The case for declaring war

No, not the current one: that is not our war; but in general an honest declaration solves all sorts of problems and ambiguities.

I cannot think of any occasion since VE Day that the United Kingdom, or the United States come to that, has issued a declaration of war. If this were an indication that peace has reigned, that would be a fine thing, but it has not, and British forces have been engaged in many wars, not just against insurgencies but against states – against China (in Korea), Egypt, Indonesia, Argentina, Iraq twice over, Serbia, Syria and more I am sure, without a single admission that this was war indeed in spite of its being obvious.

This is not peace but mendacity, and it leaves uncertainty about the consequences.

We have forgotten why the Crown declares war (and how to: in August 1914 it was said that the Foreign Office were in a panic because they had not issued a formal declaration of war for so long they had forgotten how). Two points:

  • A declaration of war is not an act of aggression but a recognition of an existing reality;
  • It is a declaration to one own nation more than to the enemy.

When a state of war exists, British subjects are on notice that they may not trade with the enemy; citizen of the enemy state are subject to legal disabilities and their property is frozen; having business with the enemy is a form of treachery, perhaps even treason. How would one know when these apply without an actual statement from the government that a state of war exists?

On the other side of the coin where there is no state of war, Britons are free to do business as we please, and defy all the tutting disapproval of politicians as we do so. There must be a sharp distinction.

It is not obvious when there is a war, when all trafficking with the other side must stop. As Hobbes observes:

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.

In the old days there was no need for parchments and seals and florid language: a Royal Navy frigate would haul over to Normandy and seize a couple of French fishing boats, and that was a declaration that a state of war existed.

Even a paper war is war if unambiguous.  If we read the account by Hobbes of how the Civil War began, it was when “the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known“:

After the sending of these propositions to the King, and his Majesty’s refusal to grant them, they began, on both sides, to prepare for war. The King raised a guard for his person in Yorkshire, and the Parliament, thereupon having voted that the King intended to make war upon his Parliament, gave order for the mustering and exercising the people in arms, and published propositions to invite and encourage them to bring in either ready money or plate, or to promise under their hands to furnish and maintain certain numbers of horse, horsemen, and arms, for the defence of the King and Parliament, (meaning by King, as they had formerly declared, not his person, but his laws); promising to repay their money with interest of 8l. in the 100l. and the value of their plate with twelve-pence the ounce for the fashion. On the other side, the King came to Nottingham, and there did set up his standard royal, and sent out commissions of array to call those to him, which by the ancient laws of England were bound to serve him in the wars. Upon this occasion there passed divers declarations between the King and Parliament concerning the legality of this array, which are too long to tell you at this time.

In the meantime the Parliament raised an army, and made the Earl of Essex general thereof; by which act they declared what they meant formerly, when they petitioned the King for a guard to be commanded by the said Earl of Essex. And now the King sends out his proclamations, forbidding obedience to the orders of the Parliament concerning the militia; and the Parliament send out orders against the execution of the commissions of array. Hitherto, though it were a war before, yet there was no blood shed; they shot at one another nothing but paper.

It soon became more than paper, and what a bloody war it was to torture the guts of the realm. The reality was shown before the first musket ball flew.

If all wars could cease by the stroke of a pen, let that pen be brought forth at once. A generation which has only seen peace at home may not know how there are no words to describe the horror of it but those cowering under the rubble of Kiev, weeping for their sons and husbands or living in uncertain terror from moment to moment may show you. If the obsolescence of formal Declarations meant this could not happen then would be well rid of those poisonous documents. However perhaps doing away with them has made it worse: if no government could begin its war without taking the awesome step of an open, formal declaration, they would not set to war as lightsomely as has been done over these last eighty decades, and there would be far fewer widows in dark rooms cursing to the end of their days. War is no light step, and pretending you have not taken it just because you did not signed a formal document, is dishonesty.

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Liberation; revival

The Falklands War of 1982 liberated not just those islands, but the home islands too. It is the story of staunch heroes, who won more than they could imagine they would.

It had to be done.  It was war, there was slaughter, but sometimes war has to be done. It is hard to describe to today’s generation how the war and the victory changed Britain and revived Britain, because of how fundamental that change was. The focus though was the Falkland Islands and their people.

So whatever the revolutionary change that the war made at home, it was at base exactly as it seemed – a liberation of those islands, a limb of the British nation, from a foreign invader, a liberation wrought by the heroism and iron determination of British sailors, soldiers and airmen doing what they do best. It was war for what war is meant to be for, and they fought it and won it well. Theirs is the glory here, and those of us in Britain then abed shall think ourselves accursed we were not there – all the verses and quotes and clichés are weak indeed in comparison to the reality of the relentless battle by flesh and blood over bogs and hills to drive back an enemy dug in on our hills, but that they did, in mere weeks – two and a half months from the invasion and the islands were liberated.  If only all wars were so brief and victorious.

Looking back, it is unimaginable that much of the press was against the war but those newspapers failed and the patriotic ones throve. We emerged a very different country.

When the Argentines invaded, they attacked a nation which had lost faith in itself, where the  dissolution of empire had sapped the vitality out of the soul of the nation, and decades of socialist impositions had smashed the economy to spin Britain into a spiral of apparently irrecoverable decline. Three years before, Margaret Thatcher began to reverse it only for an oil crisis and the necessary destruction of dead industry to cause a massive recession.  The Argentines attacked a nation with no confidence in itself, knowing that the establishment would surrender. They wanted to.  Had it not been for Margaret Thatcher and Sir Henry Leach, the First Sea Lord, that would have been an end.

The decision made, it was the men who sailed those thousands of miles over the unquiet ocean who rescued the islands and their whole nation.

The Argentines attacked a dying, timid land: they surrendered to a resurgent, confident major world power.

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Ireland: spark and anvil of the war

Ireland was not an afterthought for Cromwell, but his urgent necessity since the very beginning. The Civil War began in Ireland, and it was finished here. History books following a linear narrative look at the Cromwellian invasion as a secondary campaign after the shouting but they miss the point: Cromwell fought all through England in order to get to Ireland.

The order of events and motivations gets jumbled as the ages pass. Lives, deaths, votes, decrees, battles – all can be put in strict chronological order, but the motivation is muddled. Those who were there, as Thomas Hobbes was, could provide a view of how it all unfolded.

The first rebellion was against Scottish bishops in 1639, but Ireland touched off the convulsion of the three kingdoms, in 1641. Rebels descended upon Protestant towns and slaughtered all they found: in Westminster, Parliament demanded action and for its own appointees to be put in command, as they did not trust the King – after all, the rebels claimed to be acting in his name and Queen Henrietta was after all a Papist. We can imagine the rising desperation in the Commons at fears that day by day more blood was being shed and nothing done; within months the breach was made.

Hobbes however looks further back: the breach between the rising middle classes and the King had been going on for years. In Behemoth he identifies several classes of men and their motivations – Papists, Protestant radicals, educated men misreading Greek and Roman ideas, the City merchants envying Holland, and men with nothing to lose. It weakened the authority of the Crown, and this weakness, Hobbes says, emboldened the Roman Catholic Irish lords to rise up. When they did, it burst open the breach in the other kingdoms.

From 1642, bloody war raged across England and Wales, a war each side had expected to be brief but which lasted for years. In all those years the Confederates controlled most of Ireland, doing their will, which to the imagination of the Protestant English, and possibly in reality, was a bloody one. By the end of the war in England in 1649, Cromwell was in undisputed command, and he turned at once to the business which had been tormenting for eight long years: Ireland.

Perhaps Cromwell thought the Irish campaign would be brief too, but it was two years of blood. Vengeance is an ugly word but unavoidable. Cromwell set foot in an Ireland divided by language and cultural attachment, and in territory as the Romanist Confederates had been kept out of much of Ulster, County Dublin and Cork, though the rest of the island was theirs.

The slaughters of 1641 were very much in mind, and the rolling back of English-inspired culture.  He set out to terminate the illegitimate government of a cardboard cut-out state that was ruling what naturally is part of the single British-Irish nation, to defeat genocide (as we would now call it) and to de-Catholicise the island. It is a familiar motivation. That the majority still clung to the Church of Rome could only have been put down to  the waywardness of the local lords, who would therefore be extirpated for the better edification of the people. Those still stubborn, not accepting the Gospel, would be driven beyond the Shannon and their places given to sounder men. In the event, more were killed by sword and famine and it placed a vital spark in a determination to resist reformation.

All that followed, followed logically. In our day it looks like vicious persecution and murder, and it felt like that at the time, but it was considered necessary by those who did it.

The war was brief compared to many that had torn at Ireland and brought a brutal peace after centuries of continual turmoil. The collective memory kept it running for centuries though: Flanders and Swann were not far wrong when the sang over-jovially “They blow up policemen, or so I have heard, and blame it on Cromwell and William The Third”. The retelling of grievance over generations, expanded with each telling, is a danger to conquerors and may blow up even three hundred years later.

In our day maybe it can subside.  It is all seems so distant: the unleashing of deadly fury with religious zeal to defend, and then defeat, the Roman religion in Ireland – when that religion is now being freely abandoned by the descendants of those same Irishmen. What another generation will think, I cannot tell.

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How the war began

B.: “But how came the people to be so corrupted? And what kind of people were they that did so seduce them?”

A.: “. . . . . .

Fourthly, there were an exceeding great number of men of the better sort, that had been so educated, as that in their youth having read the books written by famous men of the ancient Grecian and Roman commonwealths concerning their polity and great actions; in which books the popular government was extolled by that glorious name of liberty, and monarchy disgraced by the name of tyranny; they became thereby in love with their forms of government.  And out of these men were chosen the greatest part of the House of Commons, or if they were not the greatest part, yet by advantage of their eloquence, were always able to sway the rest.

Fifthly, the city of London and other great towns of trade, having in admiration the prosperity of the Low Countries after they had revolted from their monarch, the King of Spain, were inclined to think that the like change of government here, would to them produce the like prosperity.

Sixthly, there were a very great number that had either wasted their fortunes, or thought them too mean for the good parts they thought were in themselves; and more there were, that had able bodies, but saw no means how honestly to get their bread.  These longed for a War, and hoped to maintain themselves hereafter by the lucky choosing of a party to side with, and consequently did for the most part serve under them that had greatest plenty of money.”

– Thomas Hobbes: Behemoth

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It is still not our war

Pity, despair, horror at what man will unleash – all this and more tumbles from the heart. War is not a game and the victims are innumerable. Yet it is not our war.

History will judge, they say, but how we cannot know. Those weeping for their lost children will not wait for history and that is something about war: it is always immediate. Let history judge whom it will, capricious thing as it is; but we must look now and say this is still not our war, and making it ours, out of adventure or virtue-signalling with other men’s children’s lives, would make it very, very much worse. I know how history would judge a politician who claimed he had done a moral thing while standing in front of the irradiated ashes of London.

It can end, and will. I understand the characters, have met their ambassadors and read their words and been immersed in their shared culture: were I sent in to bat, I have no doubt that I would forge a settlement bringing five hundred years of unshakeable peace and the gateway to prosperity, and that I would be cursed by both sides for it even as they roll in gold.

It may be that history books will adjudge this war as an anomalous war of aggressive conquest, or another in a series of wars waged by European nations since the end of the Cold War, or as a war of reunification, which are always seen  in a kindly light. That does not help a widow flooding her street with tears today.

There is no more that it is safe to say. Maybe our grandchildren will read books saying “the West stayed on the sidelines, and thank goodness for it”. That is for their age though. For us it is day to day, and there is no more it is safe to say.

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