We have rightly been asked to examine our consciences when it comes to the mighty subject of war and peace. There are times when the UK, a country with powerful armaments, a place on the Security Council and a member of NATO, does have to use force to stand up to evil. I am no appeaser or disarmer. Like most Conservatives I believe the UK should play an important role in the wider world. I am prepared to vote for the military expenditure we need to do just that.
When a country acts illegally, as Argentina did in seizing the Falklands, or Iraq did in invading Kuwait, the UK was right to use its formidable arsenal to evict or help evict the invader. There are times when the UN needs member states willing to use their forces for peace keeping or even for peace making. The UK should make its proportionate contribution as befits a Security Council member.
As a leading member of the UN it is also important that the UK upholds the doctrines of international law, and only seeks to intervene where the use of military force can make things better or where our national interests are threatened. Sometimes a strong internationally committed country has to act for peace and strive through diplomacy, rather than resorting to arms.
The immediate question before us is one of bombing. Bombing, which now includes unleashing missiles from remote locations as well as dropping bombs from high flying aircraft, has had a chequered history, both morally and in terms of effectiveness. Usually conflicts are ended through troops on the ground occupying territory, evicting tyrants and assisting new governments into place. It is difficult to do any of that from 30000 feet or from a missile platform hundreds of miles away. It is true that air power is an important adjunct of forces on the ground, and may be an important means to destroy and damage an enemy’s military force.
Prior to the “modern era” fighting was normally confined to men in the military. There were conventions of war conduct, which included not killing women, children and the elderly. In the twentieth century governments introduced the idea of “total war”. Suddenly it was accepted that a country at war could unleash bombing attacks on women, children and the disabled at home, as well as using force on the battlefront. The war often turned to the home front.
Those who sought to defend this approach could argue that twentieth women joined the uniformed services in support roles, and undertook much of the war material production in the factories. As the factories were a legitimate target, then why not the women who worked in them? They might argue that bombing the home population might bomb the country into submission, leading to less death overall by shortening the war. In practice the heavy German and allied bombing campaigns did not of themselves end the war in Europe, and only the use of A bombs ended the war with Japan. The devastating German attacks on cities like Coventry and the continuous bombing of London did not break morale nor lead to a shortening of the war.
Whilst I am full of admiration for the bravery and skill of the UK’s Bomber Command, and whilst I understand the background to bombing in the Second World War, there has been debate about what general bombing campaigns can achieve in future conflicts.
Today the issue is simpler. The west is not directly threatened in the way the UK was by Germany in the 1940s. Syria is not threatening to bomb our cities. We are rightly appalled at the atrocities we see in Syria. It is difficult to see how unleashing some bombs and doing damage to part of Assad’s military machine can make the situation better. There is always the danger of killing people we do not want to kill by mistake. There is the opportunity we would afford Assad to kill the innocent himself and fake the evidence to blame the west.
I can see that an all out war to evict Assad from power would prevent him in future carrying out atrocities. But without boots on the ground and a US military takeover, who is to say who might then take power in Syria and how they might behave in the chaos that the intense military onslaught needed to oust him and the destruction of the regime had created? More likely the US wishes to do limited damage and to kill just a few people. I cannot see how that makes Syria a better place or how it removes Assad.