Clem Sunter

Boots and all

2012-03-22 11:09

Clem Sunter

I used to have lunch with my father at the Honourable Artillery Company in Moorgate in the City of London. My father was a stockbroker and I was working at Anglo’s London office in Holborn Viaduct. This was in the late 1960s before I moved to Africa.

At one lunch, we were joined by a senior army officer who served with my father during the Second World War. The HAC, as it was known, was an elite artillery unit which did its bit in support of the infantry. During coffee, we were discussing whether the Allied carpet-bombing of Hamburg (called Operation Gomorrah) in July 1943 and of Dresden in February 1945 was necessary. As an idealistic young man, I condemned the attacks as unethical. I will never forget the answer from my father’s friend.

He said: “Half-fought wars are never won. You have to go in boots and all. Especially when the enemy does the same. We can all express regret for the 65 000 civilian casualties caused by the firestorms that engulfed the two cities. But we had to wipe out every trace of the Nazis so that Germany could start afresh after the war was over. We had to demoralise the entire nation in order to make them think differently about Hitler. And, incidentally, he only took his own life when his bunker in Berlin was surrounded and he knew that he was finished."

There is a ring of truth in what he said all those years ago. Germany, totally stripped of Nazism, has ascended to the top spot in Europe and has even overtaken its old foe, Britain. One could apply the same logic to Japan. The dropping of the two atom bombs in August, 1945, one on Hiroshima and the second on Nagasaki, ended the war in a decisive manner with a clear winner and loser. Japan, stripped of imperialistic ambition, mirrored Germany in its astonishing economic recovery which meant that, until it was recently overtaken by China, it was the second largest economy in the world.

The third example is an interesting one because it is America itself. People forget how vicious the Civil War was that ended in the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865. Major General Sherman (after whom the tank is named) invented the strategy of total war by marching his Yankee troops through Atlanta to the sea, destroying all the infrastructure, buildings and farms along the way. After the surrender of General Lee in April 1865, America never looked back. With its territorial integrity preserved, with slavery abolished and with an effective reconstruction programme in place, the economy enjoyed such a boom that the US assumed pole position in the world in a matter of decades.

Before getting to the point of this article, let us look at the outcome of the three half-fought wars. The Korean War (1950 - 53) was one where the Soviet Union and China supported the North and America and its allies the South. After the last two years ended in military stalemate, an armistice was declared and Korea was split into two portions along the Demilitarized Zone. To this day, the North and the South have an uneasy relationship punctuated with an occasional incident. The South has done well economically, while the North has only its army and a few nuclear weapons to show it has progressed.

The Vietnam War lasted from 1955 to 1975 with America trying to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam. Following the capture of Saigon by the Vietnam People’s Army in 1975 and the simultaneous departure of American troops, America failed in its objective despite overwhelming logistical superiority. Vietnam was reunified in 1976 and has since put in a pretty decent performance in uplifting its population.

The Iraq War (2003 – 2011) did end up with the defeat of Saddam Hussein and American soldiers did leave in December 2011. However, it is too early to say that sectarian violence is a thing of the past and that Sunni and Shia Arabs are going to forge a constructive relationship with one another. Car bombs still go off in crowded markets and the place could still descend into civil war.

Now my point. We have one half-fought war continuing in Afghanistan and another one which could be half-fought or fully fought about to erupt in Iran. In the former case, both America and Britain have announced total troop withdrawals in 2014. My prediction, based on the assertion of my father’s friend and the examples of half-fought wars quoted, is that very little is going to change. The Taliban will be back and if Vietnam is anything to go by, they may well take charge once again. Will it all have been worth it? That will be a question which will frequently be asked behind the scenes (not of course in public).

A conflict in Iran is still to come and will only take place in the event that the nuclear issue cannot be resolved peacefully. The stakes are much higher because, like Syria, America and its allies are on one side and Russia together with China are on the other side. It could be a war by proxy. Equally, though, Israel could precipitate things as a result of the threats made to its existence by the Iranian leadership. Again, based on the analysis in this article, the issue will only be resolved one way or another by a war without limits. A half-hearted affair will achieve nothing.

My conclusion is that war is digital: you either have to go in boots and all or not at all. Success is compromised by anything in between. One therefore has to be far more cautious about going to war in circumstances where the enemy does not pose a direct threat to your survival. Leave well alone and don’t interfere. Keep your nose out. For the record, neither Korea nor Vietnam nor Iraq nor Afghanistan constituted a direct threat to America. Japan did in 1941 and so did Germany to Britain in 1939. Self-preservation meant no constraints other than the Geneva Convention. The enemy was crushed. A new chapter began in 1945.

Yet, it can still be convincingly argued that, considering the act in itself, the bombing of Hamburg and Dresden represented the cold-blooded murder of civilians on a massive scale. It could not be justified even as a retaliatory act for the bombing of London and Coventry. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Thus, war remains one of the most difficult topics to discuss and arrive at a reasonable answer.


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