Imperial Hangover: Modern British Military Interventions

Perhaps uniquely amongst the former colonial powers, Britain retains a great sense of pride in its former empire. According to a recent survey, 44% of Britons are proud of their imperial and colonial history, compared to just 21% that confesses regret over it. Given that the British Empire, like all other colonial empires, was responsible for grotesque acts of violence, this pride can seem difficult to comprehend. In part, this can be explained by what is essentially ‘hard-fought ignorance.’ As pulp-military writer John Dolan (aka The War Nerd) stated:

They have an oath of silence going that makes every organized-crime family seem chatty as Oprah. And that’s why they’ve gotten away with more horrible shit than any other modern empire because: their torturers kept their mouths shut, their home-front audience always shouted down anybody who tried to kill their Imperial buzz, and their history professors were either working full time for the intelligence agencies or just in 24/7 volunteer mode, shooting down anybody who brought up the wet work of empire.

There is perhaps no better example of how British popular opinion on empire has been shaped than the film Zulu, which lionizes the heroism of the British defenders at Rorke’s Drift (1879). The genius of this film as propaganda lies in its narrow focus on a single battle, by which it reverses the strategic realities of empire. Because the British are outnumbered at Rorke’s Drift, and on the tactical defensive, we see them – the foot soldiers of an empire that encompassed one third of the world –as the plucky underdogs, and the Zulus, whose land the British had conquered as the dastardly aggressors.

A map depicting the British Empire (highlighted in red) in 1886. Map by Walter Crane.
A map depicting the British Empire (highlighted in red) in 1886. Map by Walter Crane.

While Britain’s empire has long crumbled to dust, the fawning reverence for imperial power continues to affect how British foreign policy is shaped. Britain may not ‘rule the waves’ any more, but it still aims to ‘punch above its weight’ by maintaining an international presence that belies Britain’s relatively small geographic and demographic size – a desire held across the political spectrum. This imperial legacy, and the contradictions it creates in British foreign policy, has rarely been more apparent than in the decision to extend military action against the Islamic State across the Iraq-Syria border. At the center of this debate was a speech by the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, which called upon Britain to extend military action (the text is available here). The fact that this speech was so rapturously applauded – both by Benn’s fellow politicians, and by most of the British press – it offers a foil with which to examine these tendencies.

First and foremost, Benn’s speech was aimed at winning over hearts rather than minds. He weaved a rich tapestry of liberal interventionist arguments, beginning by lauding his party’s internationalist history, and ending with a crescendo as he recalled Britain’s fight against Nazi Germany, calling on his colleagues to fight the “fascists” of the Islamic State just as they fought the fascists of old. But while the emotion was high, his analysis of the strategic issues left a lot to be desired.

It is true that the Labour party has an internationalist history, but this has led to foreign policy disasters as well as successes. Indeed, even former Prime Minister Tony Blair has acknowledged that the Iraq war in 2003 was in part responsible for the rise of the Islamic State in the first place. Unsurprisingly, this is not something that Benn dwelt upon. Benn also noted the concern many have that British airstrikes will cause civilian casualties, before arguing that there is a difference between the Islamic State, which “acts with the intent to harm civilians” and the British who “act to protect civilians from Daesh.” This ignores the rather obvious strategic issue that civilian casualties – no matter the motivation behind them – have the potential to reinforce the Islamic State’s narrative and increase support for the group. Additionally, Benn brushed over the fact that the government has no idea how many local fighters it can depend upon to fight with rhetorical flourish, as if ignorance on the number of allies you have is only a minor issue in warfare.

Benn did, however, engage with the central strategic issue: that the Islamic State operates freely across the Iraq-Syria border, and therefore it made little strategic sense for Britain to limit itself to bombing them on one side of it. At first glance, this logic is sound. However, the issue becomes somewhat murkier when you consider that Britain is part of an international coalition that does target ISIS across the border. Given the close cooperation between British intelligence and its colleagues in America and France, it seems logical to assume that any intelligence Britain had on the Islamic State in Syria would be shared. In other words, even if Britain could not strike the Islamic State in Syria, her allies could. By ignoring this, Benn missed the single most important strategic question at stake: precisely how many ISIS targets were the coalition unable to strike because Britain was not launching bombing raids in Syria?

To judge by the frequency of bombing raids since that vote, the answer is: probably not very many. The night the vote was taken, RAF planes launched several raids against Omar airfield in Syria, to breathless reports from the press. As reported in investigative magazine Private Eye (No. 1409 p. 3), however, these airstrikes were almost completely useless. The cynical, but most plausible, explanation for this is that the oilfield was simply chosen for its PR, rather than strategic value. The next airstrike carried out by Britain in Syria was over three weeks later, and there is no indication that this strike would have been impossible without British aircraft. In other words, the vote to extend RAF bombing raids into Syria seems to have had negligible military importance.

RAF Tornado GR4's on return to RAF Akrotiri Cyprus after an armed reconnaissance mission in support of OP SHADER, the UK operation in against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Photo by Cpl Neil Bryden RAF / Open Government Licence v1.0
RAF Tornado GR4 landing after a mission supporting OP SHADER, the UK operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Photo by Cpl Neil Bryden RAF / Open Government Licence v1.0


Benn did, nonetheless, make reasonable political arguments to extend military operations into Syria: it would be, as Benn suggests, undiplomatic of Britain to expect other countries to bomb the Islamic State on its behalf, and to reject a call for help from a close ally. These more convincing arguments, however, were relegated to passing comments, in favor of the highly emotive, but strategically inconsequential, calls to defeat the Islamic State. The vast gulf between Benn’s soaring rhetoric, and Britain’s negligible military contribution, is deeply worrying, not only for the fact that a senior politician made the speech, but that it was almost universally held up to be the pinnacle of war advocacy. If a speech that was ignorant of strategic issues while wildly overplaying the impact of military action is held up in this way – what does it say about British foreign policy, and the culture in which it is made?

Firstly, due to its imperial history, Britain possesses a vastly overinflated sense of self-importance. Rather than admitting the minor role of British assistance, both politicians and the media spun a falsehood that British action was of far greater significance than it actually was. This collective delusion is deeply worrying for those who want Britain to base its foreign policy on sound strategic reasoning rather than imperial nostalgia.

As a result of this self-importance, Britain leaves itself vulnerable to manipulation. After all, to judge by the recent discourse, all the United States needs to do is tickle Britain’s tummy and tell it that it is still important to spur future British military adventurism. At the same time, this discourse invites mission creep in the fight against the Islamic State. When Britain went to war against Nazi Germany, the state mobilized the entire population, deployed troops in several theatres overseas, and slaughtered German civilians by the thousands in bombing raids. In its war against the Islamic State, the Nazis’ fellow fascists according to Benn, Britain is launching infrequent airstrikes and providing diplomatic support. Yet if the Islamic State truly are fascists like the Nazis were and the need to defeat them is equally strong then the current strategy is clearly inadequate. This disparity between rhetoric and action creates a strong incentive for mission creep, something that the British press is already starting to call for.

The overarching conclusion, then, is that British foreign policy, and the culture in which it is made, has fundamental problems. You do not have to be a card-carrying Realist to recognize that foreign policy, especially in matters of war and peace, requires a cold, rational analysis of your capabilities and the likelihood of success. If the recent debate discussed in this article is anything to go by, Britain has little understanding of its true military capacity, and is happy to let emotional fervor trump intellectual understanding. It should be noted that it is quite possible that the government and its military advisors are keenly aware of this issue, and were happy to let the rhetoric soar in order to strength the case for war. However, the fact that large numbers of politicians and the vast majority of the British press went along with this suggests deep problems. Unless something changes, Britain’s next foreign policy disaster is only a matter of time.

James Hopkins is a research assistant at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), University of St Andrews. He received his MLitt in Terrorism Studies from CSTPV, and an MA (Hons) in International Relations at the University of St Andrews. His work has previously appeared in academic journals like Critical Studies in Terrorism and Terrorism and Political Violence

Cover photo by Jon/Flickr / CC BY 2.0


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