Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Battle of Britain and the War on Terrorism

“Warfare in general should not be understood as about martial exploits alone; to win means possessing the better political strategy, the more coherent philosophy and the better economic and political organization.”

This is the assessment of Will Hutton in the Observer today. He examines the myth of British air superiority as the deciding factor in the Battle of Britain. The victory was multi-faceted in the battle as well as the war. There are lessons to be learned about the importance of appreciating the complexity of our strengths. This is particularly relevant today in the current situation of people around the world facing threats from terrorist groups. The danger is real and we must address it but fear mongering and simplistic solutions won’t help.

Hutton writes,
… there were different conclusions to be drawn from the strategic
realities of 1940, as military strategists have argued ever since the end of the
war. Nobody outside a military college has been prepared to listen. But last
week, the argument surfaced again in History Today magazine. In an intriguing
article, three senior military historians from the Joint Services Command and
Staff College argued that it was the Royal Navy that saved Britain in 1940, not
the RAF.

Widely reported, it was a startling challenge to one of Britain's
greatest beliefs and it received a serious and unhysterical response. Sixty-one
years after the war, it may be that at last we are ready to debate why 1940
worked out as it did. After all, a better understanding of our past can only
illuminate the present.

Take the role of air power. The reassessment of the Battle of
Britain is part of a wider reassessment about the potential of air power, as the
Israelis in Lebanon are discovering, as did the Americans in Vietnam. Air power
is not the sole key to winning - or losing - a war. Indeed, warfare in general
should not be understood as about martial exploits alone; to win means
possessing the better political strategy, the more coherent philosophy and the
better economic and political organisation. In these terms, Britain in 1940 was
much better placed than the myths have ever acknowledged.

Hitler easily won his battles in Poland and France, but he had gone
to war too early. To have a fleet remotely the same size as the British, he
would have had to wait until 1946 when the German naval building programme would
have been complete, but he could not be certain that the Nazis could hold power
for that long. He had to move in 1939.

Churchill was also the superior strategist. Hitler's
victories in Europe in 1939 and 1940 paradoxically showed the bankruptcy of
Nazism as a political philosophy: what was to come next? And how could it be
made sustainable? The attack on the Soviet Union that was to destroy his own
regime was, in truth, the only move Hitler could make to sustain his political
momentum, given the inherent weaknesses of his position. Churchill, meanwhile,
could build an alliance with the United States with a clear and explicit war aim
based on a superior political philosophy.

None of this should detract from the heroism of Britain's fighter
pilots in the summer of 1940. In September 1940, a pilot's average life
expectancy in 11 Group squadrons, which shouldered the main burden of defence,
was no more than 87 operational hours.

Equally, the Battle of Britain was the first allied victory of
fundamental political and morale-boosting value. But Britain had a vast fleet
and a powerful and fully mobilised industrial machine. It had a foe whose
political philosophy was to cripple its war effort. We should remember 'the
Few', but also this broader context.

And today we hold no fewer aces in the so-called war of terror,
something we should do well to recall as we scrap civil liberties in what some
British ministers, along with George W Bush, insist is a millenarian fight to
the death. We kept our heads in 1940. Let's keep them in 2006.

Read the complete piece here.

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