An unjust war?


When deciding to go to war, there are two spheres of thought the responsible statesman must consider. Firstly, he must enter the moral sphere to consider whether his cause is just; secondly, he must enter the practical sphere to consider whether his war is feasible. I ask Lord Guthrie, who was Chief of the Defence Staff from 1997-2001, to consider British engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan in this way.

Practically, there are immediate and undeniable problems in our lack of preparedness. According to Lord Guthrie, we were “certainly not equipped” to go to war. “Where they [the government] failed was to prepare by having helicopters and armoured vehicles to people could survive.” Though some money was made available for urgent and immediate costs, investment in the military had been so low as to seriously impact on the safety of soldiers. As Guthrie points out, this is not something you can rectify overnight when the political will changes. You have to invest when times are good if you want to be prepared when conflict comes, as it takes decades to develop and produce new equipment – the last of our helicopters now on order won’t be ready until 2018.

I ask Lord Guthrie if there have been deaths directly caused by this negligence of the military. His response: “undoubtedly.” Indeed, the ill-equipped nature of British forces has precipitated insurgent activity. “Having road convoys of vehicles that were not properly protected did mean that the IED [improvised explosive device] was a hugely successful tactic … if people hadn’t had to go round in Snatch Land Rovers they would be alive today”.

The deaths of British soldiers due to poor or non-existent resources are directly attributable to the amount of budget allowed for military spending. As far as Guthrie is concerned “defence has been underfunded.” This has not always been the case however, rather he describes that statement as being “particularly true when Brown was Chancellor.” He does not blame the Labour government for this; he actually found Blair to be sympathetic to military requests. In Brown, however, he encountered a Chancellor who was unwilling to spend anything above the absolute minimum on defence. Though he hopes the situation will improve in the future, he entertains a little doubt – there are “very few MPs or Lords who have a clue about defence these days.”

The question of whether our military engagements are just is a much harder one to understand, let alone to answer. Guthrie reminds me that there is “no decree from on high” to permit war, rather we have to look to our conception of what a just war is. This changes with time: for example, the Greeks would consider the cutting down of an enemy’s olive trees or the poisoning of their wells to be war crimes, because of the effect that would have on society in the ancient city states. Guthrie sees a trend throughout time that seems to underlie what it means for a war to be just: to fight for “self defence, to save the weak and innocent, to stop people’s rights being taken away. What wasn’t good enough was going to war to punish somebody, or teach them a lesson.”

In this context going to war in Afghanistan was “absolutely right.” The Taliban regime and its al- Qaeda allies posed a serious and proven threat to world security. “The people they were training were killing Americans, killing us, blowing up embassies, hijacking ships.” He has the same opinion of the first Gulf War, which he describes as “perfectly just.”

The second Iraq War was more ambiguous. The lack of weapons of mass destruction, and the dubious presentation of the evidence in advance of war, have meant that Iraq will always be looked upon with an air of suspicion. Though Lord Guthrie may doubt the extent to which Iraq can be classified as just, he doesn’t smell malice or deception. “Blair definitely thought what he was doing to be right. I think history will judge him to be wrong.”

If there were one other military issue we are likely to be judged by history for, it’s our handling of nuclear weapons. Lord Guthrie is hesitant in his discussion of them, beginning with a disclaimer that “nuclear weapons are more political than military.” His opinion on Trident is a clear one – it’s “a good deal as far as these things go, but we should bargain hard for a cheaper nuclear weapon.” The problem’s not the principle, it’s the cost. Guthrie’s certain that Britain needs a nuclear deterrent if we’re to have any influence in the business of disarmament: “if we gave them up we’d have no voice. The people who’d be talking would be Iran, Pakistan and North Korea… I wouldn’t be happy with those extremely unreliable countries deciding what happens.”

How should we be spending the military budget then? Lord Guthrie disagrees with many of the government’s pet projects. “I would not actually want aircraft carriers,” he says, arguing that the money would just be better spent elsewhere. “The Army is by far the most important of the three services,” and we should focus funding there. “We’re not likely to have a world war,” where planes and ships are needed, rather we’re “more likely to have counter insurgency.” In this case, what needs to take priority are our ground forces. In a world of limited resources “if we try and have everything we’ll be good at nothing.” OXSTU