The ideas corner: We are the real culprits

We rightly criticise Israeli aggression, but such tactics originated in liberal nations

Israel's illegal attack on Lebanon has been rightly criticised for the number of civilians killed and for the destruction of infrastructure. Behind such objections lies an assumption, enshrined in the laws of war, that civilians and the economy should not be targeted. To justify doing so, the disgusting euphemism "collateral damage" was invented. But such criticism rather misses the point. Attacking civilians, and economic sanctions - so often thought of as an alternative to war - have long been central to "liberal militarism".

We associate militarism with armies having too great a say in domestic and foreign policy. According to this image, the military is at best all dash and chivalry; at worst authoritarian, fanatical and bloodthirsty. The term militarism is hardly ever used with respect to Britain and the United States, yet their commitment to military power has been unmistakable. The character of Anglo-American militarism is hidden by an argument that such military investment is determined by the existence of more backward, militaristic and threatening nations, run by kaisers, corporals and colonels. To be militaristic, it is argued, is not in the nature of liberal nations.

But there is a better way of looking at it: liberal nations have developed a distinctive kind of militarism. Its main features are a belief in the economic basis of war and, thus, in the importance of attacks on civilians and industry; the use of high-tech weapons rather than manpower; and an ideological labelling of the enemy. Their aims have been to destroy economies; their weapons ships, aeroplanes and atomic bombs. In war, Britain and the US have been notable for the disproportionate casualties they have inflicted on their enemies, especially civilians. They always claim to fight against not a people or a nation, but a bad ideology (Prussian militarism, fascism, communism, and now terror). Britain pioneered this mode of war and the United States followed. So, when Israeli spokesmen say they are fighting with the means used by liberal democracies they are not, regrettably, lying.

Liberal militarism has in some ways been brilliantly successful. Britain, and the US, and even to some extent Israel, have been able to deploy enormous destructive capacity without militarising their own societies. First Britain, and then the US, was a dominant power without a mass army. Yet the capacity to destroy does not ensure victory: Vietnam and Iraq both illustrate this. Asymmetric warfare, preferred by the great powers, has compelled their opponents to improvise techniques such as suicide bombing, which can give rise to huge defensive costs - if little damage. And where British and US leaders were once concerned to limit domestic militarisation, Bush and Blair are all too keen to impose their illiberal visions of social order on us all.

David Edgerton's "Warfare State: Britain (1920-1970)" is published by Cambridge University Press (£19.99)