Even we surrender-monkeys are confused

The not-in-my-name war has turned out to be in our name after all - and it is a discomfiting experience
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I was reading letters sent by my father, who died last year, to his grandmother as he took part in the D-Day offensive. They were good letters – graphic, impassioned and quite often rather funny. Above all, they were filled with a sense of quiet conviction, of a confidence that, however unpleasant the task in which he was involved, it was being pursued for a good, just cause – as, of course, it was.

I was reading letters sent by my father, who died last year, to his grandmother as he took part in the D-Day offensive. They were good letters – graphic, impassioned and quite often rather funny. Above all, they were filled with a sense of quiet conviction, of a confidence that, however unpleasant the task in which he was involved, it was being pursued for a good, just cause – as, of course, it was.

Almost 60 years on, as another, messier Allied offensive unfolds, it is to be hoped that the officers and men taking part in it are imbued with the same sense of moral certainty. Their job is difficult enough, with an oppressed people who turn out to be unwilling to be liberated, hi-tech weapons that have killed our own troops, the media watching and analysing every move, without the added burden of doubt in the cause.

Here, on the home front, it is different. This is the first ground war of the great age of self-esteem – a me-war in which the hearts and minds of those at home are deemed to be as important as those being invaded, where opposition is expressed by "Not in my name", a revealingly solipsistic slogan that reduces even war to the personal and egotistical.

Over the past decade or so, we have become used to lending our support to big, easy causes of the Red Nose Day variety. Pop stars put on concerts, celebrities shed tears in TV studios or during a whirlwind visit to an African village, members of the public engage in plucky fundraising exercises while the rest of us reach for our credit cards to make a donation. Afterwards, life goes on with all the participants feeling as if they have played a part in making the world a better place.

Before the troops went in, the war seemed like another great cause. Those opposed to it believed that to invade Iraq would be an act of unwarranted military aggression, almost certainly prompted by the greed of oil companies supported by a populist lust for revenge in America. For supporters of war, to liberate Iraq was a matter of urgent global security with a powerful humanitarian subtext.

With every complicating extra day that the war continues, those black-and-white, warmonger-versus-peacenik certainties are being revealed to be dangerously simplistic. For all the brave headlines in the right-wing tabloids and the pictures of our boys handing out aid or carrying some luckless Iraqi child to safety, only a fool would now see victory as a bright new dawn of peace and security.

A predictable sense of outrage has spread through the Middle East, making the idea of a great pre-emptive strike against terrorism seem increasingly absurd. Indeed, the most nightmarish of conspiracy theories – that a creepy cabal of oilmen in Washington has suckered the American (and British) people into war, knowing full well that it would lead to a wider conflagration in the whole area, at the end of which "energy security" would be ensured for good and all – now looks almost plausible.

Meanwhile, we surrender-monkeys are in an even bigger muddle. There was already a nagging worry about aligning ourselves with Saddam, clearly a bad man, against Blair, whom we had generally assumed to be sincere. Now that the war is under way, to argue for a ceasefire or withdrawal of troops means accepting the loss of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives for no gain.

So the only moral position available is to wish for a swift victory for the Allied forces, followed by a re-building process that does not involve a carve-up by US business interests. Clare Short and Robin Cook may have been roundly mocked by the media for what seems hand-wringing uncertainty about what to do, but the uncomfortable fact is that their position is similar to that of millions of sincere people.

These are the reasons why there are more anguished conversations around kitchen tables and in pubs than occurred during previous conflicts or even after 11 September. The not-in-my-name war has turned out to be in our name after all and it is a profoundly discomfiting experience.

In this, I suspect that we are not shoulder to shoulder with the majority of Americans. Fired by a sense of of patriotism and rage and bolstered by a swaggering sense of confidence, they have no difficulty in accepting the sinister euphemisms about doing "what has to be done" or "whatever it takes" that are part of their leaders' rhetoric of war.

For us, what has to be done has in the past involved being on the side of virtue and generosity, of expressing our popular will and expecting politicians to fall in with it. We used to be able to feel good about ourselves, supporting the right causes without being asked to make difficult choices. The war has revealed that life is more complicated and that, at times like this, easy moral absolutes are of limited help.

terblacker@aol.com

Comments