When the government’s preparing to bomb a foreign land it always feels like we’re sat cross-legged on the carpet waiting eagerly for them to read another story from the Very Serious Book of Military Intervention.
It’s a series of watercolours with less than a catchphrase per page. “Look at these persecuted Muslims,” they say, pointing at a picture of appropriately dressed peoples cowering in fear, the furrowed brow lines of a statesman crossing their forehead in metered concern.
The next drawing shows the enemy just metres from the edge of a town; the Wolf at the Door. They’re the ones driving stolen US-bought tanks, waving black flags and beheading people, or clutching AK-47s, banning democracy and harvesting opium on an industrial scale.
“He hates our way of life, our freedom, our democracy,” says Tony, gesticulating wildly at the serious man with a bushy moustache surrounded by rows and rows of parading soldiers, and a palpable certainty he could strike at the heart of England at any moment.
And so it continues. We went into Iraq during the Gulf War in the early 90s and then went back there a decade later with an alarming amount of altruistic spunk. Now we’re running soirees with laser guided bombs in an attempt to halt the cancer-like spread of the latest jihadist group.
If ISIL consolidate their grip on the land they occupy, says the home secretary, “we will see the world’s first truly terrorist state established within a few hours flying time of our country.” We must not flinch! Attack! Attack!
Every time the justification is about what’s happening there and how it’s going to affect us here. This establishment of a caliphate is a “clear and present danger” to our way of life, says Cameron.
That’s not to belittle just how serious the situation is on the ground, where people are dealing with unimaginable terror, or to make light of our international responsibilities. The question of whether we should try to help people in these countries is easy to answer and, therefore, largely irrelevant.
The more important thing to ask is whether we can help, and the government never gives the UK public the respect of having an open debate about that.
The arguments about how the threat there causes attacks here ring hollow. Perhaps we can bomb an ideology out of existence, but attacks on the UK have largely been plotted and carried out by UK nationals – the threat originated in our country – and stopping them has been almost entirely down to the amazing work of our security services, not these wars.
And there needs to be a public forum to discuss every intervention, not a short debate in the Commons made in front of nodding-dog MPs.
We need to make sure the public knows basic facts, like how many people support the regime we’re about to dismantle and what happens after our intervention ends. And these facts, observations and uncertainties, need to be couched in appropriate rhetoric not amped up for the sake of cheap headlines.
It shouldn’t sound like a leader’s personal mission either. Any time the debate turns into a soap box speech in front of an audience of yes men, rather than a conversation about the perils of intervention, we’re in trouble.
We’ve just finished pulling our troops out of Afghanistan 13 years after we invaded the country. There’s no doubt we’ve done some good there, but our involvement looks nothing like what we were promised all those years ago.
Maybe if we learnt to talk about military intervention honestly and openly we could improve the impact and avoid repeating the same mistakes again and again over the next decade.
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Words: Christopher Goodfellow
Illustration: Lee Nutland