Harry Does Basra


Tony Blair did a radio interview the other day, and was pressed about bloodshed in Iraq. Not his fault, he said. Iraq was a campaign to save democracy, and global evil was ranged on the other side.


Not many people express this view of the Coalition cause these days and of those who do, few are taking part in it. And this, of course, is pointed-up by the news that a Cornet Wales otherwise the Queen’s grandson Harry will go to Iraq soon with his regiment, the Blues and Royals.

That’s as might be expected. During previous attempts at making the world ‘safe for democracy,’ Harry’s relatives were much involved. In 1916, at the Battle of Jutland, great-grandfather Bertie (aka the future King George VI) commanded a gun-turret in a British dreadnought. Then grandad Prince Philip managed the searchlights in the night action at Matapan which broke Mussolini’s Mediterranean fleet.

The Falklands War might be over-billed as global democracy-saver, but the Argentines did make it seriously dangerous for Harry’s Uncle Andrew, whose job was flying helicopters in such a way as to attract (and hopefully dodge) missiles heading for the RN’s warships.

Prince Philip served at Matapan

Nor, historically, have the political elite been backward. In WWI the son of Prime Minister Asquith was killed in action; the young socialist Clement Attlee was badly hit at Gallipoli (but returned to action on the Western Front); and in WWII Randolph Churchill, son of Winston, trained as a commando and served in the Balkans. His CO, the late Sir Robert Laycock, wondered sometimes whether Randolph and his pal Evelyn Waugh constituted a net asset to Allies, but he assumed they were trying.

Not that these privileged lads (and lasses: the Princess Elizabeth drove a truck) were alone. Those were the days when every slice of the social layer-cake was getting shot at.

How different today. The vast majority of Cornet Wales’s comrades in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) will be recruits from the poorest sections of British society, with quite a sprinkling from the Commonwealth Third World.

There will, of course, be some chaps Harry may have swigged fizz with on the nightclub circuit. And most of the officers will be solid middle-class lads, with a bit more education than he has himself. But what there won’t be is any significant representation of the Anglo-American intelligentsia who devised, advocated, enthused over and still promote the GWOT: the ‘belligerati,’ as some call them.

Blair, for instance, has not passed on his view of democracy’s urgent needs to son Euan Blair, who since his university days has been doing internships with Washington politicians and Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp. (Of course Rupert’s organs fearlessly trumpet GWOT, and maybe that’s thought to count.)

But overall, we have the oddity of a totally crucial war for everything important which nobody of the any importance or ambition will join up for. (According to Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution, royalty are decorative rather than important: thus, so long as they provide an heir to the throne they can do no-hoper jobs like defending the realm alongside the proles.)

And let’s be clear, the problem with prosecuting GWOT is shortage of soldiers. You may remember that the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs did try to make George W Bush see that if he wouldn’t or couldn’t send half a million Americans to serve in Iraq, then the best thing was not to go. He was told he hadn’t grasped the value of new high-tech weaponry apparent to warriors like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Tony Blair and John Howard.

But if you’re under-manned for a counter-insurgency campaign, you have to use tons of firepower. Death then becomes indiscriminate: a point that Major General Patrick Cordingley made last week, when discussing British operations in Afghanistan. If you haven’t enough chaps, said the old Desert Rat, you have to kill lots more of the insurgents. And this does not help in winning the remainder of the locals round to your point of view.

It can be looked at another way. Prince Harry has an excellent chance of emerging from Iraq unscathed, because the British are essentially winding-down in Basra and the south. What they want to do is maintain a few heavily-protected sites particularly around the airport and run well-armoured flag-showing expeditions at irregular intervals. Southern Iraq generally will be left to its present condition as ‘a œkleptocracy  wherein well-armed political-criminal mafiosi have locked both the central government and the people out of power’ (the words of two British analysts writing for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.) In short, about the way it was under Saddam, but with Sunnis, not Shi’ites as underdogs.

What they aren’t going to do is settle down for a couple of generations accepting infantry casualties at the rate which would be needed to maintain approximate order and (maybe) allow the birth (or rebirth) of civilian politics: that is, an immensely scaled-up version of what the army has achieved in Northern Ireland since the 1960s.

But it’s usually forgotten that in Northern Ireland, the British got killed in rather larger number than the Republicans did. Taking heavier casualties than the insurgents is a grim index that you may be doing something useful for democracy.

Iraq and Ireland have been companion-pieces in British military policy since World War I and it was in Iraq during the 1920s that Hugh Trenchard, [LINK: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Trenchard] Marshal of the RAF developed the principles of high-tech repression. By dispensing gas, high explosive and automatic fire from the air, ‘semi-civilised’ (ie swarthy) peoples could be controlled with great economy in Imperial blood and cash. This impressed Whitehall so deeply that there was some interest in applying the technique to Ireland but Trenchard, outraged, strangled the idea. The Irish might not be totally civilised. But many had English relatives and all of them were White.

Modern Anglo-Irish history contains many ghastly days: notably 21 November 1920, when British police auxiliaries, shooting-up the Gaelic football ground at Croke Park, killed 13 spectators and a player. (Maybe in reprisal for the assassination of 14 British Intelligence officers by Michael Collins a few hours before.)

Croke Park was the scene last weekend of a Six Nations Rugby Test between England and Ireland. For the Republican faithful to hear God Save the Queen played on that turf was chilling a chill perhaps eased when Ireland won 43-13. What’s sure is that nothing similar could have happened had Ireland been treated as the Western democracies have treated the peoples of Mesopotamia since 1920.

You can count casualties of the Irish ‘troubles’ in various ways, but just over 1000 died on the British side, of which the Army’s share (499) was far the largest, and contained mostly mainlanders. The IRA lost 394.

Ireland has a population of roughly four million, and the military campaign which eventually convinced the Republicans of the virtues of compromise was sustainable as low-intensity professional warfare for a United Kingdom of 60 million. But Iraq and Afghanistan together are about fourteen times as populous as Ireland. The Coalition nations have nothing like enough professional soldiers to sustain a ‘low-intensity war’ on the scale Bush, Blair and Co have blundered into.

Very clearly the British generals would like to wind Iraq down immediately and concentrate on Afghanistan: always the more legitimate enterprise, where a prospect of success might still exist (along with possibilities of horrific defeat). But they can’t because Tony Blair remains in Downing Street, fingers frozen hysterically to the levers of power.

Liberal democracies can, of course, produce very large, effective armies in response to moral and patriotic calls. But it was always absurd to imagine any such call being sounded by men like Dick Cheney, who had ‘other priorities’ when he was the right age to have exported freedom to Vietnam. Under its preposterous name the GWOT has indeed been about some real if ill-defined dangers to liberal society. But given the character of its leadership, it was always going to be one for professionals.

And this leads onto of the worst charges against Blair’s Ministers: reckless mismanagement of those professionals. They knew nothing about them until everyone had to fall in behind Tony and call them ‘Our Boys’ Rudyard Kipling might have been addressing New Labour when he wrote about people who

thrust out of sight and away
Those that would serve you for honour and those that served you for pay.

In pre-GWOT times, my wife, talking with an eminent New Labour friend, mentioned that our son would be commissioned in the Navy after university. ‘Oh, Anne,’ said she. ‘The shame.

The pay for officers and for the official legions of military Whitehall is not bad. And the profits for the risibly incompetent weapons manufacturers are lavish. But the money for men and women who do ground-level fighting the core of any military action which just might serve a democratic purpose has fallen to contemptible levels under Blair. As my ex-naval son writes in the current issue of Prospect magazine, the starting pay of a combat-arms soldier is £14,000. A policeman gets £22,000 and a firefighter £25,000:

For a soldier the training is longer and harder The risk of death on duty for a police officer is 2 per cent that of a combat soldier, and for a firefighter it is 9 per cent.

The army has to maintain its numbers by recruiting overseas, but there are five applicants for every job in the police and 12 for every job in the fire service.

Well, at least there’s Cornet Wales ready to save democracy. But then, Harry doesn’t need the money.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.