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Mick Hume

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 more troops.

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 Tory backwoodsmen.

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

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