Salmond's simplistic anti-war rhetoric misses bigger picture

EARLY in the National Theatre of Scotland's Iraq war play Black Watch – which begins its final tour of Scotland this week – there is a moment when two huge on-screen figures appear, representing Alex Salmond, as leader of the SNP at Westminster back in 2004, and Geoff Hoon, then Secretary of State for Defence.

The actor playing Salmond is heard – in the SNP leader's own words – denouncing the callousness of the British government in complying with an American request to send the regiment into the hellhole of Camp Dogwood, near Fallujah, while at the same time announcing the merger of the regiment back home. Geoff Hoon, on the other hand, is defending the government's position as best he can. And as the play evolves, it becomes fairly clear that, while the documentary-based views expressed by the soldiers in the script often chime fairly closely with Alex Salmond's, they very rarely echo those of Geoff Hoon.

So, it is difficult this week – as we mark the fifth anniversary of the British-American invasion of Iraq – to deny the First Minister his moment of vindication, as one of the minority of front-line politicians who opposed the war from the outset. It's an open secret that many in the British military – from humble squaddies to top brass – have always had profound doubts about the purpose, ethics and practicality of the Iraq operation; and that the operation itself has been always difficult, and sometimes disastrous, for the Iraqi people, despite recent tentative improvements in the security situation. Under these circumstances, a majority of Scots will probably have no quarrel with Alex Salmond's contention this week that most Scottish service personnel do not support the war; and the more Westminster's Scottish Labour contingent bluster in protest, the more out of touch they sound, north of the Border.

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And yet, in the back of my mind, I can't help feeling that there is often something slightly off-key and simplistic about the First Minister's pronouncements on matters of war and defence; a tone that rings faint alarm bells.

In the first place, it seems to me that his attitude to the British military fails to allow for the sheer complexity of the ties that bind Scottish people into the British state, and for the fact that those ties are organic as well as structural. In the Nationalist circles in which Mr Salmond moves, the British state is commonly dismissed as an intrinsically negative force, an artificial construct created in the 17th and 18th centuries, purely for purposes of imperialism and conquest; whereas Scottish nationhood is seen as a natural and benign phenomenon.

But, for most Scottish people, the relationship with Britishness is far more complex than that. During good times, as in the proud aftermath of the Second World War, it flourishes, and the cultural ties that bind grow stronger; in times like these, they tend to weaken. But it is not – as Alex Salmond's words half-imply – just a case of good, democratically minded Scottish soldiers trapped in an oppressive imperial army. Those troops have their loyalties to that army as a whole; the regiments have their shared responsibility for its long history. And they have plenty of colleagues not from Scotland, who may well share their views on Iraq.

And then, secondly, there is the wider question that still remains unresolved, as we near the end of this first decade of the 21st century, about what exactly the obligations of nations are, when they witness grotesque oppression in another country.

Following the infamous chapter of lies, spin and error that surrounded the Iraqi venture, it is now fashionable to dismiss "liberal interventionism" as a silly idea, a brief 1990s fad that led Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to send troops into Bosnia, Kosovo, even Sierra Leone, but that has been comprehensively discredited since 2001. And in this political climate, it is easy for anti-war politicians such as Alex Salmond to talk as if the idea of British troops using military force to do good in foreign lands has always been self-evidently foolish.

If Alex Salmond ever finds himself the leader of an independent Scotland, though, with his own troops to deploy and life-or-death decisions to make, he will find that, for all but the most committed pacifists, these choices are far more complex than most anti-war rhetoric allows.

It is to be hoped that no future independent Scottish government – or, indeed, any future UK government – would ever again be tempted to make the mistake of joining a peacekeeping, or peacemaking, operation without the full sanction of the United Nations. But that clear policy position aside, the act of sending young men and women to risk their lives, in situations where there can never be complete certainty that their sacrifice will do more good than harm, is always controversial, never easy, never without its lingering sense of guilt.

I once heard the philosopher Bernard Williams argue that politicians are people who dirty their hands with power on our behalf, so that the rest of us can continue to feel clean. Yet Alex Salmond, though now a very senior politician, still talks of war and peace like a man with clean hands, exonerated from guilt by his very Scottishness; small wonder that to anyone with a feeling for history, that cry of "it wisnae us" often has an empty sound, and never quite rings true.