The Responsibility to act

The United Kingdom has a long and proud military history, but one trend that persists and presents a source of immense frustration to the student is that of the unpreparedness for war. From the Second World War to the Falklands, successive governments have found themselves surprised by the start of a conflict and have to scrabble together forces to act. In fairness to those leaders of the past, the British military has proven itself capable of facing the task in the end, but in this modern world we can no longer rely on the luxury of time to build up strength after the outbreak of war in order to assure eventual victory.

Military spending has been on a perpetual downturn since the end of the Second World War, and has only deteriorated further since the collapse of the Soviet Union . Recent government efforts to maintain and expand upon the 2% standard do show willing, but the creative accounting that has been used in order to merely reach the minimum requirement for NATO membership should be a cause for some discomfort for those leading a nation with such a legacy of military success.

The glaring deficiencies in our defence infrastructure, from the lack of maritime patrol aircraft to dangerous manpower shortages, leave the nation extremely vulnerable. In an age that is becoming increasingly uncertain, in which Britain’s very position in the world is in flux, it would be irresponsible not to leave the nation better protected. The lack of ships available to provide escort duties during the recent Russian movements past our shores provide one example of this, and arguments have been put forwards to support a greater expansion of Royal Navy hulls than has been outlined in the National Shipbuilding Strategy. One such argument suggests a means by which fleet numbers can be boosted simply by retaining rather than scrapping perfectly serviceable vessels, a measure that would seem extremely prudent in the current climate.

Lest it be thought that this is mere doom-saying; a recent report by the National Audit Office has suggested that the MoD’s plans for modernising its equipment may face a crippling financial shortfall, with dangerous consequences both for the nation, and the unfortunate service personnel who may have to face combat situations with outdated equipment.

There are some who would argue that in the face of these deficiencies it might be prudent to simply withdraw, abandon our global commitments, and resort to a more isolationist stance. Indeed, in the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the failed intervention in Libya there can be seen the appearance of Britain’s own ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, in which any suggestion of the deployment of force is met with horror, but this approach wrongly correlates all military intervention with the disastrous consequences of a lack of planning.

Britain, has often proven remarkably able to intervene successfully to prevent the most awful of atrocities and provide aid where it is most desperately needed. The interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone both saved countless lives to the credit of the intervening forces; the establishment of clear missions and objectives were vital to meeting this end.

There is a certain responsibility that falls upon the shoulders of powerful nations to use their ability to act to do good; numerous examples may be found of where a failure or unwillingness to act has led to appalling consequences. The U.S. And U.N. failure to act effectively in Somalia presents one example – the international forces initially attempted to curtail the atrocious suffering of the people, but restrictive rules of engagement and a lack of general support saw the U.S. withdraw their forces after deciding that the conflict was no longer worth the loss of any American lives. As a consequence, the war is still ongoing after over a decade. The more recent heel-dragging over whether the West should re-commit forces to oppose the rise of Islamic State in nations that had been so disastrously torn up by earlier Western meddling also allowed for the meteoric rise of that most dangerous of groups, with consequences that are now all too clear.

The past few years have seen perceptions of military action change drastically, but the focus on the consequences of failure has seen the possibility for good be largely forgotten. The lack of support for military action has likewise seen radical cuts to defence expenditure go largely unchallenged. The efficacy of defence should not be defined by expenditure alone, but it should noted that for all the current rhetoric of maintaining NATO standards, expenditure under the current government as a percentage of GDP is still lower than under New Labour.

The current budget is allowing for modest expansions and a restoration of lost abilities, but there must be foresight in expenditure so that our ability to act may be maximised. The first priority must be self-defence, as this represents the primary responsibility of every government, but planning must be proactive to allow for the creation of a military that may be effectively deployed anywhere in the world to counter a developing crisis with speed. Furthermore, and of greater difficulty to secure, there must be the will to act at every level – interventions, even successful ones, will be expensive in terms of capital and lives, but the shame of a failure to act will run far deeper and the political consequences will be far heavier.

With all the turmoil in the Middle East, declining European influence and willingness to support their military assets, and a United States now threatening a new era of isolationism, Britain has an even greater responsibility to lead the way in terms of maintaining global stability. Military force is by no means the only way to do so, and indeed its deployment should be a last resort, but we have a duty to ensure that the means remain available should they be required. Let us not return to the days of an early unpreparedness for war, instead we should advocate peace at every turn, but be resolute and prepared to use the tools that our fortunate position in the world have granted us to ensure the safety of others.

For further reading on this topic I would recommend anyone to read this paper by the murdered MP Jo Cox, who recognised the need and duty of our nation to act in the face of atrocity.


On bias

I have recently succumbed, once again, to the curse of the history student – a fascination with the World Wars. This is an unsurprising affliction; the greatest conflicts (or conflict, if you follow Foch’s prescient comment) in human history captivate the mind in a way that no others can. I am not writing here on the wars themselves, however, rather the way they are recorded.

Having studied history to a higher level I have been repeatedly taught the value of objectivity, and need for it in professional work. This is a school of thought that I myself have had trouble coming to terms with; bias is natural, after all, and I am a personal fan of the classical histories of Greece and Rome in which the author aspires to teach lessons rather than dryly recite facts. Nonetheless, I have always tried to keep my pieces relatively neutral.

This school of thought (ironically developed largely in the post-war world) seems, however, not to apply to Nazi Germany. It has struck me profoundly in my recent readings how otherwise reputable and reserved historians will go out of their way to shower pieces on the Second World War with fervent moral condemnation in ways that one otherwise scarcely sees in academic work.

It would be expected at this point for me to say that this judgement is totally justified, and add in a few words such as ‘evil’, ‘horrific’, ‘immoral’ etc but to do so would be to undermine the point – modern academic historical work is intended to avoid such blatant bias and the use of such terms is inappropriate for anyone aspiring to academic publication.

The fact that this bias exists is understandable, and when reading for personal interest rather than research it does not disturb me, (in fact I prefer to see an opinionated author) but I find it odd that such virulent condemnation can be so supported in one field of academia but prohibited in all others. This trend will pass in time, presumably when the last generation of academics whose parents served in the wars pass on, and it will be interesting to see how much time will pass before some less prejudicial revisionist pieces arise.

As a historian I will be interested to see what pieces arise in the post-living memory world, but I can’t help but wonder whether we would be better to retain our emotional outlook on history; if only because it makes for more interesting reading.

Direct Democracy and Military Policy

I recently listened to episode 312 of Dan Carlin’s Common Sense, in which he discusses the current political and social climate of the world with renowned science historian James Burke. This was an excellent show, and well worth a listen, and Mr Burke makes some fascinating predictions about the future of the world, particularly in the realms of democracy and human interaction.

However, one observation he made that Dan Carlin likewise picked up on, was his predictions of a future ruled by direct (or mechanically assisted) democracy. Mr Burke seemed to view democracy as a naturally positive force, and maintained a healthy reliance on an inherent goodness of the human character, but his arguments for a form of government in which majority will is always followed presented to me a nightmarish view of the future in which state policy would be decided upon whim and in which expert opinion or experience would be equated exactly as much say as someone with no interest in the subject at hand.

The Athenian model of direct democracy, to my knowledge the only time such a policy was actually attempted in global history, led to a fractious and indecisive foreign policy at a time of great uncertainty across the Hellespont. The disastrous invasion of Sicily resulted directly from military policy being decided in an open forum, in which powers of oration were of greater import than logistical experience.

It is the field of military and diplomatic affairs that should most deter any hopes for a fully direct system of democratic rule; the Athenian voters were all subject to military service, and yet their decision making process throughout their history of democracy was fraught by atrocious choices. In our modern world, in which military affairs receive comparatively little attention, the voting public could not be expected to enjoy any greater success in deciding a sensible policy than could the Athenians.

The powers of demagoguery, so rife in their effects in ancient Greece, would likewise hold influence. It appears a sad truth that many experts lack the powers of oratory so praised among famous statesmen like Churchill, and as such their more intelligent advice would likewise be lost in a public forum to those better endowed in the aspect of leading a crowd. The personal friendship between George Bush and Tony Blair provides a fine example of how inter-personal relationships can lead to disastrous military decisions. The powers of Yellow Journalism have also been known to provoke confrontation or even all-out war, most notably in the case of the Spanish-American War.

The fickleness of the crowd need not only be governed by would-be leaders or fear-mongers;the emotional response to a crisis could also lead to abrupt and ill-conceived action. One need only look to the emotive response to the attacks of September the 11th, 2001, to see how a population can be driven to arms against another state even without concrete evidence. The more recent response to the Migrant Crisis has also shown how public opinion, fueled by a media obsessed with human suffering, can lead to demands placed on political figures to be turned on their head overnight. This trend is playing out currently with public attitudes towards Syria; whilst the public and Parliament had been loudly and publicly opposing further intervention in the Middle East, pictures and stories from Aleppo have completely inverted this trend, and MPs such as Caroline Lucas who opposed the military budget have since called for military action.

When emotion is allowed to guide state policy, rationality can be seen to be discarded in short order – in matters of warfare it is vital that strategy, tactics, and all the minutiae that make up a modern military apparatus, be left to professionals. Direct democracy could only lead to disaster on the battlefield; political meddling in military affairs has led to countless defeats from Ancient Rome (the undermining of Fabiuss war-winning strategy), to the World Wars (virtually all nations suffered here) and this could only be exacerbated were decisions made without the mitigating separation of representatives.

Various catastrophic decisions occur around the world where politicians without military training are allowed to decide on doctrine, funding, or even upon whom war should be declared, and one could only expect the short-sighted cuts or see-sawing on policy to increase were every decision open to the public forum.

The model Mr Burke envisioned for his democratic future does have its merits; the democratic processes of the West have been under pressure in recent years, but I do not believe he presents the answer. The complex nature of issues faced by nations on the global stage renders them, to my mind, far beyond the reach of a simple popularity vote, whilst the existential dangers inherent in military decision making are too great to be left to inexpert choice.


An article detailing the dangers of ill-informed military decision making:

Thoughts on nuclear weaponry

I have written previously about the importance of nuclear deterrence, when supported by strong conventional forces, in maintaining security between states, but I have recently read an article that has led me to think further about this topic.

The author in this posits that an expansion in the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be an asset in the quest to maintain the status quo with America’s strategic rivals, citing their own advancements as a key reason to do so. Whilst he argues that a strong nuclear arsenal provokes peace by allowing a country to feel secure, this line of thinking should not extend to counter-expansion in the face of this apparent source of security.

The nuclear arms race of the Cold War is daily becoming something studied in history, rather than discussed as recent memory, but to tie one’s sense of security to maintaining such devastating power would see a rapid return to such destabilising escalation. That such policies are being considered demonstrates all too clearly that veterans of the Cold War are retiring from positions of influence, leaving in their place those with no memory of the true dangers nuclear weapons could put states in if mis-handled.

The increased sabre-rattling from Russia is a major cause for concern, particularly Putin’s apparent willingness to use his nuclear arsenal if provoked. Such a situation, however, need not lead to an actual nuclear exchange. The greatest deterrent to use of nuclear force is the apparent willingness to reciprocate; NATO armaments could easily obliterate the Russian Federation, and demonstrating a willingness to do so (as both future President Trump, and PM Theresa May have publicly done) should be sufficient to give Putin pause for thought.

Maintaining a modern nuclear arsenal is vital – the deterrent capacity counts for nought if the missiles cannot be launched – but to suggest a hugely expanded arsenal at the expense of a significant portion of the defence budget would appear folly. Conventional forces remain the first line of deterrence, whilst nuclear forces need only maintain the power of an assured and devastating second strike. The British deterrent, who modernisation has just begun, are well maintained at this standard – the submarine launched Trident missiles retain enough power to knock out almost all the major cities of any nation or region, from a position of safety.

The author’s fixation on the offensive use of rival nuclear arsenals seems to belie the current strategic situation; Vladimir Putin is seeking to expand Russian influence, but as a buffer against an expanding, nuclear-equipped NATO. It is right to be alarmed at the actions of Russia’s de-facto tsar, but to see him as plotting a nuclear first strike seems a step too far. China, likewise, seeks to assume the mantle of regional superpower in Asia, and maintains its deterrent as a means to avert any excessive outside intervention in its efforts to dominate the region. Both states are a major cause for concern in the West, but both have been modernising their arsenals as a means to offset the enormous U.S. military advantage and secure breathing space to further domestic interests.

It is my supreme hope not to see a return to a form of international diplomacy in which atomic weapons are seen as the primary method by which to negotiate. If any legacy of the Cold War has most damaged nuclear security it was the SALT agreement against developing defensive arsenals; far better had more time and effort been invested in protective weapons than offensive. In this turbulent time I would hope that greater effort would go into creating defensive systems to offset a potential attack, than see a ramping up in expenditure on new delivery systems.

Developments in British military procurement

I recently had a bit of a ramble on here about procurement in Britain and the problems that have recently been faced, and it seems that I have not been the only one to have been concerned; a scathing independent review has been published by industrialist Sir John Parker in which the over-reliance of the HM Government on BAE systems has been brought under sharp scrutiny:

Sir John has highlighted the inefficiencies caused by sourcing a majority of shipbuilding contracts through one enormous conglomerate upon which the government is excessively reliant, and suggests a variety of sensible solutions including a continuation of the modular construction process that proved so successful with the new supercarriers:

Report recommends Type 31 Frigate build should be spread around UK

I would hope that producing all future ships in such a sectional fashion would allow for easy adjustment of vessels to meet changing situations; this concept of modular design has already been championed for the Type 26 Frigates, and hopefully will enjoy enough success to be shared in many future ships.

The only major criticism I can foresee arising from this report is from the Clyde, from whence I imagine the primary line will be to bewail job losses. Regrettably, improvements in defence procurement may lead to losses of jobs at established sites but it must be remembered that the primary job of defence spending is not to sustain civilian jobs; it is to secure the defence of the nation.

The report by Sir John is set to inform the National Shipbuilding Strategy upon its publication next year, which could well prove to be an interesting time in the Royal Navy; as over three decades of reductions in ship numbers may finally be reversed.

The government’s own piece on the report:

And a detailed analysis by Save the Royal Navy:

The Western lurch to the Right

Today’s announcement of the election of Donald Trump to become the next President of the United States is only the latest stage in a wave of discontented political expression sweeping the Western World.

Since the end of the Second World War, and with particular prevalence in the past three decades or so, the Western World has been dominated by left-wing and liberal ideals. The horrors of Twentieth Century right-wing politics have continued to inspire dread, and even more right-inclined parties like the British Tories have little in the way of truly right-wing motivation or intent.  (I will continue to use the ‘wing’ terms for political opinions throughout this piece for brevity, although I personally disagree with the idea that such umbrella terms can provide an accurate picture of divergent political opinions)

The political status quo of the Western World had been largely unchallenged in its liberal approach to the world, until the Financial Crisis of 2007-8. The dawn of a second Great Depression saw an increasing popular ire against the establishment surface, as many felt that a distant political and economic class had been gambling with their future and pursuing goals out of line with the opinions of those they had been elected to represent.

The political left wing has traditionally been associated with representing the views of the many, but after so long a period holding virtual hegemony they had essentially become the establishment that so many were beginning to rail against. Much of the anger has stemmed from the globalised world, with projects such as the EU and NAFTA presenting a picture of national politicians whose interests no longer prioritised the electorates to whom their position was owed. The excessive spending on international projects that actively undermined domestic industries and employment did little to stymie concerns that the political elite were out of touch.

The recent votes in the UK and USA for such radical alterations in the ways these countries will face the world are a natural consequence of an electorate who feel that their political establishment are at odds with their own concerns, whilst the campaigns and their aftermath have provided an eloquent description of the detachment of the two spheres.

The prolonged leftist hegemony of Western political thought had created a complacency that has been well demonstrated during the EU referendum and U.S. Presidential campaigns; both saw the establishment candidates relying more on condemnation of the alternative points of view than an advocation for their own. The huge and public outpourings of grief, hand-wringing, and condemnation in the aftermath have likewise done much to foster and encouraged a continued climate of mutual dislike and mistrust rather than maintain a society in which difference of opinion is to be respected. The refusal to consider the opinions of others, or demonstrate a degree of empathy, has done much to alienate electorates who largely do not possess the bigoted mindsets so readily applied to them by their critics.

The extent of the leftist establishment has come into sharp relief during these last campaigns. The endless processions of highly-paid experts and weeping celebrities that surfaced to urge people to vote safe did little to sway public opinion, and may in fact have actively undermined their cause. In Britain, in my experience, the Cult of Celebrity is a fickle one and many are disinclined to merely do as some wealthy person in the public eye bids them. Likewise, the respect afforded to experts (particularly in academia) appears to have drastically reduced – thanks in no part to the financial crisis, but also the ideological hegemony of many Western universities.

Many reports have emerged of ideological groupthink within places of higher learning across the Western World, in which dissenting ideas are banned and students run the risk of becoming pariahs for questioning a militantly leftist establishment. Someone close to me has recently started university, and found thenself alone in their views as their lecturers present successive classes on feminism and the evils of capitalism without recourse to a counter-opinion. Within the results of last night’s election was a statistic correlating the votes of US citizens with their higher education; the implicit suggestion was that only stupid people would vote for Trump as the vast majority of those with a college education turned to Clinton, yet it could equally be that those sent to American seats of higher learning are often being taught that there is only one way to think politically, and woe betide those who would consider Wrongthink.

The willingness of Western media to present slants on their stories has done much to exacerbate the issues of alienation; most Leave or Trump voters are not  frothing racists, and the aggressive condemnation of alternate opinions exhibited  does as little to endear people to the established left as the patronising assertions of elites that they know better. Many voters are tired of being told how to think, and an establishment that treats their concerns with such virulent scorn encourages an equally violent counter-reaction.

There is no inherently right or wrong way to view the world, and the division of schools of thought into only two camps immediately encourages an ‘us and them’ mentality. In the Western World of the moment, the rise of so many right-wing movements should serve as a lesson in the dangers of a closed minded system, whatever its beliefs. History is filled with the remains of systems that failed to appreciate the concerns of their people until it was too late and one can only hope that our modern establishments will remember this lesson and allow for peaceful change.


The best soldiers are not warlike

There is an ancient Chinese maxim which states that “the best soldiers are not warlike, the best fighters do not lose their temper” which remains a profoundly accurate observation that holds merit on a variety of levels.

Lao Tzu, who coined the phrase, was advocating for a subtle approach to conflict, in which he believed the best way to overcome ones adversaries was without bloodshed. The Chinese approach to warfare has oft been to minimise loss and achieve victory without recourse to the decisive battle so favoured by the West. In this aspect alone the Classical Chinese virtue may be observed in the saying, bestowing the thoughtful soldier with qualities admirable to his society.

In addition to the societal approach to war inherent in the maxim, however, further meaning may be drawn even to the individual level. From commander to frontline soldier it can be observed that violent aggression is a detrimental trait in soldiers; the ultimate fate of many warrior societies upon their encounters with developed armies should provide apr evidence of this. Much modern training in the West (I must confess I have little knowledge of training outside the Western world) is designed to weed out violent recruits and limit  aggression to the times it is most required.

The aggressive soldier is detrimental to their unit, as they will think less clearly in times of stress and may lash out impulsively rather than follow orders. The desire to attack and do harm is a personal one and deeply selfish, and will threaten to undermine the cooperation necessary for success on the battlefield.

At all levels of military thinking violence should not be the default response; the use of force should be measured and rational in order to achieve the ends without unnecessary loss of life. This is not to suggest that all military goals can be achieved without violence, but that its application should only be realised if it is appropriate. To this end the best soldiers are those to whom the use of force is a necessary evil, rather than a preferable choice. The best military leader is one who is able to suffer losses, cause harm, and use any means at their disposal to fight a war, but to also be unwilling to start one.