“If we’d had a division of Gurkhas in Albania when the war began, it wouldn’t have taken us almost three months to get to Pristina.”
NATO seems to have won in Kosovo, but no one could call it a very glorious victory — and to be fair, not even the tabloids have tried very hard to do so. Since the war began, headlines about “glory” and “heroes” have remained in their usual place on the sports pages.
But as John Keegan has written, the apparent victory of NATO air power does mark a critically important moment in military history. Some 15,000 Serbian soldiers have been killed and wounded without a single NATO casualty to date —a result which recalls 19th century colonial victories like Ulundi or Omduran, where, respectively, thousands of Zulus and Sudanese were cut down by higher technology for a mere handful of British casualties.
But while air power may in some circumstances win campaigns, to control the peace, ground forces have to occupy territory; and ground forces can be attacked if not by frontal assault then by terrorists and urban guerrillas. So we still need good fighting infantry.
From this point of view, Kosovo has several disquieting aspects. The first is the excessive fear of casualties among Western politicians, most noticeably in the US (the Blair government in London deserves some credit for moral courage in this regard). The second concern stems directly from this fear. It is that coming on top of the Gulf war and NATO’s alleged success in Bosnia, Kosovo will confirm in Western populations, politicians and —most dangerously of all — soldiers the belief that wars can and should be won without the loss of Western life. Western military planners will be encouraged to direct yet more resources towards ‘smart’ bombs and missiles, rather than to ground forces. Even more soldiers will be encouraged to think that the armed forces are really just a career like any other and that joining them does not imply a vow of readiness to risk one’s life.
To the West’s potential enemies, therefore, Kosovo delivers a mixed message: respect for NATO’s technological sophistication and firepower will be combined with contempt for its unwillingness to make sacrifices.
It is easy to attribute our fear of losses to decadence, pure and simple. But there are other factors, too. The nature of both modern society and the modern armed forces means that to some degree, and especially in the US, voluntary military service really is a career like any other. Armies can, fortunately, no longer rely simply on a mixture of aristocratic officers and youths from poor areas for cannon-fodder. The need to compete for high-quality recruits in a high-wage labour market means that other incentives have to be offered — and a high risk of getting killed is not one of them.
None of this would apply if Western countries were actually in-vaded, or their vital interests threatened. In such a case, I have no doubt that sooner or later, the great mass of the population would rally in self-defence, and plenty of brave soldiers would be found. But the fact is that modern mass armies have rarely fought hard in distant wars in which their country’s national interests were not truly engaged. Even under Stalin, Russian soldiers fought much harder to defend Moscow and Leningrad in 1941 than they had the previous year in the attack on Finland.
At the height of popular imperialism before the World War I, colonial states always used professional armies for their imperial conquests, leaving conscripts to guard their borders. The difference today is that even most Western professional forces have ceased to be culturally separate from the mass of the population and have come to share its hostility to sacrifice for anything less than vital national goals.
This applies especially to the US, because despite all the talk inside the Beltway of American vital interests, if you come from Alabama or Kansas, your real interests in the Balkans are very slight. By classical standards, the US today has only four vital interests: the old principle that no hostile power should control the Atlantic or Pacific littorals facing the US; hegemony over central America; access to cheap energy in West Asia; and the safety of Israel, because a powerful section of American public opinion regards Israel and the US as essentially one country. Beyond these areas, there are no interests for which an American soldier could legitimately be asked to die —and Clinton’s approach to a ground war in Kosovo reflected this fundamental reality, which we need to recognise. We cannot go on relying on the US to do our duty for us.
Great Britain is not the first “civilised” state or state system to be faced with the difficulty of finding national soldiers who are ready to fight wherever they are sent. The problem goes back to at least 2500 years, and the solution has always been to hire foreign mercenaries. Much of British military history of the past 300 years is associated with mercenaries: Hessians and the King’s German Legion up to Waterloo; Gurkhas up to the present day, including in the Falklands.
In Sierra Leone, where Britain had an economic interest but could not deploy its own troops, the use of private mercenaries seemed on the way to becoming institutionalised. The storm over Sandline has put a stop for the moment to such informal state sponsorship, but given the dynamics of the situation there and elsewhere in Africa, it seems bound to recur.
In these circumstances, the obvious solution for Britain is to rebuild the Gurkhas to the strength that they had until a few years ago. This should be combined with a redeployment of British development aid to give much more of it to Nepal. Even if Gurkha pay and pensions were raised to take account of their having to be stationed in Britain, they would still be far cheaper than British soldiers; and the fact that this pay is already many times the Nepali average wage means that the British army can choose the very best recruits from that country.
Finally, of course, the Gurkhas are not just any mercenaries but a force whose British traditions go back 184 years and include 13 Victoria Crosses. As Field Marshal Slim put it: “God created in the Gurkha an ideal infantryman, brave, tough, patient, adaptable, skilled in field craft, intensely proud of his military record and of unswerving loyalty.” There are few such soldiers in the West today. We should make the most of them. If we’d had a division of Gurkhas in Albania when the war began, it wouldn’t have taken us almost three months to get to Pristina.
Reprinted with permission from the London-based magazine, Prospect (www.prospect-magazine.co.uk).