Sunday, April 03, 2011

Paying the price

It seems that we're not the only ones to rely on Second World War imagery to make a point. The Observer is at it as well.

Writer Colin Smith is pushing it a bit, though, when he tries to make out that the situation in 1941 – 70 years ago - "is a grim warning of how quickly things can change in this vast and empty land if one side has air superiority and better tanks". Does he not realise that "our" side has air superiority, while Gaddafi has the better (only) tanks in the field? That sort of invalidates his argument, one feels.

Making a comparison between Benito Mussolini and Gaddafi, Smith argues that, by the end of February 1941, Mussolini's grip on his north African empire had been humiliatingly weakened. In only 10 weeks, Lieutenant-General Archibald Wavell's 30,000 British and Commonwealth troops had routed a much larger Italian army that had attempted to invade Egypt and capture the Suez canal.

As Smith's narrative goes, the campaign to remove Mussolini from North Africa was then postponed, when Churchill siphoned off some of Wavell's victorious forces, including his best aircraft and tanks, and sent them to help Greece. Enter Rommel with better aircraft and tanks, and by 14 April, we were back fighting on the Egyptian border (incidentally, taking the same bullshit from our newspapers then as we are doing now - pictured).

However, if there was a lesson, it is that Churchill was wrong to denude Wavell's forces in order to mount the Greek expedition, without reinforcing them from the very substantial forces held idle in the UK. But even then, the military and political establishments were convinced that the Nazis were going to invade Britain (or, at least, that is what they were telling the public), which meant that forces were held back unnecessarily.

With the current situation looking rather uncomfortable, the same lesson applies now. You should not expect results unless you are prepared to commit sufficient resources to a venture.

It also reaffirms the age-old lesson that air power alone – short of a thermonuclear strike - cannot be decisive. To resolve issues, you must have "boots on the ground" - and enough of them. Hitler tried to batter the UK into submission with the Blitz in 1940-41, and then, despite having had an expensive  tutorial from the Luftwaffe on the limitations of air power, we tried a similar tactic with the strategic bombing of Germany. Neither worked.

Back then, we had no option other than to get stuck in, mounting the invasion of Europe in June 1944, which the bomber barons held was unnecessary. But now it is quite clear that we have no intention of committing enough resources, specifically in terms of ground forces. We simply do not have them. And under those circumstances, we should have left well enough alone. The result of under-resourced intervention is invariably worse than no intervention at all.

There is, however, the other lesson – that when politicians' egos are at stake, sense goes out the window. The one thing politicians never do is learn from history - or even the application of common sense. And the final lesson is that, as always, other people pay the price.