Monday, 3 February 2014


To understand Britain's role in the First World War, look to Iraq

In his Guardian piece on the First World War anniversary last week, Simon Jenkins rightly challenges the celebration fever that is taking hold, particularly in political circles. The twentieth century wars have a peculiar grip on the British historical imagination, and the assumption that a victorious war is necessarily a good war is deep seated. And yet, for younger Britons, the Great War is almost as historically remote as the Crimean war is to their parents and grandparents, few of whom may properly judge the merits of a conflict better known for a disastrous cavalry charge than for its geo-political significance or moral justification.

How, therefore, may contemporary society place the events of 1914 and their aftermath in a meaningful context? One approach lies in the curious parallels between the origin and course of that  great conflict and those of the Iraq War, launched by a U.S. coalition in 2003.

Both conflicts had their origins in political murder. The shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian imperial throne, by Serbian-backed Bosnian nationalists in 1914, may appear insignificant when placed alongside the three thousand or more deaths of 9/11, but context is everything in such cases and both outrages were exploited for political ends. German-backed Austria threatened Serbia, which was backed by Russia; Germany's contingency plan for a war with Russia called for the rapid neutralisation of Russia's ally, France. The path of least resistance for a German army invading France was via Belgium. Britain was a guarantor of Belgian neutrality. That is how a spat in the Balkans ended up being decided in the mud of Flanders' fields.

The political machinations that led from 11 September 2001 to 20 March 2003 (the day the allied tanks rolled across the Iraqi border) are still subject, in Britain, at least, to official enquiry, while objective historical analysis remains some way off. But the Belgian question is relevant. Lurid, government-inspired press reports of German atrocities in Belgium whipped up support for British participation in the continental war. The difference between these and the infamous dossier on Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” is that atrocities were undoubtedly committed, whereas the weapons were found not to exist.

Both wars were anticipated to be of short duration. George W Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq after 41 days, however fighting continued and allied troops remained deployed for a further eight years. The first World War was popularly supposed to be “over by Christmas” but did not officially end until the conclusion of the Paris Peace Conference some five years later.

The First World War was  not “asymmetric” in the modern sense exemplified by the secondary phase of the Iraq War, in which diverse mobile guerilla forces were pitched against a heavily armed standing army. But it was asymmetric in the sense that the technology of defence, characterised by the machine gun, was far in advance of offensive capacity, since the development of heavy armour and effective attack aircraft was still some way off.

For that reason, the First World War and the Iraq War both rapidly became “entrenched”, literally or metaphorically, and thus difficult to win. As the wars were prolonged, initial objectives were soon lost sight of, political rhetoric and propaganda fed the institutional reluctance to admit that things were going wrong and in both cases the national-political imperative of “winning” gradually replaced any strategic objectives while ruling out the possibility of negotiated settlement.

The most important parallel, however, and that which has, perhaps, the most to teach about both the past and the future, is the way in which neither of these draw-out conflicts managed to resolve the underlying geo-political tensions that caused them.

In relation to Iraq, the war has spun into a wider conflict with diverse pockets of anti-western interests, and judging by the colossal resources now invested in America's National Security Agency the American people, at least, are far from feeling any safer. The Paris Peace Conference represented possibly the greatest-ever failure of self-interested Western diplomacy, in which the terms of settlement exacted by the victors contributed not only to the rise of Nazism and its consequences but also to many unresolved tensions that have continued to unsettle the Balkans, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Britain emerged from the Conference with the “Mandate” for Iraq, a high-minded term for a form of neocolonialism that granted British interests a 75 year concession over Iraqi oil, and oil has continued to be a decisive factor in the way in which the western powers have engaged in the region.

More profoundly, however, it emerged from the conflict with a seal firmly stamped upon a union with the United States in which a moral difference, rooted loosely in a shared language, culture and common law, was tacitly asserted. As Bismarck had anticipated, and subsequent events clearly demonstrated, when push came to shove in the twentieth century Britain could rely upon the intervention of the U.S., and she has certainly repaid the favour when opportunity has arisen.

So much so, indeed, that it remains difficult to disentangle the true Western motivation for the invasion of Iraq since, on both sides of the Atlantic, the dimension of moral intent was simply assumed. For Britain's cheer leader, in particular, moral purpose was everything. Of all the unpleasant dictatorships that Tony Blair might like to have got rid of, Iraq's was the most do-able since it carried the guarantee of American support. When morality is the starting point, however, commercial interests such as oil and the military industrial complex come along for a free ride.

The Anglo-American exception that gives moral cover to the two states' military adventures is underwritten by the Second World War, with its simple narrative of good versus evil in which the evil was so evil that no amount of countervailing wrongdoing could dent the victors' credentials. Viewed through that rosy prism it is near-impossible to re-state Britain's involvement in the First World War in self-interested terms, but the prism need not, unless we choose, cloud our contemporary assessment of the confused motivations and failures of judgement that relate to Iraq.

The price of a “moral” war may be to lose perspective on human suffering. That, ultimately, is the parallel between the trenches of Flanders and the fire-fights and bombings of Iraq: people killed in the interests of an abstract and unnamed good that they can ill-identify and will never experience. Did the penny finally drop when the Commons voted last summer against military intervention in Syria? It may be too early to tell, but it is not too early in the context of the looming anniversary to reflect upon a more distant conflict in the light of Britain's recent, inconclusive and morally ambiguous wars.

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