War v Terrorism question: the simple answer

They asked: ‘What is the difference between an act of war and an act of terrorism?’ It appears in a list of questions that might be asked at an Oxbridge interview, and it struck me as an odd one because there is a simple, Hobbesian answer. Maybe they do not want Hobbes.

I am glad to forget the interview questions they asked me at Oxford; they are a fiendish and effective way to tease out the character and educated reasoning of a candidate. That is why a question with a short answer does not fit.

War is legal; terrorism is illegal: it is that simple.

War though in a Hobbesian sense is a perpetual state when there is no Common-wealth.

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.

Where the Common-wealth (which is to say the state) is established and effective, only the state may use or authorise violence. Therefore authorised violence, whether as simple as arresting a man or as enormous as levying all-out war, belongs to the Sovereign. All private and unauthorised violence offends against the Sovereign and may be punished. Where the Common-wealth is ineffective to keep its subjects in awe then that Warre against every Man is reality.

The legalistic mind in a settled, modern state will argue about whether particular acts by that state are legal or not, drawing on laws established or invented, to condemn or condone acts of war effected by their government. States may have their own constitutional rules and procedures about when head of government may or may not go to war, but those are for the internal laws of the state. International law is not law. The domestic laws of a nation are only as potent as the extent to which the state follows the rule of law in the first place. From the perspective of an outsider faced with an invading army, they are utterly irrelevant. A sovereign may go to war, and that is universal.

With such a short answer available, an interview question asking what is the difference between war and terrorism suggests there is a moral judgment to be made, beyond ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’.

Theologically one can twist and turn about the subject but it comes down to the necessity of their being a sovereign Prince or Common-wealth to maintain the peace, and it is an attribute of indivisible sovereignty that the Sovereign may levy war and maintain by any means internal peace. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and war is indeed Caesar’s. The Romans admittedly though skilled at war, were no good example when it comes to peace and lawfulness of their wars, wracked as they were with rebellion and civil war.

The idea of civil war seems to contradict the idea of war as legal. Hobbes knew all about civil war, having been caught in the turmoil between the King and Parliament. Leviathan must be read in that context, the necessity of civil peace being a thread running through it. Two rival sides able to raise and command armies appear as two states at war.

Terrorism is something very different though. The terrorist strikes, kills, and then may slip back into society. He is not a soldier of a rival society, but is part of the society he attacks. His attack is in fact dependent upon that society for its effect: where there is no settled society there can be no terrorism because murder offends against no law and disrupts nothing. If a half-ton meteor lands in an empty field, it makes a hole but we move on, but if an identical meteor were to fall in a city, it would be a disaster. The shock of a terrorist attack is that it disrupts a society which relies upon its own peace and order to function.

An act of war will cause far more damage than any terrorist attack, if it is done properly, but war is celebrated, and war is, as the action of the Sovereign, the collective act of a nation (whether they like it or not) against an outside foe or an internal foe seeking to destroy that society. The simple answer then remains: war is legal, and terrorism is illegal. Going further, if you must, terrorism must by its nature be the highest of crimes because it is committed by those who are subjects of the laws of a society or who have become part of that society.

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And then there was silence

The guns fell silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It has been for our nations, the victors, a sacred moment remembered each year. It might have been for Germany too, but they were caught up in their own revolutions at the time and it seemed a strange sort of peace with the sound of gunfire ever present. For the great concert of Europe though, the unthinkably brutality of this war was over.

The clean forgetfulness of the public imagination has this moment as an end to war, the war to end all wars, until the next one. Would that it had been. It was a long effort to make a peace though and the treaties were still being argued over in 1920: this year Hungary mourned the centenary of its own dismemberment at the hands of the vengeful Entente allies: three quarters of Hungary was torn away and two thirds of its population left in foreign lands, and not a single yard of its border was unencroached. That hurt has not faded in a hundred years, nor Austria’s for loss of South Tyrol. Turkey in 1920 was dissolved, and its rulers today appear vengeful for it. War did not cease: the new Mitteleuropa states fought to reverse their border losses almost from the start, and the murderous Russian Civil War ground on.

In the west the joy of victory would not be spoiled by foreigners’ tussles. It was a new era, and the revolutionary map of Europe cast a revolutionary mood into the air – only by the skin of our teeth and the common sense of the common man did Britain escape a bloody communist tyranny. The febrile atmosphere in which everything was possible and every idea hailed a revelation carried through until those ideas tumbled Europe into a war yet more bloody, more evil than imagination could have furnished even amongst those who had seen the drowned trenches. The first war gave us poetry: the second gave us films of heroism, and real heroism there was in more places than the who canon of literature can supply, and we can cheer, as long as we do not look too far below the surface of those years as that would curdle the feelings.

The remembrance is important. The names are read, the sermons and the familiar verses; we tramp to the village green, we stand silent awaiting the bugle. It is ceremony, old and familiar, and in this we remember, for it has been mercifully many decades since war came to these islands and we forget, or would forget. Politicians still like to play with soldiers, but every November they meet and remember it is not a game, and there are better men who stood what no man among them would bear, or few.

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We are better than this

This is not Weimar Germany, and the ugly scenes on the streets of our cities need not be the precursor to the overthrow of state and society which happened there. In 1920s Germany, the new republic was a patched-together job which served for the moment, but many imagined its replacement by one system or other – a return of the old order or one of the rival brands of socialism. That is when the street battles began.

Last week, Konstantin Kisin in a Twitter thread (not a fixed article, which is disappointing) set out a likely course of events following the communist attacks on monuments that week.  It was grim reading but at once began to be proven accurate: the backlash by skinhead groups, the differential coverage by the media (“27 police hurt in largely peaceful protest” v “27 police inured by far-right violence”), reaction, counter-reaction and so it goes on, as long as the sun is shining and there are no jobs to go to.

It all begins to look familiar from the history books of a hundred years ago, which shows that humanity has not changed, nor has humanity changed since the Palaeolithic clans battled over rule of the tribe and their own visions of the future.

The seduction practised by the rival political gangs of 1920s Germany was a simple one:  so to dominate newspaper and radio coverage that change to one version of socialism or the other seemed inevitable. It was no longer a law-and-order issue, even for a nation so keen on order; it was the feeling of inevitability.  The Weimar state was a system in which few believed, and disorder indicated that its end was close, so it was just a question of choosing a side.  The Nazis played it well as the team to join if you opposed the Communists who wanted to destroy everything: it must have been easy to turn a blind eye to the foul stuff they preached just to dispose of the Communists, or to think they could never do the unthinkable. It gained the earlier Nazis a following of admirers at home and abroad, who dropped away very quickly when they learned something of the truth, but by then it was too late.

The street-fighting was between two brands of socialists – the international socialists and the national socialists. Their dual monopoly, the desire to end the violence however it could be done and the feeling of inevitability sapping away at the soul worked its way and placed one set of murderous socialists on top, though it could as easily have been the other.

There may have been genuine grievances to be exploited skilfully by each side, but the activists are there to exploit, not support, like the abuser who claims to like kittens in order to get his feet under the table. Honestly intended marches expressing despair about the treatment of individuals because of their race were exploited the same way. We must not confuse the slogan with the motive though – those who tore the statue down have not wish to heal racial division but to expand and exploit it.

It is, as Hobbes described, part of “a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death“.

A history book is not a good guide to every future. This is not Weimar Germany with its air of unreality and the temporary: we are in Britain and the House of Commons, when it meets, contains a stonking majority of the ‘party of law and order’. Now it needs to make itself felt.

The necrosis of political society comes in the deceit that one must choose sides, from a choice of just two, when both are evil. In truth, there is a third side, namely common freedom under the law.

A memorandum was issued last week by Oliver Dowden. Secretary of State for Culture, Media and for some reason Sport, which was a masterclass in government not politics. It did not take a side on the issue of statues and plaques but recited the law: private property, listed structures, planning permission, due process etc. In short, ask for statues to be removed if you wish, but there are necessary procedures and owners may not agree, and if you do not get your wish, to keep or to topple, you accept that and may not take the law into your own hands.

In the circumstances, the Dowden memorandum is the perfect stand to take, as it asserts simply the rule of law, which is the side we should all be on. A political response might have been one like that issued by Emmanuel Macron in France that his republic “will not erase any name from its history. It will forget none of its artworks, it won’t take down statues” – yes, a good, laudable stance and one I could stand behind, a retort to the destroyers – but the fundamental issue is not the likenesses in bronze but the rule of law, which is equally capable of removing a statue as of protecting one, but all according to due process.

Unless there is enforceable law, then the only rule is the force of the strongest gang on the street. Then you do have to choose sides, or form your own.

In the meantime, until it starts to rain and cools the ardour of the fighting youths, there are two sets of indistinguishable thugs facing off in the streets, but we choose neither: we choose law and order.

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How easy to lose the peace

The victory was an overwhelming victory of a scale unknown in modern times, or any age of man: the greatest land power of Europe was occupied across its whole breadth such that surrender was almost unnecessary as it had ceased to be, and not just there, but victory was achieved across the world. Even greater than these, it produced a peace which has lasted 75 years in which time war between great nations in Europe has become unthinkable.

However, the peace was lost. It often is.

The crowds cheered Churchill when Germany was defeated and they knew that it was his words and his determination to action behind them which had driven the nation to victory – he inspired, he uplifted, he gave purpose to the grimmest of struggles, and silently in the secretive corridors of power he did not relax but ensured the right people (not the ‘approved’ people) were in charge of the war effort. The victory was his (and Vera Lynn’s).

Then two and a half months later, the people turfed Churchill out of office and installed Clement Attlee.

Having defeated national socialism, the Britons installed their own socialism. Attlee’s socialist government wrecked the economy and dissolved the Empire we had just fought to preserve. He was out after 6 years, but the long-term damage was done.

The end of the war could have allowed Britain and the Empire to be stronger than ever. Instead Britain, shorn of empire, began a steep decline such that it came to be accepted as our inevitable destiny, and we could not longer understand how we had been so great. That pathological defeatism is still with us in spite of all the proof against it. America on the other had rose further, in confidence and strength.

For Poland and Czechoslovakia, in whose names we went to war in the first place, it was a very bitter victory.

There are many examples in history of great nations destroying themselves in victory. Maybe we forget them because they disappeared. Far in our classical past, Sparta’s military system made its neighbours enemies and destroyed its own strength. Alexander following on conquered the Persian Empire but so absorbed Persian ways to rule it that his courtiers despaired that they had placed all Greece under a Persian king after all, and then tore the empire apart on his death. Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Germanic tribes and empires all tumbled at the point of victory. In 1763, Britain at last dominated North America, but then in consolidating its conquests drove the colonists into successful rebellion. In our generation, those Arab and Afghan men who rebelled against oppressors – how sore they feel now as someone else seized their victory.

Attlee then threw away the rewards that could have come of Churchill’s victory. The main reward of victory for the world, namely destruction of the Nazi menace, was undiminished. There could have so much more though. America rose to undreamed-of prosperity, while Britain’s recovery was stunted at birth. After 1951, Churchill and his successors began to recover, but were shackled to a deathly consensus form of government that was not broken until 1979. Whitehall was also by then riddled with Communist agents, which caused America to take sole control of the nuclear and rocketry programmes which had started as joint ventures. America became a titan of the Space race, while impoverished Britain launched but a single satellite. How had the mighty fallen.

The Suez Crisis could have restored confidence, but its failure sapped the remaining confidence we might have had. In 1982, Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands, and Whitehall was ready to give in at once – had it not been for the First Sea Lord bursting uninvited into the Cabinet Room, they would have. The swift victory in the islands was a waking up, a start to reclaiming the older victory.

After 75 years of peace, we have grown soft, and you might say we won the peace just so we could relax and soften, but challenges do not cease. If we forget what is possible, there will be no resistance to the next bloody invader or dictator. Hitler wanted to destroy our power but we destroyed it for him, if not in the way he thought, thank goodness.

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VE-Day: rejoicing 75 years of victory and freedom

What more can be said on such a magnificent anniversary? No current topic is equal to it – victory over a monstrous power, preservation of our nation and many others. 75 years of freedom for half the continent – it was another 44 years before Eastern Europe was liberated.

In Berlin, left in ruins in 1945, they are celebrating the day for the first time, as a moment of liberation, but the eastern half of the city and the eastern lands of Germany went straight from one bloody tyranny to another.

It is impossible for the upcoming generation to understand the moment. There those who remember it, but most of us were born long afterwards. We have been brought up all our lives with all the easy assumptions of a free country and those Millennials, born after the Socialist tyrannies of the east were swept away, can have no imagination of anything but the way the world lives today. Talk of life in Nazi Germany, or the Communist East, washes over them because things cannot really have been like that, can they – the world doesn’t work like that does it? It did, and more so that can every be described.

The evil comes from the essence of man. It is not unusual across the world or history – it is our free, benevolent society which is unusual. It cannot be taken for granted.

Churchill warned, when we stood alone:

The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

We were buoyed up by song, and while it cheered, there was no doubt about what the effort entailed, rewards to be won and the peril if failure should befall:

I’ll never forget the people I met
Braving those angry skies
I remember well as the shadows fell
The light of hope in their eyes
And though I’m far away
I still can hear them say
“Thumbs up!”
For when the dawn comes up

There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, just you wait and see
There’ll be love and laughter
And peace ever after
Tomorrow, when the world is free

The world is free, and has been for 75 years, because of that intense effort and sacrifice of six, long years or blood, sweat, toil and tears. Today is really Churchill’s day, so his words can speak for themselves:

Yesterday morning at 2:41 a.m. at Headquarters, General Jodl, the representative of the German High Command, and Grand Admiral Doenitz, the designated head of the German State, signed the act of unconditional surrender of all German land, sea, and air forces in Europe to the Allied Expeditionary Force, and simultaneously to the Soviet High Command.

General Bedell Smith, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, and General Francois Sevez signed the document on behalf of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and General Susloparov signed on behalf of the Russian High Command.

Today this agreement will be ratified and confirmed at Berlin, where Air Chief Marshal Tedder, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and General de Lattre de Tassigny will sign on behalf of General Eisenhower. General Zhukov will sign on behalf of the Soviet High Command. The German representatives will be Field-Marshal Keitel, Chief of the High Command, and the Commanders-in-Chief of the German Army, Navy, and Air Forces.

Hostilities will end officially at one minute after midnight to-night (Tuesday, May 8), but in the interests of saving lives the “Cease fire” began yesterday to be sounded all along the front, and our dear Channel Islands are also to be freed today.

The Germans are still in places resisting the Russian troops, but should they continue to do so after midnight they will, of course, deprive themselves of the protection of the laws of war, and will be attacked from all quarters by the Allied troops. It is not surprising that on such long fronts and in the existing disorder of the enemy the commands of the German High Command should not in every case be obeyed immediately. This does not, in our opinion, with the best military advice at our disposal, constitute any reason for withholding from the nation the facts communicated to us by General Eisenhower of the unconditional surrender already signed at Rheims, nor should it prevent us from celebrating today and tomorrow (Wednesday) as Victory in Europe days.

Today, perhaps, we shall think mostly of ourselves. Tomorrow we shall pay a particular tribute to our heroic Russian comrades, whose prowess in the field has been one of the grand contributions to the general victory.

The German war is therefore at an end. After years of intense preparation, Germany hurled herself on Poland at the beginning of September, 1939; and, in pursuance of our guarantee to Poland and in agreement with the French Republic, Great Britain, the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations, declared war upon this foul aggression. After gallant France had been struck down we, from this Island and from our united Empire, maintained the struggle single-handed for a whole year until we were joined by the military might of Soviet Russia, and later by the overwhelming power and resources of the United States of America.

Finally almost the whole world was combined against the evil-doers, who are now prostrate before us. Our gratitude to all our splendid allies goes forth from all our hearts in this island and throughout the British Empire.

We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead. Japan, with all her treachery and greed, remains unsubdued. The injury she has inflicted upon Great Britain, the United States, and other countries, and her detestable cruelties, call for justice and retribution. We must now devote all our strength and resources to the completion of our task, both at home and abroad. Advance, Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King!

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