Mali: why does the press have the taste of blood in its mouth?
Beware Britain's military-media complex, always ready to blow the trumpet for the next war
WE SEEM to be stuck as a nation in a military form of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, fated like Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) to wake up every morning stuck in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over. Military Intervention Day we might call it.
At least Connors gets to wake up to the sound of Sonny and Cher's 1965 hippy hit I Got You Babe. We are forced to wake up to an unfaltering diet of blithely optimistic and irresponsible military analysis.
In 2006, John Reid, then Defence Secretary, infamously said of the British expedition to Afghanistan: "We would be happy to leave in three years without firing one shot".
Yesterday, his Conservative successor Philip Hammond, in reply to some gentle probing on Mali from the Conservative member for Newark (the admirable Patrick Mercer, formerly a colonel in the Worcester and Sherwood Foresters), contributed the immortal line: "We do not expect things to go wrong".
The military talking heads have also been plying their trade. On Tuesday morning General Sir Mike Jackson was on radio and TV giving his gravelly blessing to the Mali intervention. He was, if you remember, Chief of the General Staff at the start of both the Iraq war and large-scale operations in Afghanistan. Seeking advice from him about overseas interventions is like asking General Percival how to defend Singapore.
David Cameron told MPs last week that Britain's contribution to the EU force would be in the "tens not hundreds". The meaning of this is clear – a maximum of 90 – or possibly 99 - if you don't insist on the number being divisible by 10. Yet the real number now appears to be 330.
It is true that many of them will be based in Anglophone West Africa but, crucially, no arrangements have yet been made for 'Force Protection'. The figure will almost certainly rise. Clearly, neither Cameron nor the Ministry of Defence can be bothered to provide accurate figures to Parliament.
Timbuktu has fallen pretty much without a shot being fired – cue much military jubilation. But the fact that Islamist militants have abandoned Timbuktu without a fight is hardly significant. That's what they do in the face of organised Western military force – what any sensible person would do.
It's the next phase that is going to be difficult – the 'IEDs down every dusty alleyway' phase. The 'green on blue' phase to use a particularly depressing euphemism from Afghanistan which describes the killing of allied soldiers by the Afghan military and police they are supposed to be training.
So far, there seem to be few dissenting voices in the media. Once things start to go wrong they are capable of putting the forensic boot in – as they did to both Tony Blair over his Iraq lies and Gordon Brown over equipment shortages in Afghanistan. But for now they are fluttering their eyelashes at all those handsome soldiers off to war - again.
Partly, I suspect, this is through genuine enthusiasm – wars are news and also a welcome release from the iron grip of domestic political correctness stifling and ritualising debate on many important subjects. News channels and newspapers feel they can show a little ankle in supporting British forces overseas. Another reason for this instinctive support is the emergence of the professional war reporter. They like wars too.
The armed forces themselves are partly to blame. There is the suspicion that as Afghanistan heads to its inevitable denouement the top brass seem to be looking to pastures new. Depressingly, some of the rank-and-file seem to have acquired a taste for violence if Prince Harry's canteen coarseness (as revealed in a BBC3 documentary about him on Monday night) is representative:
"As soon as we get a shout, whatever it is, we all run to the aircraft, and at that point you have the taste of blood in your mouth."
President Eisenhower warned in his January 1961 farewell address: "… In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist."
We have something of the same problem in the UK – not so much military-industrial as a military-media complex always ready to blow the trumpet for the next war.