Decadence and airpower, 31 October 2001


‘They have one hope: that we are decadent, that we lack the moral fibre or will or courage to take them on.’ Tony Blair 30 October 2001

No one doubts the will of Mr Blair, or President Bush, to defeat al-Qaida and the Taliban, although many question if they really have a workable strategy to achieve these ends. But in referring to ‘moral fibre’ and ‘courage’ Blair has raised the stakes. His ends may resonate with principle: but the means stink. The reliance on bombing – which transfers virtually all risk from American and British armed forces to Afghan civilians – is precisely a sign of the decadence that Blair denies.

Bombing is squandering the moral capital of September 11 and no amount of speeches will reclaim it. It says to the world that the West does not stand for the ‘warrior’s honour’, as Michael Ignatieff called it, and it allows the Islamists – despite the huge atrocity of 911 – to reclaim it at least in the minds of Muslims.

Bombing is the Anglo-American way of war, pioneered by Britain in the Second World War and the method of choice for the US ever since. Historically it was the epitome of degenerate war, incinerating civilians in their hundreds of thousands, breaching all moral limits on a huge scale.

True, today’s bombing is precision-targeted. It no longer causes mass death on the scale of Dresden, Hiroshima or Vietnam. It may formally fit the requirements of just war. That is debatable, but is largely beside the point. Small accidental massacres – a village here, a house there, with the odd hospital ward and Red Cross store thrown in – are still obscene, when the bombers fly comfortably above the fray. And in today’s TV wars they cause huge political damage.

Polly Toynbee argues that those who oppose the bombing are ‘soft liberals’ or anti-Americans who wash their hands of the plight of the Afghans under the Taliban. However many who share her desire to see Afghanistan free, and have by no means given up on America, doubt that airpower is an appropriate or effective means of achieving its liberation.

Toynbee sees ‘hard liberals’ who support the war as the ones who are engaging with the problems of terrorism and Taliban repression. However liberals (and socialists) need to be hard-headed, not hard-hearted. They should say clearly that calling the anti-terrorism campaign a war was a ‘terrible and irreversible mistake’, as Michael Howard (doyen of British military historians) puts it – echoing what this column has said for some time – and that better means were and are available.

In Afghanistan the war is of course a reality. The American and British governments cannot afford just to switch it off, and there would be consequences for the Afghan people if they did. But if they wish to pose as saviours of the Afghans, they need to do a lot less bombing and a lot more saving. Saving freedom and lives, whether by expelling the Taliban or securing safe passage for relief, is what might just restore some credibility to this campaign. But it will require the Americans to come down from 15,000 feet and into the messy and dangerous realities of life and politics on the ground.

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