title, perhaps, They Misunderestimated Me.) Roberts repeatedly told the President to ignore anti-US sentiment abroad and opposition at home in pursuit of "the Manichaean world-historical struggle" – more popularly known as the "war on terror". President Obama might not be quite such a fan.

A major lesson of history, Roberts told Bush, according to a fellow guest at a dinner, is that "will trumps wealth". And a major lesson of this week, Mr Roberts, is that cynicism is sometimes trumped by passion. The Iraq war, as we now all know, was a cynical enterprise, undertaken for cynical reasons, one which cynically (and ruthlessly) exploited the raw grief of bereaved Americans in pursuit of strategic aims. Cynical wars are unlikely to be won. To win a war, you need proper planning, proper execution and, yes, passion. Cynicism is the enemy of passion.

Tony Blair was passionate, all right, Tony Blair was idealistic, but he was lied to, and so, actually, was Bush. It was Dick Cheney and his neocon mates (people who share the world-view of Roberts) who dreamt of an American outpost in the Middle East, one that just happened to have a lot of oil. It was Dick Cheney who ran the war. We all know what happened. And some people still believe it's about keeping America safe. "I may have lost my job," said a pretty young estate agent from Wyoming this week, whose husband is serving in Iraq, and who was planning to vote for McCain, "but at least I can go to bed at night knowing that my family is safe."

And what else would you want to believe, if you spent every minute of every day wondering whether your husband would come back a drooling vegetable, or a corpse? How else would you get through the days and those long, long nights?

The truth is that in Britain and America we treat the men and women we expect to die for us appallingly. We give them terrible wages, and often terrible homes, and terrible food, and when they return, wounded or traumatised, we pretty much forget them. And here in Britain, we give them terrible equipment, too, equipment so bad that Major Sebastian Morley, the SAS commander in Afghanistan, recently resigned over it, equipment, according to John Cooper, QC, that would give families reason to sue the MoD. And we do this for wars we don't believe in, that we can't win.

Tomorrow, at services around the country, we will remember the men and women who died for us. Many of them died for our peace and freedom, but some of the recent ones didn't. It is nothing less than an abomination for anyone who accepts the position of prime minister or commander-in-chief to send young men and women to die for anything else.

Steve, by the way, has recently joined the TA. He's in the Paras and has just been cleared for duty. Now he's awaiting his call-up papers to Afghanistan. Of the 160 soldiers in the 2nd battalion of the Paras who recently served in Helmand, one in three were killed or wounded – about the same as on the battlefields of the First World War. I don't know how those of us who love him will get through those long, long nights.