Making war unpalatable

There’s a story on the front page of the Guardian today with the headline How to sell wars to public – MOD study. Under the Freedom of Information Act, they’ve obtained a paper by a Ministry of Defence (MOD) strategy unit which looks at how to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public. (To be fair, “palatable” is the Guardian’s word, not the MOD’s.) They’ve also published the MOD paper in full on their website.

The main thrust of the document is that the MOD thinks there is a perception that it is becoming “risk-averse”. They put this down to a growing public distaste for going to war, which in turn has an influence on the political leadership of the government. They think that this is truer of more recent campaigns like Iraq and Afghanistan than it was of older ones. The problem, they say, is one of public perception. You have to present the case for war to the public in a way that convinces them that they have a stake in the conflict and that the campaign has relevance to their well-being.

In other words, there is a danger that politicians could lose their appetite for war because it loses votes, and the MOD doesn’t want that. They want robust support for military activities from public and politicians alike. There seems to be an unpleasant element here of the military establishment wanting to retain its influence, which it would lose if public and political acceptance of warfare waned. Their answers to this unfortunate lack of public enthusiasm include measures like giving a lower profile to the repatriation of the bodies of dead soldiers. Also they suggest greater use of “contractors” – mercenaries to you and me – because the public don’t care in the same way about them being killed.

Anti-war protesters in September 2002. Photo by William M. Connolley.*

Anti-war protesters in September 2002. Photo by William M. Connolley.*

I’m not sure how much the political momentum towards war has actually abated. It’s not that long ago that Tony Blair dragged the UK to war in Iraq despite massive public opposition to it. And more recently David Cameron was eager to rush into military strikes against Syria, although parliament refused to give him their support. (Now there seems to be some hopeful news in that the US and Russia are in agreement about a UN resolution calling on Syria to give up its chemical weapons. It’s too early to tell what the outcome of that will be in the end, but at least diplomatic pressure is being preferred for now over military strikes.)

And really, in the 21st century, isn’t it time that we lost our appetite for war? We no longer live in the dark ages. Supposedly. How barbaric and medieval is the notion that you can make the world a better place by killing people? Iraq and Afghanistan are not noticeably better places as a result of our interventions. For example, the Taliban still seem to have enough influence to create a climate in Afghanistan where girls’ schools have to close. I thought the Afghan war was meant to remove them from power. Peace and stable government in that country are a long way off, even now.

It should be unacceptable for the MOD to attempt to manipulate public opinion to stop us becoming anti-war. I’d like the present anti-war swing in public attitudes to become a permanent shift. Our politicians need to know that the public won’t be behind them if they want to send our young men and women to die overseas for them. And the military establishment have to see themselves as serving the government and the public, not as having the right to manipulate us to serve their ends.

* Photo by William M. Connolley, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 licence.


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