The heroic General and the pathetic
Living Marxism has argued for some time that a big problem of our
time is the moral rehabilitation of imperialism. If you want some
idea of what that means, and why it is so dangerous, look at the story of
the General and the Major government.
On Friday 4 March, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, the commander of
the United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor), issued a demand for more
troops to be sent to Bosnia from Britain and other peacekeeping countries.
'We are at a very, very fragile, sensitive time', General Rose pleaded to
the sympathetic ears of the international media.
Being 'sensitive' is not a quality traditionally associated with a British
military commander. Indeed the fragile General Rose himself has a long history
of play-ing a leading role in Britain's dirty for-eign wars, from the deserts
of Oman to the backstreets of Northern Ireland and the bogs of the Falklands.
Presumably he picked up some tips on sensitivity during his busy time as
commander of the cut-throat SAS.
But never mind all that unpleasantness. The media coverage of the March
events conveyed the conviction that this Rose smells as sweet as he sounds.
The General was universally depicted as a sincere and caring humanitarian
with a love of fine watercolours, dedicated to doing good in Bosnia and
around the world, and appealing to governments to join his crusade for peace.
The near-canonisation of General Rose symbolised the way in which the image
of British and Western militarism has been recast in recent years. Western
soldiers such as Rose are now routinely described as if they were uniformed
international social workers, rather than professional men of violence and
trained killers. Their job, it seems, is no longer to make war, but to keep
the peace and feed the hungry in Bosnia or Somalia; the fact that their
task still involves occupying other people's countries and shooting at those
who protest is considered beside the point.
There is a new consensus about the place, one which accepts and encourages
Western intervention around the world as a moral mission. As we have pointed
out before in relation to many of the world's troublespots, the consequences
of this pro-intervention mood for those on the receiving end are disastrous;
elsewhere in this issue, Joan Phillips reports on how the West's latest
'peace' initiative in Bosnia is leading to creeping UN colonialism.
But there are also some important domestic consequences of the moral rehabilitation
of imperialism, some ways in which this trend can affect political events
in Britain itself. It is these factors which explain why the British and
other Western governments are so keen to promote figures like General Rose
today, and why they are prepared to mount major foreign interventions even
when, as in Bosnia, there appears to be no direct benefits for them.
To grasp what's really going on here, simply compare the images of General
Rose and prime minister John Major. There stands the heroic General, bestriding
Bosnia, telling off the Serbs, a genuine British leader seeking to put the
world to rights. And here we have the pathetic Major, up to his scrawny
neck in scandals about everything from sex to arms sales, ridiculed even
by the Tory press, humiliated by the ruler of lowly Malaysia. If you were
a member of the establishment, which one would you want to advertise as
a symbol of British authority?
This is not just a British thing. None of the scandal-plagued governments
of major nations like the USA, France, Germany and Japan has much public
authority today. Their inability to deal with the economic slump, or to
offer any worthwhile vision of the future, has reduced politicians and statesmen
everywhere to corrupt figures of contempt in the eyes of their electorates.
Staging adventures on the international stage, starring untarnished actors
like General Rose, appears to offer the authorities their best hope of regaining
some credibility today.
For instance, British cabinet ministers have been warned not to tour the
country during the forthcoming election campaigns because their unpopularity
in the cities which their policies have ravaged is likely to lead to protests
and lost votes. How much better, then, for the Major government to turn
the public's attention away from its closure of London hospitals and chancellor
Kenneth Clarke's grubby demand for more taxes, and focus instead on Britain's
life-saving mission in Sarajevo and General Rose's high-minded plea for
Defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind responded to that plea with the announcement
that he was sending 900 additional troops to aid General Rose. The British
authorities certainly did not want to become more deeply involved in military
terms. But the seriousness of its other problems meant that Major's government
could not resist the opportunity to look important in Bosnia.
In parliament, Tory MPs tried to put their squalid in-fighting aside and
bask in the glory reflecting off General Rose. Rifkind praised his 'remarkable
achievements' in the former Yugoslavia. Backbench rebel Winston Churchill
lauded Rose for doing a 'superb job' by 'demonstrating that the Serbs are
not 12-feet tall and that a bit of courage goes a long way'. Another Tory
MP, Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes, spoke of 'our having the best peacekeeping
troops in the world', led by 'a general who has been conspicuous in his
ability to get things done in that tragic region'.
At a time when the general impression is that government ministers are gutless
pygmies, conspicuous in their inability to get anything done, the fact that
a British leader can attract such public praise is a priceless asset for
the authorities. The lending of some much-needed legitimacy to the institutions
of the state is one domestic pay-off from the moral rehabilitation of imperialism.
Yet the ineffective Tories could not have managed this trick on their own.
A key role in the moral rehabilitation of imperialism has been played by
the official opposition parties.
Liberal and left-wing voices which once protested against the presence of
American troops in Vietnam have now complained about the absence of Western
troops in Bosnia. They have led the demands for more intervention, depicting
British troops as a force for civilisation and peace. They have built up
the image of General Rose as a kind of New Man among military commanders.
They have, in short, provided the language for a new age of militarism,
putting the case for colonial-style interference in the affairs of other
peoples to be carried out with nineties-style sensitivity.
The opposition parties' parliamentary response to Rifkind's announcement
of more troops for Bosnia was typical of today; a time when the liberal
Independent newspaper is more likely to call for Nato air-strikes
than the Tory Telegraph, and when Labour MPs who once winced at Thatcher's
gung-ho Falklands War have become more enthusiastic militarists than many
The only complaint Labour defence spokesman David Clark had about Rifkind's
decision to send extra troops into Bosnia was that the government had kept
General Rose waiting for three weeks since his initial request for reinforcements.
Liberal spokesman Menzies Campbell had no complaints at all about the military
intervention, since the Tories were now doing what his leader, Paddy Ashdown,
had demanded on countless occasions. From the left, Tony Benn and the maverick
Labour MP Tam Dalyell did highlight their concern; not over the invasion
of Bosnia by British troops you understand, but the possibility that they
might be joined by Turkish soldiers.
The overall message from the opposition parties was summed up by Labour
MP Andrew Faulds, who congratulated Rifkind, Major and foreign secretary
Douglas Hurd 'for having managed to borrow a bit of backbone from somewhere'
in sending the troops to Bosnia. Such intended put-downs are really bonus
points for the government, since they endorse the impression that Major's
spineless team has become resolute overnight. For a government which needs
to borrow all of the backbone it can get, sending a few hundred troops to
General Rose is a relatively cheap way to look commanding.
The rehabilitation of imperialism has serious implications for us as well
as for the peoples of a place like Bosnia. The displays of public admiration
and support for such a statesmanlike figure as General Rose can give a new
lease of life to an otherwise uninspiring system of government. The indirect
effect is to boost the authority of all British statesmen - that is, of the
same discredited politicians and officials who are responsible for the social
and economic problems which blight our lives.
The pro-intervention climate whipped up by the General's admirers is already
making it easier for the state to extend its authoritarian control over
British society, as well as interfering abroad. Typically, while the opposition
parties have been preoccupied with demanding firmer action in Bosnia, there
has been no serious debate about recent initiatives which give the authorities
even more power to set up computerised data systems and surveillance cameras,
and to arm more police on the streets of Britain.
It remains to be seen whether General Rose can do much to save John Major's
government. But it is certain that we need to do all we can to expose what's
behind the rehabilitation of imperialism. The day after Rose made his March
appeal for more troops, the Campaign Against Militarism staged its 1500-strong
conference at Wembley. Perfect timing; but, as the great man himself might
say, further reinforcements are needed if we are to build on this success
and secure a lasting peace.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 66, April 1994