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Winter 1998

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Defence-no thank you
Unnatural disasters
Preventing wars


defence - no thank you






A touchy feely report

FAR REMOVED from the machinery of the state and with limited access to information, much of it designed for political and commercial effect, or coming second hand via journalists and commentators, it is far from easy to make up one’s own mind about what is going on. So often what we are left with to help us form an opinion is our own finely honed prejudices.
After what was promised to be a thorough consultation when The Strategic Defence Review (SDR) finally appeared, it was clear that not many of the recommendations from NGOs found their way into it. However it did come with a ‘touchy feely’ flavour. We will get some new ‘missions’ – ‘defence diplomacy’ and ‘peace support and humanitarian operations’ and these, with lots of pictures of earnest, clean cut young soldiers learning a trade, being adored by black children or posing with a big gun in a pristine uniform, tell the story that the MoD wants us to hear. It’s still some way from one of the best military slogans adopted by the US airforces – ‘Peace is our Profession’ – but with a little more brio new labour is all set to give us the new militarism.
This of course is the cynical response though many will say a realistic one. So for example the SDR enthuses about cuts in nuclear warheads and missiles but what it does not tell us that this actually means that Britain’s nuclear capability will be greater than it was at the height of the cold war. It says that ‘..we must judge our weapons requirements against the worst circumstances that we might face...’ and ‘The credibility of deterrence also depends on retaining an option for a limited strike that would not automatically lead to full scale nuclear exchange ... Trident must also be capable of performing this “sub-strategic” role.’ But it does not say under what circumstance it would use nuclear weapons. Dr Strengelove is alive and well in the bunkers under Whitehall.
Some still want to believe that Labour will do the ‘right thing’ in the end but this hope increasingly hard to sustain. While the SDR came under some muted criticism mostly from MPs from constituencies which were going to be affected by small cuts in expenditure, the major criticism came from the all party Defence Committee which criticised the review for concentrating too much on being a global policeman and failing to address the growing threat of terrorist attack against Britain. What neither addressed was how Britain’s actions abroad ‘invite’ such terrorist attacks. It’s hard to know where the bombing of Iraq of supporting the US bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan fits into this scheme.
The SDR, like so much of the ‘defence’ debate, is in no small measure based on a continuing massaging of words. ‘They (the British people) want, indeed expect the Government to provide a strong defence.’ says George Robertson in the introduction. What the majority of ‘British people’ want is much the same as the majority of people the world over – to be left to get on with their life in peace and this is very different to a ‘strong defence’ and does not imply, for example, having a greater nuclear capability than during the cold war. In fact according to an opinion poll 59% of people in Britain would feel more secure without nuclear weapons and 87% believe that Britain should help negotiate a global treaty to rid the world of nuclear weapons. But says the SDR ‘...we have concluded that it would be premature to abandon...a capability to design and produce a successor to Trident...’ Why?’
The criteria for judging effective ‘defence’ should be by competence not at waging war but the ability to prevent or defuse it. In this regard it can be argued that successive British governments have been far from successful. Quite apart from the British army’s frequent boast that there has only been one year since 1945 in which they have not been in action and ignoring the Gulf, the Falklands, Suez etc., there has been the long war fought in Northern Ireland where a whole generation has grown up not knowing ‘peace’. The final act of the ‘peace process’ there has not yet been played out but the total failure of the ‘military’ approach is there for all to see.
The state has always lied about military matters. As long as it goes on lying there is hope because there is a gap between what it wants to do and what the majority will find acceptable. Our task, more urgent by the day as states and arms industries coalesce into ever more powerful entities, is to reveal the lie by showing how a safe, less violent world could be achieved.
This of course requires more than criticising

Jan Melichar

The Strategic defence Review. 1998. £8.65

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