Clem Sunter

The lion has ceased to roar

2009-09-23 07:46

Lest people forget, the English have always loved to fight. The lion, after all, is their symbol.

When they weren't fighting each other - which they did in virtually every century of the last millennium - they fought the Scots. The latter were quite up for a fight themselves as Hadrian discovered during the Roman occupation of England. The only way he could keep them out of his property was to erect a great wall along his northern boundary.

But the Scottish clans liked fighting among themselves more than they liked fighting the English. That's why the English won most of their battles in Scotland. Then the English, by now the British because they dominated the whole neighbourhood, took on all comers including the French and the Spanish and usually won.

During the Industrial Revolution, the British were almost unbeatable as they matched military zeal with commercial enterprise. Their navy got loads of money from the exchequer to build the finest fighting ships in the world. Their army was the most highly trained and disciplined force you could assemble anywhere.

The prize for being the most formidable warrior nation on Earth was the British Empire. But that's exactly where it all started to fall apart. The strains of governing such a mighty estate sapped their energy as warriors (similar to the Romans). Moreover, two world wars in the last century dealt the knockout blow. The British lost too many men and too much money. Victory was theirs but at the price of losing their position as top gun. The title passed to the Americans.

Yet, the British still hanker after a fight. And if you can't be No 1, the next best thing is to be seen as the closest ally of the No 1. So the British dutifully followed the Americans into Iraq and are now doing the same in Afghanistan. Their mission has crept from keeping the peace and winning the hearts and minds of the local villages to fighting the Taliban alongside their cousins. How could they stand by and witness the scrap without joining in, especially when a relation is involved; a very special relation?

Afghanistan, though, is not called the 'Great Game' for nothing. The British in their prime were seen off twice in the 19th Century by the Afghans and so were the Russians. The Russians repeated their mistake in the last century and now the Americans, supported by the British, are hoping to bust the losing streak.

This will be difficult. Not only are the Afghans the hardiest warriors around, but the British troops are also fighting this battle with one hand tied behind their back. A recent study released in Britain reveals that the size of the challenge has been woefully underestimated in terms of numbers on the ground and equipment required. Meanwhile, the British armed forces are already overstretched in terms of the commitments they have around the world.

How times have changed! The warriors have to compete with sports celebrities for the public's attention and with the bail-out of the banks for the public's purse. It's just another job now.

Nelson and Wellington must be turning in their graves. The lion has ceased to roar.

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