Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
There is a wonderful passage in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (Bloomsbury 1992) in which a series of Eastern winds are named, in a kind of half-elegiac, half-intoxicating prose poem: the aajej, the africo, the alm, the arifi, the bist roz (which buries villages in Afghanistan), the Ghibli, the haboob, the harmattan, the imbat, the khamsin, the datoo, and a secret desert wind whose name has been erased, and the nafhat, the mazzarifoullousen, the beshabar, the Samiel, the simoom, and the solano. Herodotus wrote of the simoom, that one nation was so enraged by it, that they declared war on it, and marched an army out to confront the wind in the desert, only to be completely engulfed by a sand storm, and never seen again.
I remember that when President Bush declared war on terror in 2001, this passage came unbidden to my mind. The idea of choosing to wage war on “terror” seemed as nebulous as declaring war on a desert wind. How would you ever know that such a war had come to an end, win or lose? How indeed would you ever know that you had come to grips with the enemy?
9/11, the destruction of the twin towers in New York, has been, to date, the defining event of this century. Mr Blair apprehended its overriding importance, if not necessarily its significance. Remember, “The kaleidoscope has been shaken…” Everybody remembers what they were doing on 9/11. Oddly enough, I was flying an aeroplane. A Cherokee Warrior. I landed on an airstrip just outside Glasgow and somebody in the Aero Club told me a plane had flown into a high rise block in New York City. I just assumed it would be a light aircraft like a Cherokee Warrior, gone astray. Then the other tower was struck and it became evident that something utterly extraordinary was happening. I went home and saw the horrific pictures on TV. I have extended family in New York. One of them left his office block in Manhattan and didn’t stop running until he was over the Brooklyn Bridge. Later I got a call from his mother to say my American cousins were all safe and well. The next day at the Aero Club we had a visit from the slightly upmarket gumshoes of the Special Branch, anxious to find out if anybody had joined the club, in order to learn how to steer an aircraft, but not necessarily how to land it. The following day we were all grounded.
Mr Blair crossed the Pond with extraordinary rapidity, to cement the Special Relationship and to reassure Dubya that we were standing “shoulder to shoulder”. The President looked bemused. How do you respond to an atrocity, when its perpetrators all died in its execution? You go after the masterminds. You do all in your power to prevent another attack. You identify the terrorist cells and their training camps. You posit that such activity must be at least tolerated, if not condoned, if not sponsored, by a hostile state. Thus you declare war on terror and occupy Afghanistan.
In 2003, Mr Blair persuaded Parliament to attack Iraq. He told us that Saddam held weapons of mass destruction and he had the capability of deploying them and attacking us within the space of forty five minutes. A delegation led by Hans Blix was carrying out a methodical search for Iraq’s putative WMDs but so far had turned up nothing. Reports of the search were usually accompanied on the BBC news by television pictures of pieces of rusting ordnance lying in the desert. They resembled the jetsam of decaying munitions I remember encountering quite commonly as a kid on west coast Scottish beaches, remnants, perhaps, of the huge munitions dump in the Irish Sea’s Beaufort Dyke. My father warned me they might still be live and never to touch them. The detritus in the deserts of Mesopotamia looked just as decrepit. I don’t think the British public ever felt seriously under direct threat from Saddam. Robin Cook, who had been demoted from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House, was similarly not persuaded. He could not support the invasion, resigned from the government, and delivered his very eloquent resignation speech from the back benches.
Saddam’s statue was toppled with great rapidity, and the man himself discovered hiding out in a cellar, and apprehended. President Bush declared “Mission accomplished!” But it soon became evident there was no plan as to what to do next. Iraq dissolved into anarchy and chaos. The WMD were never found. A large part of Mr Blair’s memoir, A Journey, is a justification, if not an apologia, of the decision to go to war.
One early morning on BBC Radio 4 a journalist suggested that the case for going to war had been “sexed up”. All hell broke loose. Mr Blair’s communications advisor gate-crashed Channel Four News and conducted an angry tirade with the presenter Jon Snow. A subsequent enquiry found in favour of the government, and various BBC people, including the Director General, had to resign.
Yet it is irrefutable that, even supposing the government were acting in good faith, the intelligence upon which the invasion went ahead was flawed. The association of Iraq with 9/11 was very tenuous, but the invasion of Iraq was certainly strategically a part of the war on terror.
Twenty years on from 9/11, the Taliban have once again, with remarkable rapidity, taken control of Afghanistan. The sight of helicopters conveying US personnel from the embassy to the airport is reminiscent of the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, “This is manifestly not Saigon. We went into Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission in mind, and that was to deal with the people who attacked us on 9/11, and that mission has been successful.” So, once more, “Mission accomplished!” I wonder if the mothers of the 453 British servicemen who died during the campaign will be convinced.
At the dawn of this millennium, the Presidency of the United States depended on a hanging chad. On the recount, Mr Bush took Florida, and the White House. If it had fallen the other way, I wonder how Mr Gore would have responded to 9/11. In the history of the world, has a powerful nation-state ever responded to an expression of hate with an expression of love? No doubt any statesman who suggested we love our enemies would be ridiculed, persecuted, and reviled. Yet I don’t think Our Lord was half so naïve as he sounds. He knew perfectly well that it is well-nigh impossible to love your enemies, and he said as much, quite explicitly. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.” So directing an act of love towards one’s enemy is more an act of pragmatism than of selflessness. Love drives out hate. It leaves hate with nowhere to go.