Some years ago, the US pundit Robert Kagan declared that Americans were from Mars, Europeans from Venus. A photograph of the defence ministers of Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, posted the other day, might seem to confirm his judgment. All four were women. Though there have been quite a few belligerent female prime ministers – Margaret Thatcher obviously, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi also – the notion that members of what used to be termed “the softer sex” are rarely devotees of the God of War is probably well founded, despite recorded examples of women handing out white feathers to men who had not volunteered for the forces in the first two years of the 1914-18 war.
It wasn’t entirely clear which category Mr Kagan put the British in. Perhaps we were at least halfway to being worshippers of Mars. Tony Blair had, after all, signed up eagerly for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while our European partners, notably France (though belligerent enough when it chooses), looked at proposals to blitz Saddam Hussein and said “no thanks”.
The Iraq war not only sounded the funeral bell for countless Iraqis and a fair number of Allied servicemen, but also for Mr Blair’s reputation; so much so indeed that it is now difficult to remember that opinion polls showed a slim majority in favour of the war before it started. Nevertheless both Iraq and Afghanistan are now generally agreed to have been mistaken ventures. Iraq is a ghastly mess; the Taleban may be back in power in Afghanistan within months of the departure of the last Nato troops. What, people ask, has been achieved? What purpose did the deaths of British servicemen serve?
The message now seems to have reached the men at the top. Last week the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, said that from now on – for the time being anyway, one may add – the British will tolerate only short, sharp in-and-quickly-out wars. He is probably right, though I suspect there would be little support today even for military operations as limited as the Kosovo and Libyan wars, conducted almost entirely from the air with no troops on the ground.
War within Europe – western Europe originally – has long been unthinkable. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s description of it as “an extension of politics by other means” has come to seem unacceptable. We may not yet be ready to reject the possibility of making war in other parts of the world, though we are moving in that direction, and, in any case, the sharp cuts in the size of our armed forces mean that any sustained military campaign is probably beyond us.
It may be beyond the Americans, too, or may at least be judged politically inexpedient there. After all, the United States has not won a decisive victory in war since 1945: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, all ended sourly. Good-bye Mars, welcome to Venus.
It was of course the two terrible wars of the 20th century that make this such a remarkable development. Both were wars in which it seemed, very clearly to most, that the national interest was at stake. We now find this difficult to believe of the first of them because we are so much more conscious of the appalling death toll. But at the time it seems to have been believed, and the comparatively few brave public figures, such as Ramsay MacDonald, who opposed the war and spoke out against it, were very unpopular, and were widely condemned as unpatriotic.
There was even less opposition to the Hitler war. It was seen as regrettably necessary. We didn’t go to war with any of the popular enthusiasm evident in 1914. Yet in 1940 especially, the national interest was scarcely deniable; it was seen as a war for survival and for freedom and democracy.
In the run-up to the Iraq war of 2003, Blair claimed that our national interest was indeed at stake; hence the talk about weapons of mass destruction and the speed with which they might be launched. I have no doubt he believed this himself, and for a time many were persuaded he was right.
We are more sceptical now, more sceptical even about intervention in others’ quarrels on humanitarian grounds; hence the reluctance, then refusal, to get involved in the ghastly war going on in Syria. The vote in the House of Commons against intervention on the side of the rebels was widely approved. The public attitude seems, quite reasonably, to be “a plague on both your houses”.
Anti-war movements are not, admittedly, new. There were pro-Boers who opposed the South African War of 1899-1902; Lloyd George, later the organiser of victory in the First World War, was one of them. But they were in a minority. Young men volunteered eagerly to serve in South Africa. The difference now is that there would seem to be a majority opposed to war, any war at least in which our own national safety and independence are not unquestionably threatened; and it is hard to conceive what form any such war might take.
This is one reason why so many of us see no point in replacing the Trident submarines, asking who the nuclear deterrent is intended to deter. “To ploughshares men shall beat their swords/ To pruning hooks their spears;/ They hang the trumpet in the hall,/ And study war no more.” This, it seems, is how the British public thinks today. War as an instrument of policy is out-of-date.
Things may change. One of the most common of political errors is to assume that what is happening now will continue to happen, that the forces of change have been arrested, stopped in their tracks. But this is the public mood now: good-bye to foreign adventures. We are not, and have no wish to be, one of the world’s policemen.
The Defence Secretary’s admission of the limits of what we will tolerate suggests that understanding of the public mood has percolated to high places. Venus wins, Mars loses. Confirmation will come when we follow the German and Nordic example and have a woman in charge of the Ministry of Defence.
Ed Miliband should take note. After all, it is Labour, not the Tories, who have committed us to wars that have not only been unsuccessful, even disastrous in their consequences, but which have also helped to turn public opinion against military intervention in distant lands.