From Free Life No 39, November 2001
ISSN: 0260 5112
Editorial: A Most Uncertain Trumpet
by Sean Gabb
One of the benefits to be had from studying history is that it gives a permanent sense of déja vu. Whatever happens can be seen in the light of whatever similar has already happened. This present war in Afghanistan is no exception. The general libertarian response is comparable to the liberal response to the Great War. Liberals then began the July Crisis with a feeling that war should be avoided, or should at worst be limited to a few unambiguous objectives – in the British case to securing Belgian independence. As it proceeded, there was a division of opinion between those who thought the war a bad thing, and campaigned throughout against it, and those who found themselves dragged into supporting its extension into four years of the most terrible bloodshed.
I must confess that I may be in this second category. I understand those friends who are denouncing the war. I do not like war. I doubt if the bombing in Afghanistan is currently doing more than kill large numbers of Afghan civilians, either directly or by making disease and starvation more likely this winter. At the same time, the American bombings were a declaration of war that no civilised nation could overlook. The most likely suspect is resident in Afghanistan, and the Afghan Government has refused to hand him over for trial in the country where the bombings happened. Therefore, the Americans do have a good case for fighting; and, so far as the bombings could be extended to other Western countries, the British Government has a case for helping the Americans. Even if – as seems likely – Mr bin Laden may never be brought before a court of justice, there is a good argument in favour of putting on a show of force that will not be forgotten.
This being said, the war is only to be supported so far as it is waged for these limited objectives. These have the advantage of being achievable. What must not be supported is any attempt to widen hostilities to other countries, or to widen the objectives into something that cannot be achieved. I am alarmed by the loose talk in the media about ridding the world of "terrorism" or rebuilding Afghanistan as the sort of liberal democracy for which its present culture leaves it utterly unfitted. The most likely effect of incorporating these objectives will be years of death and chaos in a war between the West and Islam – a war that no one can want apart from a few bloodthirsty lunatics on both sides.
If the war is allowed to become something of this kind, my own support – for what very little this may be worth – will be at an end. As I have already said elsewhere, a sensible war must comprise a demonstration of the West's power to defend itself against terrorist attack, plus a serious attempt to change those policies that led to the American bombings.
To their credit, the American and British Governments have so far tried to keep the war sensible. The problem is that wars have a tendency to set off chains of consequences that cannot be easily predicted or controlled. If they are not to be led by apparently persuasive interest groups into stepping out of their stated course – the only course now open to a speedy return to peace – the politicians in London and Washington must remain clear about their stated objectives.
One small cause for optimism is that everyone in charge of the war seems aware of the risk of escalation. The most terrible wars generally start with an underestimate of the risks involved. I think particularly of the fatuous claims made in 1914 that it would "all be over by Christmas". Otherwise, there was the almost childish eagerness with which the Athenians began their Sicilian expedition. There was also the pathetic belief in London back in 1939 that a second war with Germany could be kept to a few short campaigns on the western front. Most wars that start and end with limited objectives are those in which the projectors are continually aware of the risks. I think now of the Crimean War. This began with a belief that it would be a conflict between Western civilisation and oriental despotism. It ended after four years, and is now remembered mostly for a pointless cavalry charge that inspired Tennyson and for the beginning of scientific nursing. Perhaps the apocalyptic fears with which this war has begun will keep it limited.
Speaking personally, I cannot help feeling that I have chosen the wrong side in the debate over this war. I opposed the Cold War, the Gulf War, and the recent Serbian War. I wrote some very bitter denunciations of Tony Blair and his aggressive policy in the Balkans. Perhaps I should be denouncing this war. Perhaps I shall come to regret agreeing with the military action in Afghanistan. At the moment, I can only say that this seems to be a different and more necessary war. I hope that I am not wrong. But I do accept that I may be wrong.
© 2001 – 2017, seangabb.
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