Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Last resort not never resort

It turns out they were wrong, those people who told us that the only outcome to the Syrian genocide was a political solution. It turns out that there were two military solutions after all. One was to arm the secular moderate opposition to the fascist Assad, who were asking for a few MANPADS to down the helicopters barrel bombing their schools, hospitals and market places. The other was to wring our hands and let Assad, Putin and Iran kill half a million people.

War, what is it good for? Edwin Starr asked that question in 1970 as the Vietnam war was entering its final phase. His answer was “absolutely nothing”.

I disagree.

Of course, no decent person, no sane, rational human being would chose war over more peaceful means to achieve political ends. And yet, as a last resort, war can be a liberating, humanising course of action, and has been.

War came too late for millions of Jews, Slavs, Roma and LGBT people in early 1940s Europe. By the time the Vietnamese had, in the teeth of United Nations opposition, invaded to remove Pol Pot in Cambodia, 1.7 million people were dead. In 1994, about 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis lost their lives too, while an international community, forged in the post second world war consensus, wrung its hands, or in the case of the French authorities, actively colluded in the genocide. The true horror of all those events was uncovered in weeks, months or years. This genocide in Syria was witnessed, live, on Twitter.

War is a very, very last resort.

But there comes a time when the crimes of some regimes are so evil and perpetrated with such fortitude, that they cannot be stopped by wishful thinking, by diplomatic persuasion, by political action or by economic sanction.

There comes a point beyond which such crimes can only be stopped by the application of armed and deadly force: ‘by any means necessary’, you might say.

So, what is war good for? It is what stopped the holocaust. Who would dare say otherwise?

What is it good for? Saving a nascent democracy in Sierra Leone. Tens of thousands of teenagers and young adults in that country still have all their arms and legs only because a British prime minister had the courage to ignore both the taunts of “imperialist” and the deadly negligence of the UN and others, and send troops to stop thugs from cutting off the limbs of eight year-olds and help free its people. During Tony Blair’s last visit as Prime Minister there in June 2006 he was still being received with rapturous gratitude.

War. Saving a million Kosovan Muslims from genocidal Stalinist maniacs. That same brave British prime minister stood against the world, including the US, and cajoled and argued for military action to save these people. Eventually, a reluctant Bill Clinton was shamed into committing military force. There are no taunts of ‘imperialist war monger’ from Kosovans today. But there is a statue of Blair in their country and many, many young men named ‘Tonibler’ after him.

War. What was it good for? Stopping Bashar al-Assad massacring hundreds of thousands of his own people, that’s what.

It is nearly 14 years since a million people marched the streets of London in opposition to a war that was about to start. They said theirs was an humanitarian concern about loss of life. Where have they been for the last six years? The Stop the War Coalition stops no wars but, through their collective silence, implicitly endorsed this one.

War kills a lot of people, it is true. There is a high price for military action, paid, in the main by innocent non-combatants. But they often pay the price for military inaction too. We will never know the price of inaction against Saddam Hussein in March 2003 because, thankfully, he was removed.

But there is no excuse today. We know the price of our inaction in Syria; it has been all over Twitter in minutes. That price is too high.

The world has watched while half a million almost defenceless people were slaughtered in Syria and millions displaced. Our government watched it happen and the British Labour Party watched with them.

It was shameful and it was not done in my name. No one can claim they didn’t know. No one. Not Ed Miliband, who ordered his members of parliament to vote for Assad’s war. Not Barack Obama, who used Labour’s shameful action as an excuse for inaction. No one.

The human cost of inaction should weigh heavy on their shoulders.


Ian McKenzie was a special adviser to John Prescott from 2001 to 2004. He tweets at @Ian_McKenzie


Photo: Syria Freedom

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Ian McKenzie


  • There is much castigation of the Morning Star for its coverage of Aleppo. But it is unique among national newspapers in having opposed every British military intervention of the last 20 years. The best that can be said of the war in Sierra Leone is that it failed to deliver any improvement. All of the others have been catastrophic. I say again that the Morning Star is the only national newspaper to have opposed each and every one of them.

    A small number of MPs is also in that venerable category. Of those, by far the most prominent today is Jeremy Corbyn. He even voted against the war in Libya, and how about that for civilian casualties? Only a handful of Labour MPs did that. But precisely one Conservative did so. One.

    Possibly more than anything else, the British Right now defines itself by reference to its having supported the wars of Clinton and Bush, Blair and Cameron. Russia and Iran can do no good in its eyes. Israel and the Gulf tyrannies, supremely Saudi Arabia, can do no evil. America was in the latter category, and it looks as if the next President might keep it there after all.

    The British Right is first and foremost the War Party, and it is very proud to be so, despite having been proved horrifically wrong over, and over, and over again. Against, which is the key point, Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray, Lindsey German and John Rees, Tariq Ali and John Pilger. Against Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, George Galloway and Ken Livingstone.Against Ken Loach and two million people, including the young Richard Burgon, on the streets of London in 2003. Against Dennis Skinner and Ronnie Campbell, the ghost of Tony Benn and the ghost of Michael Foot.

    Against the vulgar and presumptuous interference of organised labour in political affairs. Against the vulgar and presumptuous existence of organised labour at all, for it is not a coincidence that the hated rail unions are all stalwarts of the anti-war movement. Against Jeremy Corbyn and the Morning Star.

  • The issue raised by the article was our collective, impotent inaction and its consequences. Reciting the names of secular saints does nothing to respond to that challenge.

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