Copyright 2003 Newspaper Publishing PLC
The Independent (London)
March 20, 2003, Thursday
Tony Blair has entered a plea yesterday for the country to stop bickering and to unite behind our armed forces. And members of Parliament have responded, with even the most vigorous rebels, including Charles Kennedy and Robin Cook, pledging their support for the troops.
As we were shown those moving images of individual British soldiers biting their pens as they wrote what might be their last letters home, or burning love-letters so that they are carrying no identification with them, dissent from all sides became muted. With the fresh faces of young soldiers appearing on the front pages of newspapers, the number of people prepared to tell pollsters that they are against the war has begun to fall. The sense that it might be traitorous not to support British soldiers who are facing death may also bring down the number of people who are prepared to protest physically on the streets.
Even commentators who were once virulently against the war are now eager to tell us how much they sympathise with our courageous soldiers. Their innocence and vulnerability is constantly emphasised. One "beardless boy who tears at the heartstrings" appeared in an article by a commentator who had previously protested against the war. "He can have no idea whether the cause is just or not, poor lad, but I dashed away a maternal tear at the thought of him not letting me down," she said. And journalist after journalist quotes soldiers saying plaintively, "People are welcome to their different opinions about the war beforehand as long as they are with us when we are doing the country's bidding."
Because war will be carried on until Saddam Hussein is toppled, naturally even dissenters such as myself now feel some pragmatic support for British forces. Alongside the despair we feel - that it has to come to this - hope flickers that the situation on the ground may turn out less terrible than we feared. This means our hoping that the military superiority of the Americans and British will be so decisive from the outset that the Iraqis will quickly surrender, with casualties minimised on both sides. Then we can start to press our leaders to build a decent peace, and to follow through on the promises they have made to the Iraqi people.
But this pragmatic desire for a quick victory rather than a bloody, drawn- out struggle doesn't mean that it is necessary to idealise these men who are fighting this unjust war. In fact, it is vital that we do not now start to blur reality by idealising them.
Do you think that Tony Blair would feel it necessary to state and restate that civilian casualties will be kept to a minimum if he were not conscious of the outrage that would otherwise result? Do you think that officers would keep briefing their soldiers on the need to treat prisoners according to the laws of war, if it were not for the scrutiny of the dissenters back home?
It is all very well to hear about how vulnerable and heroic our troops are, but we should not forget that the truly vulnerable people are not the healthy young men who chose to join one of the best-equipped armies in the world, but ordinary Iraqi people who did not choose to be caught, utterly defenceless, between a tyrant and a destructive army.
These soldiers do indeed face a scary task, which includes the threat of chemical and biological weapons. But since only 20 British soldiers were killed in the actual course of the last Gulf War - most of those by US friendly fire - and Iraqi military power is said to be so much weakened since then, let's be honest and remind ourselves that the horror that British soldiers are most likely to confront in the next few weeks is not that of dying in an unnecessary war, but of killing in an unnecessary war.
It is fashionable to present our forces as composed of peace-loving people who have been reluctantly coerced into risking their lives for us - "They'd give anything to be doing such mundane things as walking to work in the spring sunshine or meeting their friends for a pint," said one commentator yesterday - but when ex-soldiers speak out about their experiences, they do not usually see themselves in quite such a gentle fashion.
A telling account of the first Gulf War, Jarhead, by Anthony Swofford, has just been published. It gives us the experiences of a young marine 13 years ago, and he is horribly honest about what drew him into the army. "I wanted to be a killer, to kill my country's enemies," he says. He gives you a sense of his fellow soldiers' desire for the actual physical experience of killing, and he vividly describes how, when he and his colleagues were cheated - as they saw it - of that experience, some of them carried out acts of desecration on corpses as if in a spirit of revenge.
Reading this book makes you angry; angry with the young men who lived out their aggression in such vicious ways. But also, more than that, angry with the politicians who used that aggression to serve their even more destructive ends. As Swofford says furiously at the end of his book, "I belonged to a fucked situation." The best support that we can give British and American soldiers is to keep up the pressure on our politicians by continuing to protest against this unnecessary war, and to try our best to ensure that such a fucked situation does not arise again.