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

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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

Military History: The Waterloo They Remembered

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By Bernard Cornwell

Two hundred years ago, in a shallow valley south of Brussels, three armies fought the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon had returned from exile on Elba to face a coalition of European enemies, who were now determined to oust him a second time. The closest opponents were the Prussian and British-Dutch armies to his north, so he launched a campaign to destroy them both. At Waterloo, on June 18, 1815, he failed.

Two hundred thousand men fought in that shallow valley. By nightfall, a quarter of them were casualties. In Belgium, thousands of re-enactors, dignitaries and soldiers are commemorating the event, while in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London there is a service of remembrance.

But what are we remembering? Few today can say why the battle was fought or what it achieved. The old arguments that drove Europe to a century of war are forgotten, yet there will still be prayers spoken and anthems sung and military bands playing.

No one, at least in the official events, will be so tactless as to suggest that Waterloo was a great victory for the allies and a shocking defeat for Napoleon. Instead the tone will echo the mood of the men and women who survived the day’s carnage, and that tone was somber. Maj. Harry Smith, a vastly experienced British officer who had fought at New Orleans and through some of the hardest battles of the Peninsular War, wrote, “I had never seen anything to compare. At Waterloo the whole field from right to left was a mass of bodies… The sight was sickening.”

The men and women who endured the battle knew they had been present at a turning point in history and, because of that, wrote down their recollections. We have witness accounts of many battles, but nothing matches the sheer volume of writing about Waterloo, and that huge archive gives us privileged glimpses of the day.

John Lewis, a British rifleman, was standing next to a man who was struck by a French musket ball: “He just said, ‘Lewis, I’m done!’ and died.” A half mile away, a French cavalryman, seeing a prostrate British officer stir, exclaimed in surprise, “Tu n’est pas mort, coquin!” and stabbed him with a lance.

Read the Remainder at NY Times