['Daniel Finkelstein is Chief Leader Writer of The Times. Before joining the paper in 2001, he was an adviser to both John Major and William Hague'. If you can read this without your brain turning to mush you will find the Times chief writer thinks the war was a good idea! The more you look into it the more it seems to originate from Israel. One of those establishment historians/myth writers, see Hussein h 1), & Jewish historians Sir Martin Gilbert and Sir Lawrence Freedman]
February 3, 2010
On May 13, 1940, shortly after lunch, Neville Chamberlain entered the House of Commons to be greeted by a massive ovation. Order papers were waved, MPs shouted, MPs cheered. And shortly afterwards the Prime Minister followed him. But for Winston Churchill there was only a low murmur. His fellow Conservatives were virtually silent.
The Prime Minister then rose to deliver his first speech since taking office. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” he said. He told MPs that his Government’s policy would be to “wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might” and that its aim would be “victory at all costs” and “victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival”.
These words are now among the most famous ever delivered in Parliament. But at the time there were many who thought that victory at all costs was a silly policy. And one of those people was Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary.
At an intense series of meetings of the War Cabinet at the end of May, brilliantly chronicled by John Lukacs in his book Five Days in London, Halifax pressed the case for a negotiated peace, using the Italians as intermediaries. Churchill only narrowly avoided being overruled on this question. His position appears heroic now. But it is worth asking these questions: was Churchill actually wrong in 1940 and Halifax correct? And if not, why not?
Even on the day he was driven back from Buckingham Palace, Churchill strongly suspected defeat would come. “I hope it is not too late,” he told his detective with tears in his eyes. “I am very much afraid that it is.” He had good reason for this pessimism, even then. But disaster followed disaster and by the end of May the position was almost hopeless.
As the War Cabinet met, the fate of the Dunkirk evacuation remained unknown. Fighting on seemed to offer, well, only blood, toil, tears and sweat. And defeat. The chance of preserving something of the British way of life might be better with Halifax’s scheme.
You cannot judge whether Churchill was right simply by noting that, to use a George Formby phrase, things “turned out nice again”. Victory might have come through dumb luck after pursuing a course of reckless irresponsibility. Using hindsight doesn’t help. Without it you are left with two things. First, what was the probability of a good outcome or, conversely, a bad one if Churchill’s policy was followed? Second, what were the consequences of good or bad outcomes?
Churchill’s genius was that, at a very early stage and unlike almost anyone else, he knew the answer to not just one, but both these questions. He realised not simply that the probability of victory was tiny (others — Halifax, Chamberlain, most Tory MPs — could see that), but also that the consequences of defeat or even a negotiated peace were horrendous. It was the combination that made a policy of “victory at all costs” the correct one.
As the 70th anniversary of Churchill’s five days approaches, I write all this not as a historical rumination, but because, like many others, I have been riveted by the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. And I think the experience of May 1940 is directly relevant.
This is not because Saddam Hussein should be seen as Hitler or because the threat from Iraq was remotely comparable to that from Nazi Germany or because the conflict we are now embroiled in is similar in scale or importance to the Second World War. It is simply that devising a way of judging Churchill helps to judge the actions of Tony Blair.
The inquiry will try hard, I am sure, to avoid hindsight. Witnesses are being asked about their thoughts, action and knowledge at the time. It will also try to establish if Mr Blair’s Government accurately and honestly assessed the probability of their actions leading to a good outcome (preventing use of WMD, securing a stable and prosperous Iraq). It will doubtless assess the consequences of what we did — the terrible deaths, the continuing instability, the fact that we found no WMD.
Yet I worry that it will not establish the one thing that was central to Churchill’s judgment. It won’t ask or establish what would have happened if we had not acted. It won’t do this partly because it is very hard to do. You end up speculating. But also because human beings are prone to what is known as omission bias. We tend to judge things that happen because we made them happen more harshly than things that happen because we merely knowingly let them do so. We prefer sins of omission to those of commission.
This is particularly important in the case of Iraq. The best case for our action — made, for example, by Bill Clinton’s adviser Kenneth Pollack — was based on a speculation about what might happen if we did not act. Mr Pollack argued that sanctions were breaking down and that every time in the past that he was free of such constraints Saddam had launched an aggressive war. If his sons took over they would be worse. The status quo would not hold, so we had to invade. Whatever view you take of Mr Blair’s dossiers or George Bush’s politics, without a proper estimation of the possible consequences, as seen at the time, of not acting, the whole war is impossible to evaluate or understand.
It is not only understanding Iraq that depends upon the Chilcot inquiry assessing the consequences of inaction. It is also our policy on Iran. Last week Mr Blair linked these two, and he was correct to do so.
Just as the spectre of Munich hung over postwar foreign policy, just as the outcome of the Vietnam War scarred a generation, so now our experience in Iraq shapes our attitudes. It becomes impossible to consider any action against Iran without thinking about what has happened and is happening in Iraq. Even the assertion that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are dangerous reminds people of exactly the same claims about Saddam’s weaponry. The mad, bad, murderous leadership of Iran denies aggressive intent, Western leaders sound warnings and many people, at the least, think the competing claims equally credible.
It is impossible to have a sensible Iranian policy unless we contemplate not only the potential consequences of acting — hard diplomacy, sanctions, even a military strike — but also the potential consequences of not acting. Can we sleep at night when a regime that executes dissidents is building a nuclear bomb? We have to measure the sin of omission as well as that of commission.