Kenneth Payne has interesting pieces at Current Intelligence and on the BBC about the supposed ambivalence towards war felt in this country. Not to be facetious, but I’m ambivalent about them. It is true the British public are uninformed and uninvolved with Afghanistan, and that they are uninterested in defence policy generally. But I don’t believe this ambivalence is new, as Payne seems to think. It has been the norm for the last two or three centuries. The total wars of the last century are exceptions to our ambivalence not the rule, so Payne is wrong to compare the levels of involvement then with attitudes today. He ought to have looked at serious, but discretionary conflicts in Southeast Asia and Africa after the Second World War; colonial struggles in the interwar period; the ‘small wars’ of Victorian times; and those even earlier. The concept of ‘honouring the fallen’, which Payne considers an exception to ambivalence, is actually a modern innovation in Britain that was borrowed from the Japanese according to Patrick Porter. Although the British have been uninterested in wars historically, one can also argue they don’t mind getting stuck in. There is a strong feeling that we ‘ain’t out of the business yet’, as Professor Peter Hennessy argued recently:
If we have cunning plans of Baldrickian proportions, even though we have no money and bugger all kit, we can somehow still move Johnny Foreigner in ways that Johnny Foreigner doesn’t entirely want to be moved.
The influential commentator Charles Moore made a similar point last year. ‘Britain still defines herself by prowess in war.’ If we didn’t, why were we so sensitive to the redeployment from Sangin being seen as a retreat? We love success and hate defeat and we’re ambivalent about everything in between. Payne is also wrong to assert that popular culture was somehow morally certain about conflict in the postwar period, in contrast to today. He seems to have forgotten films like Paths of Glory (1957) and Stalag 17 (1953), as well as the success of something like Catch-22. The ‘post-martial’ anxiety seems wide-of-the-mark when all the above is taken into account. ‘Violence remains central to international politics and there is no indication that this will ever change’, one feisty academic wrote last month. ‘The reason for my confidence in saying that is the fact that the human condition itself has never changed.’ This is true of the British certainly, so temporary ambivalence about a distant campaign on the other side of the world can hardly be treated as a sign of things to come.