The war that changed us

It began with a blinding flash and promises of speedy victory. Five years on the mission far from ac

The show began with blinding flashes, heart-stopping thunder, sparks which had been palaces and hovels soaring up to decorate the night sky. The Shock and Awe military tattoo had started. It was only a few weeks until its climax as the great black evil one, suddenly floodlit, bowed to the crowd and fell slowly forward on his face.

Author, director! In flier's kit, backed by a chorus line of cute American sailors, the boss advanced downstage to harvest the cheers. "Mission accomplished!" But the noise was not all applause and was not coming from the audience and seemed, improperly, to persist. Something was wrong. Would the audience please remain in their seats until a technical problem with the exit was sorted? We are still there.

What have we done to Iraq? Until we are allowed to escape from the arena, it is impossible to look back and guess. What has Iraq done to us? Here it is easier to study the damage. The fearful act of 9/11, the utter success with which that spear of hatred pierced America's heart, left the United States a smaller country. But by joining in the retaliations for that act, Britain also became smaller. "Britishness", supposed to be a brand or a list of values, was already in a poor state. Iraq - and Afghanistan - diminished the probity and reliability of the United Kingdom in almost all its overseas dealings. In European but also Atlantic affairs, the UK has become a slighter, less interesting partner in the past five years.

At home, if that's the right term for a house that has become so draughty and noisy, democracy has diminished. In the vapid lists of "British values" served up by the Prime Minister and his supporters, "fair play" always recurs. It is not fair for civilians in Peterborough to abuse RAF men and women in uniform because of Iraq and Afghanistan. But the government has not played fair with the public, or even with the politicians, over those wars. The citizens are aware that they have been lied to and misled, that the independence of the British state has been rendered hollow, that control of the executive through parliament has become an old bedtime story told to make them close their eyes, that the five-year narrative of British military success in those two countries - still ela borated every day in the media - is no more than propaganda to conceal long-term mission failure, that a people can march in millions and be ignored.

All Blair's fault? All caused by what John Major's election team used to call the "Tango Bravo Factor"? Not entirely. Every one of these offences originated before 2003, some in new Labour's handling of power from 1997 onwards and others inherent in Britain's archaic institutions. The importance of Iraq was that it violently accelerated democratic decay and linked it to a short-term crisis in government ethics. People felt the jar of wheels falling off and asked: "Why are we being lied to?" Then they asked: "Who will tell us the truth about these wars and speak for us?" It's wrong to say that nobody did. At different moments, individuals such as Sir Menzies Campbell, Robin Cook or George Galloway spoke truth both to power and to the people. But none of them was able to wipe away the sense of national and personal humiliation that Iraq has left behind. Too many big men and women, who could and should have spoken out too, kept silent.

So Britain is smaller abroad. For the first time (as many commentators have pointed out), Britain abandoned its balance-of-power tradition and identified completely with the foreign policy of a stronger state. The UK was not the victim of 9/11 and had no direct motive for armed conflict with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, let alone with Saddam Hussein. The decision to go along with American retaliation through regime change did not defend British interests in the region but sacrificed them.

Sir Geoffrey Howe, speaking a few days after 9/11, listed four conditions that could justify American military action. These were that the action should be deterrent or self- defensive and not retaliatory, that there should be hard evidence of the target's responsibility for the 2001 atrocity, that long-term international support could be guaranteed and that any attack should be accompanied by a new effort to solve the Palestine question. None was fulfilled. Blair did attempt to link a token Middle East initiative to his support for Bush over Iraq, but it was never - could never have been - taken seriously by either Israel or the United States.

In spite of these omens, Tony Blair took Britain to war. His rhetoric changed from "humanitarian rescue" to "the defence of civilisation and civilised values". Many voices, from foreign statesmen to our own Foreign Office, tried to warn him that George W Bush and the neocons were an entirely new species of American leadership. It would be a fatal mistake to think he could steer and persuade them, as he had persuaded Bill Clinton and his White House over Kosovo in 1999.

Uncritical loyalty

Blair ignored them. The statesmen shrugged. The Foreign Office put its face in its hands, suddenly feeling very old. For 50 years, British diplomats had acted as the rearguard, preventing Britain's long retreat from power from turning into a rout. Now this! In the years that followed, the FO watched Blair govern from a sofa; few if any of its careful, brilliant position papers reached him or his inner circle. The vital connections between a prime minister and the "great offices of state" - Foreign Office, Home Office, Treasury - fell into neglect.

What has Britain got out of the Iraq War? Uncritical loyalty is always abused. The June 2003 extradition agreement deman ded by the US is a horrifying abdication of legal self-respect. Perhaps the most shaming, revealing moment came when Donald Rumsfeld placed his tactless call to London on the eve of war, suggesting that British troops were not really needed for the fighting and that if Blair was under pressure at home, they could restrict themselves to rear-area guard duties. But the British did fight, and Britain's reward has been to be loathed and dismissed throughout the Muslim world as America's poodle, to suffer a small but very painful Islamic terror campaign at home, and to lose credibility in Europe. It is noticeable, for example, that Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are now given much warmer welcomes in Washington than British visitors; German and French opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 turns out to have cost them nothing in American attention. (One of the most stubborn British myths is that the Americans want the UK to remain semi-detached from Europe, loyally preventing the formation of a rival superstate. On the contrary, the Americans have always wanted Britain to get closer in there, and they long for a coherent EU with a single voice.)

So the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the relationship less "special" than ever. Britain is weaker and more suspect in the world, and therefore less useful to American policies. Even the promised Trident warheads, token of renewed British nuclear dependence, are held up because the Americans have apparently used the wrong detergent to clean them up. Meanwhile, British forces have retreated into Basra airbase - the longest wait for a return flight in history - and in Afghanistan they do their best in a pointless war that everyone knows will be settled by a deal between the Pashtun and the other warlords.

How about the impact of the Iraq War on Britain itself? More accurately, how has this highly unpopular war affected the political climate, especially on the left? Organised pro-test against wars, especially expeditionary ones, has a long history in Britain. None of those movements succeeded, and yet the legacy of the protest has sometimes been as potent as that of the war itself. The "pro-Boer" campaigns against the South African war were a nursery for radical Liberal and socialist policies in the next generation. The "Law Not War" protest against the Suez invasion in 1956 abruptly ended the innocence of the postwar young, who had not imagined that the police could club women or that a British government could use criminal deceit to invade another nation. The Vietnam demonstrations were an induction into the social critique of the 1960s, even if the marchers learned little about Vietnam.

But "Not in My Name" was not the same as "Law Not War". To start with, these demonstrations were far bigger. They were also peaceful, marches of the non-marchers, whereas the Suez crowds tried to storm Downing Street and fought the police. Last, but very important, the Iraq protest had almost no articulation within parliamentary democracy. In 1956, the main opposition party - Labour, headed by Hugh Gait skell and Aneurin Bevan - used the whole labour movement infrastructure to pull people out on to the streets. In 2003, the Tories completely failed to recognise that the Iraq War was not a matter of "supporting our boys", but a menace to international order and a threat to their vision of Great Britain as a sovereign and independent state. A few - Malcolm Rifkind and Geoffrey Howe among them - saw what was at stake. But by refusing to support the Liberal Democrats and Labour rebels against the war, let alone to endorse the sea of outraged citizens with banners, the Conservatives betrayed their principles and, perhaps, their country.

Hate figures

War, which had rescued Margaret Thatcher's popularity in 1982, did the opposite for new Labour. Tony Blair became a hate figure in the same working-class parts of the United Kingdom that had once anchored their politics on hatred of Thatcher. But his grand "modernisation" project has driven ahead apparently undeterred; under Brown as under Blair as under Thatcher and Major, public services continue to be devolved to private speculators in spite of an accumulating pile of failures. New Labour's migration to the right leaves formations like the Scottish National Party commanding the social-democratic heights. At the 2005 elections, this convergence with the Tories made Tony Benn write in his diaries that "it's like three managing directors competing for the job of running Tesco's".

Has the war hastened the process? New Labour operates within exactly the same dialectic as Thatcher's governments did: as the state retreats from public service, so it advances its powers of social control. More "freedom of choice" for the consumer turns out to mean less freedom for the citizen. Fewer subsidies means more policemen. The Iraq War tempted the Blair governments and especially their home secretaries to snatch up the "war on terror" fantasy and use it to justify one repressive measure after another: extended detention without trial, new powers to search, bug and deport, the national identity database scheme, the crackdowns on asylum-seekers and immigrants, and all the other threatened or real erosions of civil liberty.

No wonder Baroness Thatcher said that new Labour was her greatest achievement. No wonder Tony Benn, looking back at the long disaster of the Iraq War, observes that, for the first time ever, the public has ended up to the left of a Labour government. Could this be the same party that, within months of winning power back in 1997, boldly handed over so much of the central state's authority to Scotland and Wales?

The outlook, after five years of war in Iraq and seven in Afghanistan, is dingy. Gordon Brown has missed the un repeatable opportunity for a new prime minister to de-nounce the war and promise "never again" for a slave rela tionship with an American president. Had he done so, he would have "spoken for Britain", transforming politics and his own prospects overnight. As it is, there are actually more Establishment voices in the US confessing that the Afghan and Iraq ventures are hopeless than there are in Britain. The longer we cling to false optimism, the harder it will be to extract ourselves from this mess.

And you happy, angry millions who flooded the streets five years ago - what do you feel now? "Not in My Name"? But a few days later it was done in your name, in spite of your passion. Blair pretended to take no notice; the next election did not throw him out; the killing has not stopped.

Does that mean that it's time to shrug and move on, that all passion against unjust war is futile? I don't think so. Demonstrations frighten governments more than they admit. Those who take part in them are changed, remembering a sense of strength that can last a lifetime. Meanwhile, the world has not moved on, but continues to burn; the madmen on all sides do not shrug but are laying new plots. Marchers with a passion for justice will be needed again, perhaps sooner than we think.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood