The road to war is paved with good intentions. We want to help, but instead cause death, destruction and destabilisation.
Shortly before MPs voted in favour of air strikes in Syria, shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn gave a long and eloquent speech defending the motion. It gained applause throughout the House and has been called “one of the best ever”. He referred to so-called Islamic State as “fascists” and highlighted their killing of gay men and enslavement of women amongst other atrocities. He argued that Labour voting in favour of the motion, despite the firm anti-war stance of some of its new front-benchers, would be justified by altruism: “We are the party of internationalism…We never…should walk by on the other side of the road”. Regardless of whether Mr Benn is right to support air strikes (I for one think he is) we need to question his invocation of altruism as an appropriate motive for military action.
War is a ghastly thing. Despite today being arguably the most peaceful time in human history, war has not been eradicated and the factors that tend to spark off and sustain wars still exist. If we are to avoid unnecessary death and destruction, both the frequency and length of wars need to be kept to a minimum. We must only go to war under exceptional circumstances; these circumstances need to be very clearly, carefully and strictly defined. If we do go to war, we must always have a simple and unambiguous end in sight. In order to achieve this clarity in practice, we must first achieve it in theory—we need a theoretical justification for when and why we can use military action, and bringing in altruism gets in the way of this theoretical clarity.
The principle of national defence should be the only justification for war. Every nation state has a national government whose role is to protect its citizens; it is responsible to them and to them only. The need to protect innocent civilians against perpetrators of violence justifies the police and the military, the latter of which should act only when there is a tangible threat to the life or liberty of British citizens that cannot be dealt with by non-military means. Its one and only goal should be to neutralise that threat. Sticking to these principles would make wars shorter, less frequent and more effective and would keep death and destruction to a minimum.
The Falklands War is an excellent example in this regard. In 1982, Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands, thus aggressing against the British citizens who lived there. Britain’s subsequent military action came with a very clear goal: end Argentinian occupation. The war was won after just ten weeks of fighting, and the total number of deaths was under a thousand (only three of which were civilians). The islands remain under British control and Argentina has not attempted another invasion since. Some have even credited Margaret Thatcher’s re-election to the military success.
Contrast this with the never-ending nightmare of the so-called “War on Terror” and Western intervention in the Middle East. The West has a very bad record when it comes to helping people by dropping bombs on them. The Vietnam War is an older but just as valid example: the Vietcong posed virtually no threat whatsoever to the United States; invading Vietnam was not justifiable on the grounds of national defence. Nevertheless, the US engaged in a war that lasted twenty years, cost upwards of $1 trillion, led to at least 195,000 civilian casualties, and in the end achieved less than nothing. Forty years later, communism in Vietnam is withering away of its own accord.
In more recent times, the West’s attempts to “help” the people of Iraq and Libya by bringing down their respective dictators have led to political chaos, the largest migration crisis since the Second World War, and an Islamist insurgency across the region. Iraq is torn by warring religious groups, and Libya is widely seen as a failed state. In 2014, the British government was considering arming and assisting the Syrian opponents of President Assad; these would be the same opponents who now call themselves Islamic State and are known for decapitating journalists and gunning down concert-goers. Every attempt at supposedly helpful warfare has unintended consequences that cannot be known beforehand. The war drags on because each supposed solution creates a new unexpected problem which then demands another solution.
I’m not arguing that a foreign policy based purely on national defence can’t encounter such problems. I am arguing however, that it is less likely to encounter such problems and more likely to overcome them if it does. “Eliminate the threat of so-called Islamic State,” is not an easy goal, but it is a very clear one. It is over when they are over. “Liberate the peoples of the Middle East, give them stable government and prevent rival groups from killing each-other,” is an arbitrary and practically unachievable goal that will lead to never-ending war, practical expenses and death. Often, the best way to help is to do nothing.
Some may see this attitude as heartless and uncaring. The truth is that caring gets you nowhere unless you think and act rationally. What I want is less war; I want fewer innocents to suffer and die. Looking at the results of warfare in the last half-century, it is hard to believe that altruistically motivated intervention is the way to achieve that.