Hard & Soft Power by Derek Wyatt
Shortly, we shall be celebrating, if that’s the appropriate word, the centenary of the beginning of World War 1, the war to end all wars.
The statistics are horrific – 37 million were killed (military and civilian). The Russian Empire lost over 3 million soldiers and had a further 4 million injured. The French also suffered with 1.3 million military deaths and 4.2 million injured whilst we Brits lost nearly 900,000 and had 1.6m injured. Enough has been written and will be written about the folly of this appalling war.
In my own family, Fred, my grandfather, served overseas for almost the entire war.
In a telling post-card home to Florence, his wife-to-be, which had a sepia tinted photo of the members of his Battery, he wrote:
This is the Old Battery as we are at present. Not many of us left, and getting fewer every day.
Belgium, January, 1919”
Like many, I have walked the battlefields in northern France and Belgium and seen the cemeteries with their thousands and thousands of crosses. Every now and again I would stoop to read the inscriptions and given thanks it wasn’t Fred. I have done the same for the Second World War, insisting that my children walked the beaches at Normandy to see how the sheer bloody-mindedness and intent of our troops on D-Day changed the course of history. I have signed the Visitor’s books in the chapels but invariably my hand would shake and tears would fall down my cheek to blot the ink of my already illegible signature.
I have never served my country like my grandfather and father did. I was too late for national service though I wish I had had that opportunity. I have never shot a gun or a canon or pressed the button to release an Atomic bomb or a drone. It follows I have never killed anyone either and now that Fred and Reg, his son and my father, are dead I cannot ask them what it was like to shoot someone else’s father or son. But, I wish I had.
When, we were voting to go to war in Iraq in 2003, which I opposed, one million of our citizen’s marched to oppose the foolhardiness of Blair’s decision. Ten years on, that war has still to end; our soldiers may have left but the country is riven with daily bombings and killings between rival Muslim brothers and sisters. As for Afghanistan, it feels as if the war has hardly started. President Obama’s signal to bring his army home in 2014 gives the Taliban a chance to re-group, re-finance and re-arm and wait.
Has the West learned nothing from these miserable wars? Apparently not for our own Prime Minister was within a whisker of twisting the arms of his MPs to give him permission to join a Nato force or a joint UK-USA force or some such force to fight Syria somehow. But for Ed Miliband’s decision not to go along with this farce, we surely would be doing something in Syria. Once the vote was lost, it so scared President Obama that he too was persuaded to ask Congress for its consent only to come away empty handed. Will another President of America and Commander-in-Chief ever be brave enough to go to war without a vote in Congress? I doubt it. This surely is the start of a very slippery slope for America and the beginning of the Chinese century.
As a result of the failure to agree a coherent policy on Syria coupled with a vastly diminished armed services, the UK only has soft power left as a tool of world influence. Fortunately, we have some brilliant global soft power players - the British Council, BBC World Service, our great national museums and galleries and four or five world class universities. We should remove the BBC World Service from the BBC and merge it with the British Council. It is time too for a Minister of State for Soft Power. We also need the UK Government to take the lead in creating a single global body for the Internet which puts the citizen at its heart.
Finally, with the rise of such extraordinary organisations as Combat Stress, Walking with the Wounded and Help for Heroes it might just be pertinent to ask what exactly is the role of the British Legion in the 21st century? Perhaps, the Foreign Affairs select committee might care to investigate.
(Derek Wyatt was a Labour MP from 1997-2010 and was a PPS in the Foreign Office)