Are we all meant to be Mujahideen now?

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Where has all the jingoism gone? The word was made famous by a warmongering music-hall song, written in response to another Eastern crisis in 1877: ‘We don’t want to fight/But by jingo if we do/We’ve got the ships/We’ve got the men/And got the money too.’ Somehow, ‘We’ve got the Northern Alliance/And a few B52s’ doesn’t have the same imperious ring to it.

Or are we all meant to be Mujahideen now? Some seemed to treat the fall of an obscure Afghan city to the Northern Alliance (aka ‘the Muj’) in their civil war with the Taleban as if it were the retaking of South Georgia by British forces in the Falklands war. Tony Blair declared that the fall of Mazar-i Sharif showed how ‘the momentum is with the international coalition’. So a coalition armed with every weapon on earth and led by the global superpower now boasts that it might just have the edge over a ragtag force whose ‘strongholds’ are piles of rubble.

While adopting the dodgy Mujahideen as a proxy army, Western forces have been notably reluctant to use their military superiority, save for one made-for-TV US special forces raid, and the aerial bombing campaign. Even the destructive carpet-bombing pales by comparison with the bombardment of Iraq during the Gulf War; ‘this is more like bathmat bombing,’ says one military expert.

No doubt there are logistical explanations. But the untrained eye is left with the impression that the West does not want to fight, even in a war that our leaders describe as a defence of civilisation. Fearful of the effect of casualties on domestic opinion, the coalition is trying to get as near as possible to a risk-free war.

A theme of Saturday’s British Legion Festival of Remembrance was that, in the words of the BBC’s Brian Hanrahan, ‘remembrance is about continuity’. Yet recalling the wars of the past starkly illustrates the contrast with the present. There is a contrast in cultural tastes (in Saturday’s show, a Max Bygraves singalong was followed by a dance group’s excruciating ‘interpretation’ of a war poem), and more importantly, in cultural attitudes towards fighting for your country.

After the First World War began in 1914, two-and-a-quarter million British men volunteered. Many were also willing to fight when the Second World War broke out; the teenage Max Bygraves volunteered in 1940. Americans rushed to join up after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Alongside the horrors, these wars were marked by acts of selfless heroism, of the kind given the Hollywood treatment in Band of Brothers.

By contrast, nobody seems too keen to fight in what President Bush named ‘the first war of the 21st century’. In the United States, the anger that followed the atrocities of September 11 has not translated into queues of new recruits for the Armed Forces. Even in the patriotic states of the Midwest, young interviewees have agreed that something must be done, but balked at the suggestion that they might do it.

There are reports of a ‘significant’ increase in the number of US soldiers coming out as conscientious objectors, claiming that they would never have joined up if they had known they might be expected to fight a war. In Britain, there is even less sign of jingoistic war fever, or of a wave of recruits for Armed Forces that have experienced recruiting problems for some time.

The Taleban taunt the ‘soft’ West for its reluctance to join battle on the ground. But this is not cowardice. Rather, our societies seem to have lost any firm sense of conviction about what we are supposed to be fighting for. People are far less willing to put themselves on the line to defend ‘the British way of life’ when we no longer share strong common assumptions as to what that means.

Today an eccentric animal rights hunger-striker seems almost the only person in Britain willing to die for a cause. No wonder we were so stunned by the fanaticism of the September 11 hijackers. Some have even hinted at a sneaking admiration for the zealotry of the enemy, who at least seem to have the courage of their nihilistic convictions. Even for those of us opposed to this war, the loss of conviction in the West raises troubling questions. What does it say of our society that it cannot offer people anything bigger than themselves that they deem worth fighting for? That question seems especially pertinent when the war is already leading to the surrender of cherished liberties. Or maybe we expect the Northern Alliance to fight for our freedoms, too.

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