An end to deference

Wars, just and unjust, are always, and by definition, the fault of some leader or other. National leaders enter conflict with others for all sorts of reasons, hardly ever pure. The difference now is that the citizenry feels free to say so. The readiness of grief-stricken parents and widows to ‘blame’ Tony Blair (or Geoff Hoon or Jack Straw…) for the deaths of their boys in Iraq must represent a new low for deference (and that must be a good thing).

For centuries, the very idea of openly blaming the leader class for deaths in wartime would have been inconceivable (and probably treasonous) but now it’s routine. We should take it for granted, I think, that from now on it will no longer be possible to pursue a war in any theatre and for whatever reason without a persistent and difficult-to-manage Greek chorus of incrimination from the bereaved.

This will make it politically more difficult to enter a war, however moral. It’s possible to argue that this is an unalloyed good thing – war is always bad, never truly just – but I worry that it might also put a stop to the kind of intervention in troubled places like Kosovo and Sudan that the people of those places obviously need.

Of course, it’s impossible to argue that the families of dead soldiers should keep their mouths shut. Cringing, grateful war widows, fearful for their meagre pensions, silent in the face of inhuman neglect, are obviously a thing of the past. But this pitiless scrutiny of our leaders’ motives could, in time, produce a more timid and pedestrian political class – a cowering, inward-looking gang, always running scared of the next deputation of widows and orphans.

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