Richard D North

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The Independent Online
Five years ago, I used to walk the hills round here with my ear glued to a radio, sucking up the news from the Gulf. I was more or less in favour of the war, as I had been in favour of the Falklands conflict. We armchair generals couldn't help longing to see the thing worked through, rather than walked away from.

I was also aware that one should remember Erasmus and his warning on the theme: "dulce bellum inexpertis" (war is sweet to those who don't know it). Soldiers need war to justify their profession; civilians can find it noble because they don't know it.

When I eventually got to Kuwait, about three weeks after the end of hostilities, there were reasons for elation and sadness. The thing had been done efficiently, but at least one senior US soldier I fell in with was deeply worried by Desert Storm. He felt that because he had been sent to fight by a democracy which sheltered itself from the moral costs of war, he had not been properly endorsed, ethically speaking, in what his army had been doing.

I told him that I had met people in the States in December, and learned that American mothers didn't mind there being a war, but they wanted no American suffering to come out of it. He agreed, and said he felt the requirement that there be no suffering even included any serious thinking about the Iraqi dead. So, though any US officer could have made a fair guess at the numbers of Iraqis who died, as little as possible must be said about this.

Everyone at the time remar-ked that this was the first "Nintendo war": a war which could both be fought and portrayed as a video game. The baddies got zapped with such surgical precision, and the hits were seen, by pilots and public, on such familiar screens, that it was almost as if the victims might only have existed as electronic targets.

In the recent TV series on the Gulf, I thought the sequence showing the "Road to Hell" did not quite convey the oddity of the carnage. The audience may have thought that the attack was on a retreating army. Actually, here was a convoy of stolen vehicles driven by erstwhile soldiers hoping to carry home the mostly unglamorous results of extensive but trivial looting. They were utterly hemmed in, with nowhere to go. All the genius of modern aerial bombardment was brought to bear on them. No wonder we heard the moving testimony of a young British officer, who smelt evil as well as cheap looted perfume on the Basra Road.

The colonel told me to walk among the wrecked vehicles, thinking of the way hundreds of people had died, picked off in ignominious retreat. What galled him, he said, was that the numbers who died on the road would almost certainly never be revealed, though the squads who cleared up could certainly have kept a tally. Presumably, many of the Iraqis fleeing Kuwait had done nasty things. Presumably, many others were just poor geeks obeying orders.

None of this makes me a pacifist, just very aware that no one should deceive themselves about the horror of fighting. I am doubly glad that it was Major not Thatcher at the helm during the Gulf War: her triumphalism would have been intolerable.

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