British Soldiers March Through the Streets of Lewes

Today the Tigers came to Lewes – 200 returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. The regiment, The Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment marched down the very same High Street that saw the Thomas Paine celebrations only days earlier.

Hmm…..Iraq War, I thought. Afghanistan too?

Whatever you think about these wars and I have very different opinions about the two, it is a new initiative for England to revive the tradition of welcoming home local soldiers from the battlefront.

I went out to see, witness, support, or merely to photograph – I was not sure of my motives.

One thing is for sure though – these young men and women have been risking their lives and they are undoubtedly brave and almost certainly the children of loving parents. None of us, even the most anti-war protesters, wishes them any harm.

8 British soldiers were killed in short succession over the last few days and there is the predictable surge of feeling in the country that all the soldiers should come home.

Somehow populations tend to support wars unless anyone they know gets killed then they go to the opposite extreme and immediately say that every war is wrong.

These young soldiers, marching the liberal streets of my radically minded home town,
were, of course, just doing their jobs.

They knew what they were signing up for and, I would guess, mostly had a sense of excitement and fulfillment in knowing that they were living their lives much more dangerously and, in their opinions at least, usefully in the armed forces than they would be in an unemployment queue or in an unsatisfying homeland job.

Soldiers are there to defend causes, kill people and risk their lives – if not then there really is no point in having an army except as a tourist attraction for ceremonial occasions usually involving the Queen.

So I admire them and feel sorry for them in equal measure. I wish them well too.

The wars that they have been engaged in are a different matter.

I marched with over a million people through the streets of London in protest about Britain going to war in Iraq. I felt that the Tony Blair government had lied to us about the reasons for the invasion and I think, with hindsight, that he was either being dishonest, naive or just plain wrong.

The Iraq War was a distraction from the really important war which happened almost simultaneously – the War in Afghanistan.

Let’s not regurgitate all those stories of Weapons of Massed Destruction, or the preposterous things that were said about Saddam Hussein’s relationship with Al Qaeda – we all know now that these were not viable reasons for war in Iraq and should never have been used as such.

Afghanistan is a totally different question. It is just madness to call for withdrawal just because our soldiers are getting killed – that is the tragic nature of warfare.

Whereas the arguments for the Iraq War were at best flimsy if not actually dishonest, the reasons for military intervention in Afghanistan are rock solid.

The Taleban supported and encouraged Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda and the Taleban planned the 9/11 atrocities and want to see more similar killings in the West. Pakistan has been allowing the gradual Taleban influence to grow within its borders and almost certainly has Al Qaeda hidden in its mountainous borders with Afghanistan. Pakistan teeters with its weak president and extreme Islamasist factions are a real threat to the country’s stability.

So what, you say, wiping the tears from your eyes at the thought of those dead young soldiers.

How does that effect us?

Well, atrocities apart, Pakistan has the nuclear bomb as does its neighbour India – two countries with a history of religious and political conflict.

If Pakistan were ever to be ruled by Taleban/Al Qaeda sympathizers, then we would a nuclear armed Al Qaeda.

It there was ever a reason to use armed conflict to prevent catastrophe then this war is surely it.

Not since the Second World War has there been a better reason to send our troops into battle.

Britain is of course a target.

This little island is isolated to the North of Europe, prosperous enough but no longer an international superpower. We could have decided decades ago that we were no longer in a position to be World policemen but we couldn’t face the humiliation.

Now we are tasting some of the consequences. America first, of course, then Britain, are the two most hated countries as far as radical Islam is concerned. Whether you supported our decision to cling on to the remnants of Empire or not, it is much too late now to think that we could just pull out our troops and think that Al Qaeda would shake hands and say let’s be friends. World Politics just isn’t like that.

So let’s welcome back these soldiers, supporting the fact that young people are still willing to die for a cause which is actually about the safety of everyone who lives within these isles.

One day, I hope, there will be no need for a British Army or any excuse for dead soldiers but that, I fear, is a long way away from us today. So I welcomed these Sussex soldiers home today and have to admit to a swell of emotion as they marched past to the sound of a military band.


  1. I find this difficult to say, but this week's 'Moral Maze' was actually very good for identifying the complexity of war, and our responses.

    Like many people, there are times when I want to support the troops but not the war, but that does rely on knowledge. I am faintly uneasy at the way some people who would criticise 'squaddies' are now talking about 'our boys'. The sad fact is, if you go to war, you need – in some way – to be ready to finish it.

  2. I agree with you Claudio.

    I am of a generation that often finds it too easy to be anti-war without acknowledging that sometimes, war is the only option.

    There was a warm welcome from the crowds as those soldiers marched past this morning but it was, as I think you imply, a confused blend of responses which I think did support "our boys" without accepting that they actually do need to risk their lives in Afghanistan.

    I suspect people are also confusing the question of supplies, Defence budgets and supplies with the geo-political realities of the dangers that the world would face if nothing was done about the Taleban.

    Sadly the Pacifist Lytton Strachey's quip about what he would do if a German soldier was about to rape his sister is funny but possibly impractical in this case:I would interpose my body between them.

    I have missed you Claudio….welcome back

  3. We often base our moral judgements on personal experience. I met two soldiers from Lewes on the train to Brighton once, they were real brutes, drunk on a sense of self-importance. They insisted that I should thank them for what they had done for me in Iraq and couldn't believe I opposed them.

    "Where's your national pride mate?"

    Well I'm actually not particularly proud of my country and I am not proud of the armed forces. I see a generation of aggresive louts, raised on violent video games desperate for a slice of the action.

    Yes, we have gone into war in Afghanistan for good reason, it's strategically important to knock out the Taliban. Still, isn't this as much to do with controlling an oil pipeline as ensuring nuclear Pakistan remains allied to the West?

    I just wish that every time they published our soldiers' death toll they would compare it to the number of civilians and suspected enemy fighters they had killed.

    We are loosing this war in the way we have fought it, by indiscriminately killing every male of fighting age in suspected villages. Each of these atrocities fuels is like a recruitment drive for the enemy. Each time an innocent Afghani is martyred more turn to the extremist cause.

    Personally I think the shadow of Empire and Imperialism hangs darkly over both of these wars and I'd like to see an end to gunboat diplomacy sooner rather than later.

    I don't think terrorists have much of a track record of targeting neutral nations.

  4. The trouble is, Adam, that we are not a neutral nation and cannot suddenly become one – at least in part because of that "shadow of Imperialism" that you quote.

    I don't think you can side-step the nuclear threat either.

    The question of civilian deaths is separate I think and certainly one that should be investigated.

    I wish this war, like most others could have been avoided as easily as you suggest but we cannot detach ourselves now that any past errors in the West's attitude to Islam are beyond redemption in the eyes of the Islamasist terrorists who are allied to the Taleban.

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