In a deliberately provocative article on Sat 10 November (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/9667102/Max-Hastings-Farewell-to-our-warrior-nation.html) , Sir Max Hastings used a column in the Telegraph to argue that the UK is no longer a warrior nation. The gist of his argument was that defence cuts will lead to an unwillingness by political leaders to use force in future, and that our glories belong to the past, and not the future.
The author strongly disagrees with this very fatuous statement. At its most simple, the UK is a warrior nation. For centuries the ability to willingly inflict violence upon others who threaten our existence and way of life has been a hallmark of the UK national character. The means by which we have done this have changed out of all recognition; allegations that the military is now smaller than the end of the Napoleonic wars can easily be countered by the realisation that the modern military is infinitely more capable than a Napoleonic era force.
Suggestions that we no longer have the ability to deploy in meaningful numbers are also way off the mark. One of the defining characteristics of the UK as a modern global power is precisely this ability to deploy. We have inherited, more through luck perhaps than judgement, a legacy of real estate, runways and ports which easily facilitate the movement of troops. As a nation we long ago made the decision that quality and not quantity mattered, and invested heavily in logistics, transport and the other enabling capabilities that allow the UK to go where it wants, when it wants.
For all the moaning in the Telegraph about how dreadful it is that the UK can ‘only’ deploy 8-10,000 troops on sustained operations, one should ask in return, how many other countries can do just this? The UK is one of a handful of countries able to operate this many troops, and sustain, resupply and replace them, at long distances. The only others are the US, possibly France and to a limited degree Germany. Humphrey grows increasingly tired of the same old mantras printed in the press about how ‘we couldn’t do this again’. You know what, we may not be able to send 30 or 40 escorts to the South Atlantic, or permanently station four armoured divisions in Germany, but in todays world, that doesn’t actually matter. Let’s focus on what we can do, and what can do now and have been doing for a decade.
Let’s look back since 2001, we’ve deployed 46,000 troops to Iraq to fight a high intensity war, and then fought a violent peace for a further four years. At the same time we’ve continuously kept over 10,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting a very violent, very intense conflict. This isn’t the sort of happy consensual peacekeeping that some other nations see as their military comfort zone. No, instead the UK has willingly put its troops into harms way to fight in some of the most challenging areas on earth. We have a generation of new soldiers, sailors and airmen who have fought in some of the most bloody and difficult operations carried out since WW2. A scan of the Operational Honours lists issued every few months shows just how difficult these operations are, and how in terms of courage, leadership and pure raw bravery, todays young military personnel are easily the equal of their illustrious predecessors.
Very few other nations could have sustained our commitment to Afghanistan without breaking their armed forces. The UK has done this, and still sustained a plethora of operations across the world, ranging from defending the Falkland Islands, to keeping peace in Cyprus. There has been major maritime work going on in the Gulf and Horn of Africa, while in the West Indies the RN and RFA continue to interdict drug smugglers and save lives with disaster relief. In Libya last year we demonstrated that we could not only fight in one theatre, but we simultaneously ran one of the most successful air / sea power campaigns ever seen, helping support the liberty of the Libyan people.
We may not be as large as we used to be, but it doesn’t matter as much as we perhaps think. Look at the UK and our overseas deployments since the end of the presence East of Suez, and you’ll see that we’ve managed to sustain a similar level of troops deployed globally now, compared to any point since the mid 1960s. We continue to work on all continents on the planet, we continue to be a partner of choice for many countries, and we continue to demonstrate global leadership. Our political leaders of all colours have a willingness to countenance the use of force when required, and perhaps more importantly our public backs them and supports the military.
To the authors minds, the phrase warrior nation does not mean ‘how many tanks you can put into a hypothetical battlefield against a long vanished army’. It means ‘the willingness of a people to see violence inflicted in their name, and if needs be participate, whatever the cost may be’. The UK as a nation is one comfortable spending money on defence, comfortable using its military across the globe and although saddened, can accept the fact that this use often comes at a high cost.
When we give thanks to our forebears today who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, we must continue to realise that it’s not about the tanks we own, or the ships we possess. Any nation can have a large military, but it’s about a deeper willingness to accept and understand that there are times when it must be employed for a greater good, often at a cost of treasure and blood.
Humphrey believes that the UK is still emphatically a warrior nation in capability, people and attitude. Rather than looking to a near mythical past (which in reality was full of journalists decrying how poor the UK military was and couldn’t do anything compared to the good old days of Loos, Maekfeking, Waterloo, Agincourt etc), lets try and focus on the present. Consider that the UK still represents a hugely potent force for good, and that we are served by incredible people (both military and civilian) who dedicate their lives to preserving global security. We are far more than we as a nation allow ourselves credit for, and while we should not be ostentatious, perhaps we should be a little more positive about how much we can do in the world relative to other nations.
We are a great nation, full of great people prepared to do great things. Today, let us be thankful to those who have paid so much to enable us to be where we are now.