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Go beyond Churchill’s speeches

June 24, 2011

Via Daniel Larison and Alex Massie is this fascinating little nugget from the vast cult of American Churchill worship:

In 1940, Churchill appeared before the House of Commons and described Britain’s goal in World War II: “I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory despite all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

This hyperbolic rube was too unsophisticated to appreciate that the goal doesn’t apply to overseas contigency operations or kinetic military actions.

Before we unpack this ahistorical abomination of a point-scoring attempt, I’ll reference my last post and note that there is a very damaging elevation of the ability of principles to create their own reality that afflicts much of the rhetoric of American national greatness. Churchill was one of the most brilliant orators of the 20th century, to be sure. What is most aggravating about all the appropriation of his prose is that there seems to be far less enthusiasm for actually examining Churchill’s historical actions and putting them in context.

The implication here is that the ideals of 20th century total war should apply equally to the so-called “contingency operations” and “kinetic military actions” of the modern war on terror and Libya. There is a twofold criticism that we consider the war on terror and Libya to be a series of minor conflicts barely deserving of the label of warfare, and that Obama would think that these conflicts are somehow exempt from the moral imperative of total victory regardless.

I can certainly agree that the linguistic atrocities of recent times, particularly when performed to avoid any sense of domestic accountability, are a lamentable obfuscation of what America is actually doing overseas with its armed forces. That said, to think that Libya and Afghanistan are wars does not make them World War II. There are such things as bush wars and minor colonial operations which do not demand total investments of national power, and to think that Winston Churchill – Winston Churchill, head of government of the British Empire – would not recognize this is beyond absurd.

Churchill appreciated the notion that a country often had to slacken its efforts in a given area to free up resources and provide freedom of maneuver for alternative approaches to achieving national goals. One could call his desire to refocus British efforts away from the Western front of WWI many things, in light of the disaster at Gallipoli, but cowardly it was not. Was Churchill cowardly for evacuating British troops from Dunkirk in 1940, or should he have interpreted his own words as modern Americans did and refused to “isolate” Britain by withdrawing from the continent? Should he have held on against all odds when Greece and Norway fell?

Churchill’s primary contribution to World War II was arguably his use of diplomacy to bring in foreign powers to defeat the Axis and his husbanding of Britain’s resources to allow it to stay in the war. Far from refusing to compromise Britain’s ideals, he cooperated with the totalitarian USSR when it became clear they were a necessary ally. Resisting American insistence on total war and their desire for an invasion of Western Europe as early as possible, Britain instead emphasized a peripheral campaign in the Mediterranean. Churchill understood the British army could not bear the same kind of losses its larger, continentally supplied counterparts could, and acted accordingly. His inclination to let these larger allies do most of the messier work, while Britain tried to specialize in special operations and commando raids, is a rather stark contrast to his invocation in the name of massive American troop presences at all costs.

This is, of course, leaving aside the retreat after retreat Britain endured in the Pacific theater of operations.

The Churchill more relevant to the debates over Libya and Afghanistan would be that of the less-glorified second term as Prime Minister. It was Churchill who insisted he would not allow the dismemberment of the British empire, and sent modest forces to Malaya and Kenya to suppress communists and Mau Maus. Ultimately, these are lessons far more contextually accurate for America today than anything Churchill did during World War II. Churchill recognized Britain could not afford to hold onto its colonies in Southeast Asia and drew up plans for independence, demonstrating a willingness to put timetables on British operations there. Orders for amnesty were also issued in 1955. This isn’t to overdo the Malaya-as-COIN-model analogy, but nevertheless it certainly seems more relevant to today than anything Churchill said about fighting the industrialized Axis powers in 1940.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2011 12:19 pm

    Agree with the basic point about stupidity of citing Churchill’s rhetoric while ignoring his actions.

    On Kenya, the British suppression of Mau Mau was quite brutal — see this book, which I have not read.

  2. June 26, 2011 5:44 pm

    Yeah, agreed – yet somehow that’s not the Winston Churchill people feel like drawing comparisons with. Regardless of whether another instance of his career is more appropriate, it’s always 1940, we’re always Britain, and whoever we’re fighting are always the Nazis.

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