The publication yesterday of the 2.6 million word (twelve volume) Chilcot Report presented something of a challenge for an organ such as the Rust. Regular readers will be familiar with our standard approach to current and sporting events – viz. that we tend to avoid straight journalistic reporting because we’re humble enough to appreciate that, were we to attempt it, we’d only be duplicating the work of professional journalists whose efforts anyone can read if they wish – and quite probably not doing it so well.
Accordingly, today I begin by declaring an interest and/or a personal caveat.
Yesterday I deliberately sat down in my TV armchair at 11.00am and watched BBC2’s live coverage of the beginning of Sir John Chilcot’s press conference introducing his report and then the Wednesday edition of Daily Politics hosted by Andrew Neil and Jo Cockburn from 11.30am – to which BBC2 switched with no introduction – and which Neil began by announcing that the Chilcot Report was officially embargoed until 11.33am and that therefore he’d be waiting until about 11.45am before calling upon his colleagues covering the story to join him (in order that they could at least peruse the headlines first).
Later in the day, driving in my car, I listening to Radio Five Live and in the evening I watched the BBC News on BBC1 at 6.00pm and then the first 25 minutes of the special Channel Four News from 7.00pm. Overnight I have done no more than flit around the UK broadsheet (serious) newspaper websites, deliberately without reading any of their reports in full.
In other words, this piece is based simply upon my own personal impressions of what appears in the Chilcot Report and the media reactions that I have watched or listened to – including extracts from the press conferences of Tony Blair and the families of those whose loved ones – servicemen and women (sons, daughters, spouses etc.) – died or were wounded in the Iraq War conflict.
Thus I do not claim that what follows contains any greater insight, knowledge or appreciation of the issues involved than any other person sitting upstairs upon the proverbial Clapham omnibus.
We’re considering great issues of state here, of course. It is a truth held to be self-evident that – for this purpose ignoring the sincerely-held views of pacifists and proponents of nuclear disarmament – the first duty of any national statesman or government is that of ‘defence’ of the realm’ and its people.
It is the nature of the beast that – both for national and personal prestige reasons – national leaders like to strut upon the world stage and promote their nation’s importance and influence around the globe. Everything from self-esteem to cultural and commercial success depends upon it. Within the scheme of national ‘peacock displays’, expressions of military might (or potential capability) play a significant part in conveying a nation’s fitness to defend itself and/or ‘take out’ external threats to its quiet enjoyment of everyday life.
It is also part of human nature for military leaders, irrespective of whether their nation is a dictatorship or genuine democracy, or whether their political masters are benign peace-loving thinkers or swivel-eyed loony warmongers, to want to please.
In other words, to wish to give the answers they think their masters wish to hear. To respond to “Can we do this?” [e.g. take part in some overseas military mission in some far-off land] with “Of course we can, Prime Minister …” irrespective of whether – at the time of being asked the question – in any particular case our last remaining aircraft carrier actually has any serviceable aircraft available to it – or whether our troops have the appropriate desert boots, fatigues and body armour to wear – or not.
Instinctively we all want to be ‘Can Do’ people rather than a ‘dog in the manger’ types issuing dire warnings and being pessimistic or negative – apart from anything else, for fear that if we are, the boss will simply take the attitude “Well, if that’s your view, please get out of the way and let me bring on board in your place someone who will get the job done …”
My next point is about the inevitable ‘gap’ in appreciation that exists between people who become politicians and those who, when war is declared, actually have to wage it.
War is a desperate business. We have all heard the adage “You can make all the preparations for military action you like, but – from the moment the first shot is fired – the rest is chaos …” and it is fundamentally true.
When a politician or statesman considers taking his or her nation to war, they contemplate what will occur – and the intended mission and end result goals – in an abstract way. Perhaps a bit like they’re a participant in a session of the old board war game Risk that I used to play fifty years ago – moving little military units around a map of the world with the goal of conquering it ahead of my opponents.
But war is a lot more messy than that.
One of my oldest friends is a former British army officer who for a time served in Northern Ireland during the troubles. He described to me, with a combination of slight awe and disquiet, an experience of, on one occasion, dealing with an SAS unit that arrived at his base.
In advance, in circumstances of great secrecy, he had put in place certain security plans but, when he met the unit upon their arrival (in civilian clothes, having been driven from a nearby air base in an unmarked car) he had barely begun his introduction when – in effect – the leader of the unit politely asked him to stop … and then told him what they required and exactly how things were going to be done – all quite different from what had been arranged for them. A few hours later, the SAS unit drove out of the base. Another few hours later, they returned, had a meal without talking to anyone or meeting anyone on the base, and were then driven off back to the airfield, from where they were flown back to England. And yes, sometime later the news came through that some para-military thug or another had been taken out.
The gist of my pal’s description of the episode was that the SAS are killers. That’s what they do – they kill or get killed. When you send an SAS unit into action, it’s not a case of military protocol, or ‘rules of engagement’, or proper warnings under the Geneva Convention before force is used … killing is their job.
When the military goes to war, the first and only goal is to win. To achieve victory, preferably in the shortest time possible – even if that requires bloodier intensity – in the hope that this involves less overall casualty cost to your own side.
To a military top brass, what is intended (or hoped) to happen after a war is won is of little or no concern – their job is to deliver the victory. The rest of it – and somebody else – can sort out the consequences … of the peace, or the void of control and lack of security, or indeed anarchy, that ensues.
Requiring your military – even if they should agree to it – to act as policemen in a post-victory world is asking for trouble. They’re not suited to that type of role.
As Robin Day once famously suggested, causing Tory minister Sir John Knott to walk out of an interview, the average “… if I may say so – here today, gone tomorrow’ politician in this world finds it very difficult to take an overview of military action – or indeed perhaps any decision or action in any field – and its consequences, whatever they might be.
They’re always, even if in Cabinet, considering things (and the implications) in the here and now, not as the world will view them five, ten or twenty years later – this after one hundred different things have happened and there have also been a couple of independent inquiries into who took which decision, and why and how, and was there any genuine logical, legal or rational justification for it.
My lasting impression – and indeed shock – arising from yesterday came from watching extracts of Tony Blair’s two-hour press conference on the BBC News in which he sought to defend his reputation and explain his thought processes and actions over the Iraq War.
He looked and sounded like a frail and haunted little old man, not the swaggering superstar politician Tony Blair who once bestrode the world stage like a Colossus – his voice weak, tired and faltering.