This week’s remembrance of the Great War in Europe, 1914-18, is a time to reflect on the sacrifice of many. We respect and admire what hundreds of thousands of young men did for our country. We are in awe of their loyalty, bravery and eventual victory.
It is also time to ask how can we learn from the brutality and slaughter than characterised relations between nations one hundred years ago? How can we make sure we avoid the mistakes made by the politicians and Generals in the rush to arms in the early twentieth century? And how can we help put right or ease tensions over the borders they drew on maps in 1919 at the peace which in some cases still cause heartache and conflict today?
I have learned two things above all about the use of force and the conduct of international relations from reading the history of the twentieth century and from witnessing the results of military interventions in our own era. The first is in the end you need to sit down and talk and draw up a basis for future peace. Simply winning a war does automatically lead to stability and success. The Second World War formed in part from the resentments of Germany at the peace imposed upon it twenty years earlier. Diplomacy and politics, often despised arts, are essential to avoiding future wars and seeking the background for nation to live in peace besides nation.
The second is a nation needs to be realistic about where it has sufficient force to intervene decisively to reach a quick and convincing military outcome. The UK’s more recent interventions to restore home rule in the Falklands, and with the USA and our allies to evict the invader from Kuwait were examples where we had the force and were able to secure the desired outcome with limited loss of life to a tight timetable. Our long war in Afghanistan entailed much more hardship with a less certain result.
In 1914 the UK felt it had to honour its pledge to protect Belgium. The truth was we did not have a large and well equipped army to be able to fulfil our promise. It should make us wary of offering guarantees today that might prove difficult to match with our limited armed services available. In both 1914 and 1939 the UK went to war long before we had the army to take on those we opposed. In 1914 it meant years of trench warfare with massive loss of life as the UK and France built the war winning armies from recruiting, training and equipping more thoroughly for the new conditions of warfare. The arrival of US troops also helped. In 1939 it meant the near complete defeat of our army on the continent in 1940, redeemed in part only by a skilful and desperate retreat across the Channel with what remained of our shattered forces.
Today the diplomatic challenges of helping create a peace in the Middle East that can meet the realistic expectations of Arabs and Jews, and can allow different Muslim groups to live alongside one another are huge. So too is the need to settle the wider Europe without isolating Russia dangerously and encouraging the very behaviour we wish to condemn and avoid to the east of our continent. I think the UK has fought too many wars. I am not a pacifist, and accept that some wars are necessary and morally right. Such wars can and should be fought, but only when we know we have the moral and military strength to do so or when immediate threats to our islands requires action.