What would Britain be like if it was at peace?

Since 1945, Britain has almost never been at peace. These conflicts have preoccupied the military and legitimised spending and facilities that would cause major problems if we stayed away from war.

It may be a little peculiar to speculate on this on a balmy British summer day. The Proms are in full swing, the Edinburgh Fringe is getting under way and there has been no summer riot so far - if one ignores the Northern Ireland marching season. About the most bellicose anyone is getting at present is over the Ashes, and for once the Australians have done the right thing and allowed themselves to be licked.

So why this quixotic preoccupation? I wonder just how often most readers give a thought to the British troops who are still serving and dying in Afghanistan? There are some 9,500 members of the armed forces in the country, to be reduced to 5,200 next year and to be fully withdrawn by 2015. That is the current intention.

Even if the Afghan war (which has been going on for the past twelve years – far longer than either World War) sometimes makes the headlines, what is seldom recalled is just how regularly Britain has been at war since 1945. In fact, the country has almost never been in some conflict or other, declared or undeclared.

At the bottom of this blog is a table kindly supplied by the Ministry of Defence, with the warning that it should not be considered ‘official’ since there was in the past no central record of every military action, and that until recently the Army, Navy and Air Force each held their own records. What it does indicate is that Britain has been involved in fighting of one kind or other almost every year.

The National Memorial Arboretum records the names of some 16,000 servicemen and women who have died for their country since 1945. Indeed, the Ministry of Defence says there has been only one year since that time when they did not lose someone in ‘combat operations’ – and that was 1968.

Even this almost certainly does not record the total number of conflicts in which Britain was involved. Some, like the SAS operation in Oman and Dhofar between 1969 and 1976, is not officially recorded. There may well be others.

All of which brings me back to the question I first raised: what would Britain be like if it was really at peace? George Orwell declared in “England Your England” that: “The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic.”

He argued – rightly, it seems to me  - that “all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities.” Even Godfrey Bloom and his ‘Bongo-Bongoland’ outburst is no more than quaint and mildly embarrassing, rather than threatening in any way.

Yet Britain at peace could be a very different beast. What exactly would the country do with its armed forces? Some, no doubt, would continue to be stationed on the 9 bases Britain maintains around the world (not forgetting that Diego Garcia is British, even if it is leased to the United States and its ownership is disputed by Mauritius.)

But the rest would have to come home and then what would be done with them then? They might gradually moulder away, exercising in the Brecon Beacons or in Borneo from time to time. They might be even more rapidly run down. How would the public cope with so many troops regularly going about their daily business, on the streets and in shopping centres?

Peace – real peace – would pose as many questions as most conflicts for the military. A member of the Royal Navy once pointed out to me that getting rid of Gaddafi in 2011 provided a golden opportunity to fire off all the obsolete ammunition that had been accumulating since the Falklands, with the Treasury picking up the bill. Without a conflict the military would have to find money from its budget for this kind of thing. Officers would lose combat experience, squaddies could become soft.

But all this may be premature. Syria could easily suck in British forces (who knows if some are not there already?) and the world is by no means at peace. Memories of Afghan casualties will fade, just as the First, Second and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars of 1839 – 1919 gradually left the public mind. Some incident or hostage situation will, no doubt, escape the grasp of the Foreign Office and spiral out of control. Who, after all, would have thought that London would nearly come to blows with Paris over the village of Fashoda in 1898? Who can even point to it on a map?

It seems to me that after the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 Britain will take a short breather and then get back to its natural condition: it will find another war to become involved in; preferably a small one. 

British military action since 1945

Greek Civil War 1944-49 (direct UK involvement was more in the earlier years)

India, prior to independence and partition 1945-8 (both traditional colonial policing and incidents such as the Indian navy mutiny)

Palestine / 1st Arab-Israeli War 1945-48

Corfu Incident 1946

Malaya 1948-60

Yangtze Incident 1949 (not pictured)

Korea 1950-1953

Canal Zone 1950-54

Mau-Mau in Kenya 1952-1960ish

Cyprus 1950s until Treaty of Establishment in 1960

Suez 1956

Borneo 1960s

Aden 1964-67

Radfan (Yemen) 1960s (not pictured)

Northern Ireland 1969- present day (last military fatality was L/Bdr Restorick in 1997)

Dhofar late 60s to mid 70s (not pictured)

Iranian Embassy 1980 (no military fatalities)

Falklands 1982

Gulf campaign 1990-91 (bear in mind that although “combat ops” did not start until Jan 1991 we lost several aircrew in training accidents in theatre during the build-up of forces in the autumn/winter of 1990)

No Fly Zones Iraq 1991-2003 (no fatalities, but emphasis on 1999-2003, when Iraqi air defences attacked Coalition aircraft routinely and fire was returned)

Bosnia 1992-5 (and continued operational deployment with IFOR/SFOR for years after the cessation of hostilities)

Desert Fox Iraq 16-19 December 1998 (no fatalities but “combat” op) - not pictured

Kosovo 1999 (then continuing operational deployment with KFOR afterwards)

Sierra Leone 2000

Afghanistan 2001 to present

Iraq 2003-9

Libya 2011 (no fatalities)

All photographs: Getty Images.

British troops in Afghanistan - a conflict which has far outrun both world wars. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle