Military History: Chilcot and a Very British History of Dubious Military Decisions


The publication of the long-awaited report by Sir John Chilcot and his committee on Britain’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq proved more surprising and damning than expected. Many of the report’s conclusions confirmed what was widely understood to be the case. But the authoritative, exhaustive, and rigorous nature of the report has made those assumptions irrefutable. The Iraq invasion was of dubious legality, based on faulty intelligence, the result of poor strategic maneuvering by the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, and exposed yet another failure of the political and military interface. If Britain’s military history is any guide, this will not be the last such failure.

In the days leading up to the publication, media reports repeatedly emphasized that it was beyond the remit of the inquiry to comment on the legality of the war. The report came as close to declaring the war to be illegal as was possible, without actually doing so. “The UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted,” the inquiry chair, Sir John Chilcot, said in his public statement. “Military action at that time was not a last resort.”

Although shocking to read in a public statement, there is nothing surprising for those of us who have taught the history of ethics and morality in war. The principle of Last Resort is one of the explicit principles of the Just War criteria. A war cannot be just if peaceful diplomatic alternatives exist as an alternative. Legal scholars and ethicists can debate the true meaning of this: Is it just to resort to war if diplomatic alternatives exist, but they are certain to fail? Blair, in 2002 and 2003, clearly believed this was the case, and continues to do so now.

But this forthright comment was not the only damning statement to emerge from the report. Again, much of this was no surprise. Intelligence failings were apparent, ranging from collection to analysis. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the British government was suffering from group-think at best, cognitive dissonance at worst. Chilcot highlights that the Joint Intelligence Committee failed to make clear that the intelligence on which the Blair government was basing its decisions was short of reliable. For its part, the Blair government failed to ask the necessary questions of the intelligence, choosing instead to believe wholeheartedly what was presented, and ignore the considerable caveats that any serious analysis would have revealed. “The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction –  WMD –  were presented with a certainty that was not justified,” Chilcot concluded.

Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks

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