What will we ever learn?

Having missed Ken Burns’s documentary on the Vietnam War when it was first screened, I am watching it on catch-up. What it reveals is a war that was even more harrowing than it seemed at the time. Vietnam was the defining war of my generation, and probably of the entire post-1945 period. There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the main one is that it was a conscript war, opposed by many of those who were conscripted.  

I sit on a comfortable sofa, appalled at the bone-headedness of America’s strategy, the indefensibility of the regime it was defending, and the brutality – not to say murderousness – of much of the fighting. But I should not be sitting comfortably. Because back then, for far too long, I supported the war. I even spoke in favour of it at a school debate in early 1967. My mind was changed gradually. The decisive moment came in mid-1968, when the retiring American C-in-C, General Westmoreland, conceded that a military victory in the normal sense was impossible in Vietnam. After that, I opposed the war, right up to its miserable end in 1975. What was the point?

But Vietnam is not my only aberration. Like most people who neither fanatically support the Anglo-American axis, believing it can do no wrong, nor fanatically condemn it, believing it can do no right, I attempt to pick and choose which policies and which wars to support. Over time, I would have done no worse by tossing a coin.

Apart from Vietnam, I supported the first Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq, when they began. I did not support Kosovo, Libya or the intervention in Syria that never happened. Looking back on these conflicts, I now regret my support for Vietnam and Iraq. I am neutral on Afghanistan, believing that there could have been a different outcome had America not become distracted by Iraq. I am also neutral on Kosovo, finding it hard to understand which vital British interests were involved.

Wars should not be judged solely on whether they are successful, however one chooses to define success. It should be possible to support a war that fails in its objectives, and to regret one that succeeds. But that seldom happens, and I am as guilty as anyone of retrospective judgments. I sometimes wonder what British attitudes to World War II would have become, had Britain lost it.

Most people now distinctly remember opposing the Iraq war from the outset, while the few who are prepared to remember supporting it believe they were hoodwinked by the claims of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The facts do not bear out these recollections. In the months before the invasion, attitudes to a potential war were volatile in Britain, but most people were opposed to it. This was the time when the WMD argument should have been at its most powerful. Attitudes changed radically when the invasion began and appeared to be successful. From March to June 2003, there was strong public support for the action, peaking in mid-April when the ratio of pros to antis was nearly 4:1. After that, support nosedived until, by 2006, that ratio had reversed itself. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that British attitudes to the Iraq war were almost entirely dependent on its perceived success or failure, and that the WMD dispute was relevant only as a post-rationalisation.

Life would be a great deal simpler if one was either a pacifist, or a militarist who believed that war was the answer to every problem. Like most people, I am neither, which means that I am forced constantly to make calculations I am in no position to make. One of those calculations is the likelihood of success. It was the lack of success that changed my mind on both Vietnam and Iraq.

Of all the major post-war conflicts in which Britain or America or both have been involved, only one can be marked as an unmitigated success in terms of achieving its defined objectives, and that was the first Gulf War. Even then, one can debate its legacy. Somewhat grudgingly, I should add Kosovo to the success column. All the others have ranged from stalemate to disaster, whether at the time or in their repercussions. So, if one wants to second-guess one’s own feelings ten years later, it is safer to oppose every war.

Yet where would that leave us? Evil regimes exist, and will continue to exist. Other nations and armed groups will start wars, and some of those wars will directly affect our safety and our interests. If we reach a point – and perhaps in Britain we are now close to it – where we oppose any American intervention on principle, one day we will probably have cause to regret that attitude.

There is no answer to any of this. But we can at least try to stop thinking of war as glorious. And our leaders can try to have a clear-headed view of where our true interests lie and, more than anything, try to foresee the consequences of their own actions.

Vietnam, and the failure to understand the complexities of an alien history and culture, or the implications of guerrilla warfare on a massive scale, should be a permanent reproach and reminder to us. Iraq, and the failure to plan for a post-war future or to understand the forces that a post-Saddam society would unleash, should be another reproach and reminder.

Perhaps, instead of raising statues to heroes and victories in war, we should raise them instead to our failures, and place them in prominent positions, so we can never forget them.