Television

We know that war is hell. But it doesn’t ever make us stop doing it

James Delingpole is proud that Britain will do anything rather than admit it’s finished as a fighting nation

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

There’s a plausible theory — recently rehearsed in the BBC’s excellent two-part documentary The Lion’s Last Roar? — that our war in Afghanistan was largely the creation of the Army, which sorely needed a renewed sense of military purpose after the debacle in Iraq. As a taxpayer, this appals me. As the parent of a boy approaching conscription age it horrifies me. But as an Englishman, it doesn’t half make me proud that we’ll still do anything — up to and including embroiling ourselves in a futile conflict — rather than admit we’re finished as a fighting nation.

Though we joke about having beaten Germany twice at their national sport in the first part of the 20th century, the truth is that we need our wars at least as much as they do. Yes, we know that war is hell: we’ve seen Saving Private Ryan and Fury; we’ve watched the funeral processions at Royal Wootton Bassett; we’ve been steeped since school in the poetry of Owen and Sassoon. But it’s never anywhere near enough to make us vow ‘Never again’ and perhaps the weekend’s commemorative programming offered an inkling as to why.

Take the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance (BBC1, Saturday) — a sort of military-themed variety show performed at the Royal Albert Hall before the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prime Minister. It ought to have been excruciating: tacky, ponderous, bombastic. Despite such jarring combinations as a rock performance by Jeff Beck and Joss Stone, the puppets from War Horse and a sea shanty composed and sung by Jim Radford, the youngest man to have served in the D-Day landings (he was 15) — the whole affair was quite irresistibly moving. We love our military — and there’s an end to it.


I had my initial reservations, too, about Tony Robinson’s World War One (Discovery, Sunday). The premise, I feared, was a bit flimsy: here are some 3D photographs from the first world war that have never before been shown on television. (Wow!) Plus, of course, there was the inevitable concern that Labour luvvie Baldrick might impose all the fashionable bien-pensant preoccupations of the modern age on an era when people thought and felt very differently.

But I needn’t have worried. Of the myriad first world war documentaries I’ve seen this year, Robinson’s was one of the clearest and most accessible: a mix of travelogue, expert guidance (including some fine exegesis from Max Hastings, who doesn’t often do these things), re-enactors in 1914 kit (with the Tommy wearing a moustache — as, astonishingly, was compulsory for the first two years of the war) and enthusiastic accounts by battlefield tour guides. You came away with the — probably correct — impression that the first world war was entirely unnecessary. But it was never less than respectful towards — nor, on occasion, properly excited about — the courage, endurance and self-sacrifice of the poor sods at the sharp end.

Then there was The Great War: an Elegy — a Culture Show Special (BBC1, Saturday) in which Simon Armitage examined the war from the perspective of seven characters, including a nurse, a captured flier who’d successfully tunnelled out of his PoW camp, and a remarkable fellow called Arthur Heath, one of the most brilliant intellectuals of his generation, who had been killed at 28.

For each one, Armitage wrote a poem (he’s good: perhaps too good ever to be poet laureate), my favourite of which was the one inspired by Heath, meditating on the vast array of talent so cruelly and pointlessly snuffed out before its time, and what these people might have achieved if only they had lived. ‘The faint of heart won’t want to trawl through a mud bath strewn with body parts. An architect’s hand, a surgeon’s rib, an explorer’s foot still laced in its boot, the flaxen shock of an actor’s hair, an artist’s eye, a composer’s ear…’

The average life expectancy of a junior officer in the trenches was six weeks. How would any of us, placed in such a situation, come to terms with the imminence of our demise? Heath had a pretty decent shot in a letter to his mother. He wrote: ‘We make the division between life and death as if it were one of dates — being born at one date and dying some years after. But just as we sleep half our lives, so when we’re awake, too, we know that often we’re only half alive. Life, in fact, is a quality rather than a quantity… The first time I heard Brahms’ Requiem remains with me as an instance of what I mean… Now if such moments could be preserved, and the rest strained off, none of us could wish for anything better… And just as these moments of joy or elevation may fill our own lives, so, too, they may be prolonged in the experience of our friends, and, exercising their power in those lives, may know a continual resurrection.’

And now, here we are a century later, appreciating Heath’s wonderful insight in a way I’m sure he never imagined when he wrote that letter. So maybe he didn’t die in vain, after all.

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Show comments
  • gerontius

    Yes Heath’s insight is indeed wonderfully expressed, but he is rationalising as you surely can see. Maybe for his own sake, certainly for his mother’s. Joy and elevation are comparative concepts. It requires the mundanity of ordinary life to give them their significance. I think he knew that.

    • little islander

      Seeing is one thing. Letting it get in the way of a good story is another.

  • Ed  

    We didn’t start the war; ISIL did. We didn’t start the war; Al Quaeda did. We didn’t start the war; North Vietnam did. We didn’t start the war; North Korea did. We didn’t start the war; Hitler did. We didn’t start the war; Tojo did. We didn’t start the war; the Kaiser did. We didn’t start the war; Bismarck did. We didn’t start the war; Napoleon did. We didn’t start the war; Louis XIV did.

    Do you notice a pattern? I think it might have something to do with dictatorships….

    • Christian

      We started ww2 the moment we gave the poles a blank cheque with our suicidal guarantee

      • Ed  

        Freedom is not easy. It takes backbone. Do you have the wherewithal to stand up to the bad guys?

        • Noa

          Our politicians have, for a hundred years, been long on principle and extremely short on realpolitik.
          The result has been the loss of our pre-eminent position in the world, the destruction of the better elements of our population and their replacement by the worst elements of Africa and the Indian sub continent.
          And they still don’t have backbone.

          • Ed  

            It is possible, although rare, to combine realpolitik with principle. An excellent example is Prime Minister Harper’s recent public humiliation of Vladimir Putin, in Australia. Harper also has fighter planes in Poland, backing up his principled words.

            Then there’s Prime Minister Abbott, repeatedly referring to ISIL as a “death cult”.

            This is first rate stuff; it’s exactly what we need. Sadly, politicians with this mettle are few and far between.

          • Noa

            Really? And why does Harper think Canada has a dog in the Brest Litovsk hunt? A dispute between Germany and Russia which was the cause of the first and second world wars and has been re-kindled yet again by Germany.

          • Ed  

            First they came for the Jews, and I said nothing, because I’m not a Jew.

            If Canada doesn’t have a dog in the fight for a free Europe, then nobody has a dog in any fight.

            Saying it’s not OK to oppress Canadians but it is OK to oppress Ukrainians is basically racist.

          • Noa

            Are you an idiot?
            I ask you because, in all seriousness, your diatribe about Jews, your resort to accusations of racism, your claim that I’m oppressing Canadians and your inability to acknowledge that Germany, through the EU, has deliberately manipulated the Ukrainian situation to its own advantage, demonstrates that you are quite unable to sustain a serious debate. Canada’s interests would be best served by him seizing hold of Junckers and Merkel’s jacket fronts, rather than Putins.

          • Ed  

            No.

            You’re oppressing Canadians? Where did I say that? Can you read? Try again. Facepalm, dude.

          • Noa

            Try English – and logic, both have been absent in your posts.

          • Ed  

            OK, let’s try simple terms. “Oppression bad”. Get it?

          • Noa

            So why aren’t you arguing that the EU should get out of interfering in Ukranian politics, where it deliberately de-stabilised the overthrown legitimate government? And now get back to explaining, not evading how you think Canada’s impractical and dangerous support of Merkel’s empire building is an excellent example of realpolitik,

          • Ed  

            The primary meddling I’ve seen is Russian. If you’re right, and the damn EU is meddling as well, if they’re not supporting Ukrainian freedom, then they should also stop. Sadly, that doesn’t surprise me. It’s a sliding scale of nastiness. Brussels is a horror viewed from London, but it’s (sadly) almost the Holy Grail, viewed from Kiev. It’s a nasty mess from top to bottom, but that’s hardly an excuse for not telling Vlad to get out of Ukraine, as Harper just did, to his great credit.

          • Noa
        • Christian

          Ww2 was a disaster for us, I don’t see your point

          • Ed  

            OK. (a) We didn’t start WWII by “giving the Poles a blank cheque”. Hitler started it by, um, how to put this, being evil. The Polish border was simply the line we drew in the sand; telling Hitler that if he continued his evil beyond that point, there would be consequences; war. My point is that standing up to evil takes backbone.

            (b) Sure, WWII was a disaster. It was a disaster for everyone involved. It would have been a hell of a lot better if the damn thing hadn’t been necessary. Please review point (a) above.

            Thanks.

          • Christian

            Your knowledge is so lacking this is like talking with a five year old. You’re obviously aware that we made desperate last minute attempts to get the poles to make some concessions to hitler? Hitler was evil so ww2 began. Okaaaaaaaay…….

          • Ed  

            Wasn’t he?

          • Simon_in_London

            We like starting wars with evil people. That was Delingpole’s point.

          • Ed  

            “Like” is entirely the wrong word. Sometimes what we want to do, and what is the right thing to do, are quite different. Being adults can be tough that way, at times.

      • EricHobsbawmtwit

        Oh what did the Poles do with the blank cheque? Apart from tell Hitler to **** off. Too bad for them then, that Germany and Russia had already decided to wipe Poland from the face of the Earth, the USSR from the East and Germany from the West.

        It’s also a shame you don’t know ANYTHING about the history of World War II.

        • Alan Dray

          The problem with causality in History is where do you stop? I will not get into an argument about who started WWII or even when it started. If you think it was a consequence of WWI then the cause of WWII suddenly goes back to 19th Century. I have even read eminent authors debating that we were to blame by not fighting with French at Sedan in 1870. AJP Taylor certainly thought the start of WWI could be traced back at least this far. If you accept this then you can go further back. (I assume by now you are getting the point)

          • EricHobsbawmtwit

            Well that’s the thing about cause and effect. It goes right back to the creation of the universe.

            You stop when you no longer find it all that interesting and/or when the uncertainty is so great it’s not possible to choose between one cause and another.

          • Alan Dray

            I completely agree. This is why we continue to repeat the mistakes of the past. We take one lesson but forget that all historical events have more than one cause. There are very few conflicts in human history where the line between “good” and “bad” are separated by anything more than a wafer thin line.

        • Christian

          Had they given hitler what he desired and by rights should have but didn’t due to the disastrous ww1 settlement, ww2 would never have happened

    • Tom M

      But we did undoubtedly start the first and second Afghanistan wars.

      • Ed  

        Yeah, no. The towers were in New York City, not Kabul.

        Unless you’re referring to the late 1800’s; those events I’m less familiar with.

        • EricHobsbawmtwit

          Oh Tom totally forgot about 9/11. It’s easy to do if you’re an utter berk.

          • Tom M

            No actually he didn’t. It would appear that you are less conversant with history than you are with offensive remarks.

        • Tom M

          Correct, 1839 Army of the Indus. It went to get rid of the then boss in Afghanistan because we thought he was siding with the Russians. We marched in and put the man he had deposed on the throne. There were no Russians.
          The locals revolted and slaughtered the Kabul part of the British army.
          The British army returned with another army called the Army of Retribution. And boy did it take retribution. We got the message anyway and left.
          The original deposed boss was put back on the throne and apart from the devastation caused we left it much like it was and still is today.
          What has that got to do with 9/11 or towers?

          • Ed  

            It doesn’t. Why did you bring it up?

          • Tom M

            A few posts before brought that up not I. They seem to think that Afghanistan is in New York for some reason.

    • Samson

      Who can forget North Vietnam’s invasion of England. Those were bleak days indeed.

      • Ed  

        Yes, Vietnam, a faraway people of whom we know nothing.

        • Samson

          In England, probably the most known fact about the Vietnamese is that they’re not immune to bullets or napalm.

          • Ed  

            Oh, Vietnamese are people too? Who’d have thought?

          • Samson

            Yep, they’re people who started a war with England, like you said earlier. They sailed the seven jungles and laid waste to our green and fertile lands.

          • Ed  

            I didn’t say started a war with England, I said started a war. They did.

    • Stephen Milroy

      In the immortal words of Billy Joel, ‘we didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning’ . there were always monsters and madmen In our midst.However our military has been cut to ribbons, and we if we are to go down this path then it seems vital we pursue a policy of isolationism until we get the appalling way we treat our servicemen sorted.

    • Simon_in_London

      Some of those we did start.

      • Ed  

        “Some of those we did start.” No, not so. As in parenting, there are times when it’s necessary to put your foot down. Not nice, not fun, not pleasant, but clearly necessary. Growing the backbone to finish something unpleasant is not the same as starting it.

  • Gavin Brown

    The instant solution to war is to prohibit all males from becoming politicians !!

    • Ed  

      Women don’t fight? I take it you’ve never been down to the pubs on a Friday night.

  • trace9

    The British Army – The Wheremacht.. In the Atomic age, it’s turning into an atom. Female, with no Positive Charge. Pun intended..

  • thomasaikenhead

    “James Delingpole is proud that Britain will do anything rather than admit it’s finished as a fighting nation”

    Well fortunately the rest of the country have tired of using blood and treasure to allow pygmy politicians to use the military in petty, political vanity projects!

    The UK wisely decided not to get involved in the Sunni/Shia sectarian conflict, perhaps having learnt that Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya were all disasters that served only to create failed states.

    When James grows up he will learn that the days of empire and gun boat diplomacy are long gone.

    • Ed  

      “… the days of empire and gun boat diplomacy are long gone.”

      Really. Then why did Vladimir Putin just show up at the G20 in Australia with four warships in tow? Why did he then leave early, after being publicly humiliated by Stephen Harper?

      We only WISH the days of gun boat diplomacy were gone. They’re not. Backbone in the pursuit of the right is still sadly necessary, and far too few of us have it.

      • thomasaikenhead

        Ed,

        I was referring to the British Empire.

        The UK is no longer ‘the policeman of the world’ but now simply a middle sized European nation that does not have the money or interest in further foreign military ventures.

        The events in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya all ended in humiliating failure that have led to three failed states.

        These events are the dying moments of the British Empire, fleeting vestiges of what once was.

        There is no longer any interest amongst the British public in empire and militarism. The unwillingness of the country to fund the replacement of Trident will make this very clear.

        • Ed  

          You may not be interested in empire and militarism (and religious extremism), but empire, militarism and religious extremism are still interested in you.

          You may find that Mr Putin and the “caliph” don’t see quite eye-to-eye with you on whether the heyday of gunboat diplomacy is quite past yet.

          Do you have the backbone? You may not have the choice.

          • thomasaikenhead

            Ed,

            There are different ways to respond to militarism and soft power may be more effective as the actions of the EU make very clear.

            The EU was able to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland, remove dictatorships from Greece, Spain and Portugal as well as bring about the end of the Cold War and absorb many of the nations of the Eastern bloc without firing a single shot!

            By contrast, the military actions in Afghanistan have failed, attempts to turn Iraq into a modern, democratic state subject to the rule of law have been an abject failure and removing the Gadhaffi regime in Libya has led to anarchy and a failed state that is a haven for extremists.

          • Ed  

            Soft power doesn’t work. The Irish situation was resolved after the 9/11 attacks dried up the IRA’s US Catholic funding. Nothing “soft” about that. Also, don’t underestimate the effect of Gerry Adams’ televised humiliation at the hands of two female relatives of one of his victims. That took a lot of testosterone out of the IRA.

            The EU is working hard to bring dictatorships back to Greece and Italy, with policies that encourage Golden Dawn, and the coup (there’s no other word) against the elected Italian government.

            It’s possible to say, as you do, that the wars in the middle east have failed; however, the flypaper strategy of killing terrorists over there, rather than allowing them to come over here, has been very successful. Thousands upon thousands of them have died, many miles from the sites of 9/11 and 7/7. A few Canadian, British and American extremists have even travelled over there to die, which is to my mind an excellent result.

          • thomasaikenhead

            Ed,

            You seem not to understand what is taking place in Iraq and Syria, there is no threat to the UK whatsoever, it is not a Crusade, there is no Christian – Muslim struggle.

            It is a sectarian war between Sunni Muslim and Shia Muslim, a conflict that has been going on for nearly 1,400 years and looks likely to continue for a while.

          • Ed  

            It’s only not a Christian-Muslim struggle because the Christians have by now all been murdered and driven out. Ask the Yazidis and Kurds how much fun this religious extremism is, as well.

            No threat to the UK? My stinking foot.

            I spent the day of the recent Ottawa terror shootings in lockdown, in the nearest building to the War Memorial where the soldier died. Doesn’t affect us? Spin me another one.

          • thomasaikenhead

            Ed,

            A sectarian war between Muslim sects and factions and has nothing to do with the UK.

            There is no campaign or concerted effort by Muslims to bring conflict to the UK, just a few incidents involving disturbed individuals and a few tiny groups.

            It is important to keep a sense of proportion, not too hard in the Uk because many people lived through years of real terror alerts related to the activities of the IRA.

            They are not fooled by bogus threats or exaggerated attempts to create fear over imagined, implausible and impossible threats.

            It really is a case of ‘Keep calm and carry on’, it is not a time to panic and run around like headless chickens!

          • Ed  

            You’re not totally off base; however, while speaking softly, it would be wise to also carry a big stick. “impossible” threats have an odd way of becoming less impossible over time.

          • thomasaikenhead

            Ed,

            The West has not only carried a big stick, it has used it several times.

            Unfortunately, despite using the big stick repeatedly, it has lost the fight every time.

            ‘Cut and run’ in Afghanistan will see the inevitable Taliban victory and the end of Afghanistan as a functioning state.

            Multiple invasions of Iraq served only to remove Saddam Hussein and replace his regime with Kurd, Sunni and Shia groups that has greatly profited Iran that can now reinforce its Syrian and Hezbollah allies.

            The West used a military ‘stick’ in Libya and what was the result, a devastated country controlled by fanatics and people smugglers.

          • Alan Dray

            I think it is time people in this discussion admitted what they really want. We have contributors who clearly think the UK should involve itself in conflicts on moral grounds. Why are you not advocating invasion of Russia or China I ask? The answer obviously is you know we would lose. Amazing how moral fervor suddenly disappears. We also have others who think we should never get involved unless we are directly invaded/threatened. A perfectly reasonable position except that in the modern world things are never this simple. The saddest thing is the complete lack of respect for anyone else’s point of view. Why is is that so many people in this country only believe freedom of speech applies to them and no one else is entitled to an opinion.

          • thomasaikenhead

            Alan Dray,

            “Why are you not advocating invasion of Russia or China I ask?”

            Did I not make myself clear?

            I oppose all foreign military ventures unless there is a clear threat to the UK or a significant number of UK nationals.

            With regard to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, not only was British military involvement wrong, it was also an abject failure, cost the UK a great deal in blood and treasure and, most important of all, was an abject failure. The situation in all three countries is now worse than before.

            Therefore the answer is why I would oppose military conflict with Russia and China is not a fear of British defeat but rather war for ‘moral grounds’ by the UK is the wrong policy.

            “…unless we are directly invaded/threatened. A perfectly reasonable position except that in the modern world things are never this simple.”

            Er, except that they are?

            Other countries like Poland, Spain, Germany, Italy and France did not feel the need to get heavily involved in the US-led military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and only France was a significant player alongside the UK in Libya, and look what that has achieved?

            If other European countries of a similar size and nature to the UK are not involving themselves sun failed, foreign military ventures, why should the UK be following such and aggressive and futile policy?

            As for lack of respect for others, I have engaged in this debate and can agree to differ with others, that does not imply any lack of respect about their view points at all.

            Indeed, I am clearly in the minority in opposing war as a means of UK foreign policy, at least based on the MPs who have repeatedly votes for such military action.

  • RadioJockhadistan

    We need war as much as the Germans do.

    So let us unite and incite against the next bunch of hooded losers in KKK black.

  • I have the following to submit.

    1 – Is it asking too much if, on November 11, and at other times, we ask ourselves this question: Have each of us lived up to the sacrifice of the war dead?

    2 – We live in a shattered universe, and as long as stubbornness is preferable to candour, there will be no shortage of times of people concluding, “That’s enough, and you won’t get away with it again”.

  • Dodgy Geezer

    … our war in Afghanistan was largely the creation of the Army, which
    sorely needed a renewed sense of military purpose after the debacle in
    Iraq. As a taxpayer, this appals me. As the parent of a boy approaching
    conscription age it horrifies me. But as an Englishman, it doesn’t half
    make me proud…

    Not just the Army.

    Ever since WW2, during the following Cold War, we have maintained the Military-Industrial complex designed for fighting high-tech wars that Eisenhower warned us against. This is now ingrained in our economy. If we were to close it down, many hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost – perhaps millions. Many powerful people would be put out of work.

    So it’s not going to happen. Ever since the Berlin Wall came down this complex has been looking for new threats to justify its existence, and has manufactured them by the simple process of picking fights with third-world countries, where the fighting is mainly done by bombing villages from the air, or by establishing overwhelming force on the ground using technology that the opposition cannot match. All for no practical foreign policy advantage, which must be apparent to any observer. We incinerate wedding parties in foreign lands just for the practice.

    Oddly, that doesn’t make me proud. I wonder why…?

  • Ambientereal

    We got in wars but we never started them. The question is how will look the world now if the western nations would have run away of confrontation. There probably would be no western at all. We should be more grateful to the ones that took decisions that could have changed history for good or bar and hope that it did for good.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Iraq’s WMDs: Worst excuse for a war since Helen of Troy.

  • Augustus

    During the First World War H. G. Wells compiled a number of newspaper articles into a book entitled The War That Will End War, a term that later caught on as ‘the war to end all wars’. Perhaps this became a conviction among those young officers whose ‘average life expectancy in the trenches was six weeks’. So, although very sad that these young lives were so frequently thrown away, they may well have sought to die in a noble fashion for a noble cause, and many inglorious years might have seemed to them a poor substitute for the example and tradition of British courage which such deaths would surely leave behind.

  • WJOBrien

    My view as a US Marine Corps “snuffie” from the Viet Nam era is that the play Lysistrata had the first and last word on how to end war: cut off both combatants’ sides’ nookie supply until the lay down their arms. It is the demands of Woman which are the cause of all wars and therefore it is well within their means to end it.

    All wars’ causes boil down to a shared desire on the part of one populace to improve their personal finances and prospects through robbery and murder en masse of another population or tribe. It does not get any more complicated than that. Anything beats working and war is fun especially if you are a civilian “leader” well behind the lines and out of harm’s way.

    Funny that I have never read anything scholarly or in popular literature about the impact of the swag widows and parents or whomever the dead troopie designates as their benficiary prior to catching their faceful of hot lead. I think one of the major influences which created today’s city-fleeing and let them eat cake burboid class is the mass availability of these government insurance payouts. Lose a son (and now even a daughter too) and collect the Big Prize behind Curtain Number Three!

    Officers bought their chocolate lots faster than snuffies during conflicts of yore as those officers would rather be shot than take off their badges of distinction and they always insisted on their juniors saluting them even on the battlefield, a gift to snipers.

    I also think War Horse was and is sh*t like Miss Saigon, James. It had to be written by someone who has never done a half-hours’ duty as a stable hand. Horses love to fight. They fight for kicks and it is difficult to stop them once they get started even on dude ranches and especially in the wild. The proverbs about warhorses perking up when they smell gunsmoke and hear cannonfire are all true and well-documented. They are piranha on the battlefield as well on behalf of their masters and can tell the difference between human adversaries and allies.

  • WJOBrien

    Of course British love to fight. If there were not footie the Geordies and the mackems would square off with swords and battlaxes just like they did in ye aulde epochs of yore just out of boredom. I fink they do anyway now and then :>p

    It is a good thing too. You would be speaking German now if you did not.

  • Mnestheus

    This clashes egregiously with Delingpole’s violent addiction to that Afghanistan of the Conservative mind, The Climate Wars

    http://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com

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