Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq, I feel I owe it to some people – like those who marched against it, a lot of badly hurt Iraqis and my grand-daughter, who will grow up in the world we made – to try to say what I feel about it.
At the time, I shrugged a reluctant acceptance. If Tony Blair thought it had to be done, he knew better than me and I felt he deserved respect for making a harder decision, probably, than any prime minister had had to since 1945.
Born in 1950 myself, I sympathised with his dilemma. We were the first generation for a long time to have been largely excused any decisions on whether we would fight for our country. We did not even have to do national service. We grew up on endless stories of the wars our parents and grandparents fought. We understand what Dr Johnson meant when he said every man thinks more meanly of himself for never having been a soldier or a sailor. But we grew up singing along with Bob Dylan and Bob Marley. After 9/11, we were clearly obliged to make our minds up.
The way I saw it, there was no honourable alternative to going into Afghanistan in pursuit of Bin Laden and his disciples and I admired Blair for saying so, although I didn’t like him much before. Iraq was another matter, but if you gave him credit for the cojones to make the first decision, you had to weigh that in his favour in the second. That is what I think most of his generation thought.
But then, of course, we did not go ourselves.
One day after both invasions, on a train from London to Leeds, I was in a carriage which included a group of young squaddies on their way home on leave from Afghanistan. They drank beer and talked about the drinks and fights they would have in Otley that night. Then they turned their attention to all the white-collar passengers and their “fucking laptops”. Luckily, I didn’t have mine. Shamefully, I left it to those who had theirs to deal with the derision poured on them by the staggering lads.
They were horrible and I remember thinking we were bound to regret sending them into delicate situations on our behalf.
I come from a forces family and married into a forces family and I think I know those yobs were not typical. But when I read Jarhead, by Anthony Swofford, a disturbing memoir of the US Marines, centred on the terror and anticlimax of the 1991 Gulf War, I found it convincing in its argument that most of us would be shocked if we ever got up close and personal, for more than a passing clap on the shoulder, with a soldiery based on recruiting the desperate and brow-beating them into line.
I have wondered if a Dads Army, for which the usual age and fitness criteria are waived, might have done and might still do some good. Some of us Blairish baby-boomers could have assuaged our guilt at an easy ride by volunteering for late national service. We might not be much use at marching. But there must be fat-arse jobs we could do. In return for being excused some of the hard labour, we would extend the social and skills mix of our representation in foreign lands.
We would also, incidentally, help articulate and draw attention to feedback from the front lines. Ruthless candour is surely just as important from the armed forces as it is from health service employees and there is just as much evidence to suggest that we do not currently get it.
Finally, we would have the one advantage that comes from being older in any situation which might end in a fight – an increasingly philosophical attitude to the risk of losing. Once your kids are grown, you can afford the gamble. The New Dads Army would be the destination for all those old codgers who survey the streets of our home cities on a Saturday night and dream of one last showdown.
If the over-40s were better represented in Iraq and Afghanistan, might we have done better?
Very possibly, of course, we would just have insisted on being pulled out quicker.
But then, maybe we would have been right about that.