From the Falklands to Bosnia
A lot of people who would have opposed British and US invasions in the past
now support military intervention in Bosnia. They might do so out of a desire
for peace. But the hard truth is that they are allowing themselves to be
used as patsies by the war-makers of the Western governments.
Times change. When, in April 1982, Margaret Thatcher commanded the British
people to 'Rejoice, rejoice!' because the royal marines had recaptured South
Georgia from a few Argentine conscripts, she set the triumphalist tone for
public discussion of the Falklands War. When Argentina surrendered two months
and many deaths later, Thatcher told cheering crowds in Downing Street that
'Great Britain is great again'. The celebration of carnage made some people
proud. It made others want to vomit.
Today, in the public debates about military intervention in the former Yugoslavia,
the tone is very different. Those calling for Western military action in
Bosnia do not ask us to rejoice over war, but to care about its victims
and to help bring peace. They do not boast of making Britain great, but
of getting Britannia to act as a sort of armed social worker in the Balkans.
Many who would have been sickened by the Falklands War seem the most enthusiastic
about intervention in Bosnia.
The irony is that politicians who organised past Western war efforts and
peace activists who opposed them, now use the same language to call for
the UN, EC or Nato to take firmer action in Yugoslavia. Why? Is there really
anything so very different about Western intervention in other people's
In April, Thatcher called for the West to stop prevaricating, arm the Muslims
in Bosnia and threaten the Serbs with air-strikes. These demands won Thatcher
enthusiastic support from a variety of Labour MPs and radical journalists
who had treated her as a hate-figure for the previous 15 years. This change
of heart seems all the more surprising, if you look a little more closely
at what she said about intervening in Bosnia.
'I felt angry when the Falklands were invaded', Thatcher told American television.
'We took action. I felt angry when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. President
Bush and I took action.
'We had the weapons. We also had the will. We have the weapons now. Where
is the will?'
Thatcher put Bosnia on a par with the Falklands and the Gulf, as a crisis
to be resolved by Western firepower. Do those who support her call for military
intervention in Bosnia today also concede that she was right to send Britain
into war in the past? And if not, what's changed?
Was she right to send a task force to the South Atlantic, to recolonise
the Malvinas Islands? Was she right to send British forces to the Gulf,
to help the USA destroy Iraq? And what about 'the weapons' Thatcher spoke
of; was she right, too, about Cruise missiles and the rest of the arsenal
At the time, the Labour left and the peace movement opposed Thatcher's war
against the Argentines and her preparations for war against the Iraqis (a
war waged soon after by John Major), and bitterly criticised her rearmament
programme. Now most of these same people champion her militaristic attitude
towards the Serbs.
In reality, the motives pushing Western governments to intervene abroad
today are as insupportable as they were at the time of the Falklands. The
peace-loving British authorities which have sent troops and aircraft to
Bosnia are no more concerned about saving lives than they were when they
sank the Argentine cruiser Belgrano with all hands in 1982, or massacred
fleeing Iraqi conscripts on the road to Basra in 1991. The Western governments'
recent displays of gunboat diplomacy, whether directed at Iraq, Somalia,
North Korea or Serbia, are all part of a self-serving crusade to assert
their own authority.
What has changed is not the bloody reality of military intervention, but
the way in which it is perceived in the West. The key factor in altering
perceptions has been the collapse suffered by former critics of Western
imperialism. Their conversion to the cause of Western intervention has gone
so far that Margaret Thatcher, for so long the devil incarnate, can now
be hailed as a guardian angel. And in the process, Thatcher's record of
militarism has, at least in part, been retrospectively vindicated.
The consequence of all this is to create a uniquely pro-interventionist
political climate, one which allows the Western authorities to interfere
in other people's affairs and pass it off as doing a lot of good work for
charity. This is truly a godsend for the governments concerned, at a time
when they are all undergoing political crises.
Today governmental institutions and parties are suffering a loss of public
respect right across the West. That makes it hard for them to win support
for foreign adventures by mobilising traditional, tub-thumping nationalism.
Thatcher's Falklands War rhetoric about Britain being great again could
have little impact today, when symbols of the British state's greatness
from the monarchy to the police force are the subject of public contempt.
The conversion of the old opposition to the cause of intervention provides
Western governments with a partial solution to this tricky problem. It enables
them to present their aggressive foreign policies in the new language of
human-itarianism, peace and famine relief. With the assistance of liberal
commentators and Labour politicians, the British military and its gunboat
diplomacy can now acquire a gentler image and a place on the moral high
The punchline of this process is not funny. Just as the Falklands triumph
stood the Tories in good stead at home during the eighties, so the consensus
supporting military intervention in the nineties allows very conservative
conclusions to be drawn in Western societies. Of course, this does not mean
that expressing concern about Bosnia can win John Major a by-election in
Newbury. The danger is far more serious than that.
The unspoken assumption behind support for intervention is that the West
knows what's best for Eastern Europe and the third world, that Western states
are the force for civilisation on Earth, with the right and responsibility
to save others from themselves. The widespread endorsement of such conservative
sentiments today is better than money in the bank for Western capitalists.
The new consensus supporting foreign interventions means that anti-war arguments
have suffered a serious loss of edge. Nobody even raises questions any more
about the way in which the Western states and their central agency, the
United Nations, are tearing up the old rules of international affairs and
trampling across the sovereignty of nations, which the UN charter still
declares to be sacrosanct. Nobody objects that the Western missions in places
like Somalia and Cambodia are really colonialism by another name. Instead,
the former critics of Western intervention concentrate on chanting 'we must
do something' over and over again. And with the support of that sentiment,
the Western powers set about staging a free-for-all in the former Yugoslavia.
What do they mean, 'we must do something'? Who is 'we', and what is the
purpose of the 'something' that must be done?
In today's debate about intervention, those who argue that 'we' must do
something about Bosnia in fact mean that the British and other Western governments
must act on our behalf. But why should we suddenly share the same interests
as the government over Bosnia, when our concerns conflict with theirs over
every domestic issue? Why should we believe that a government which is prepared
to run down the NHS and throw psychiatric patients on to the streets of
British cities is really concerned about the welfare of the sick and the
weak in Srebrenica?
The British government will pursue its own narrow interests in Bosnia, as
it does at home, seeking to preserve its power and prestige rather than
to save lives. Noamount of humanitarian appeals will alter that iron law
of international politics. So let us forget about begging the government
to take constructive action, and redefine the 'we' who needs to do something.
As people who are concerned about militarism and war, 'we' should be trying
to organise a popular movement against our government's trouble-making
foreign adventures, not applauding them. We ought to demand that the West
gets out of the former Yugoslavia altogether, not encourage it to take more
Wringing hands over Bosnia and demanding that the Western powers do something
might sound like a constructive and positive approach. But such demands
for action really represent a passive acquiesence to the influence of British
militarism - the same reactionary influence which prevailed over the Falklands.
As a result, the warmongers can allow yesterday's peace activists to front
today's campaigns for military intervention. And that really is something
for them to rejoice about.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993