Chris Blackhurst writes:
An all-too-familiar ritual was played out early this week. Families gathered on the Round Tower in Old Portsmouth to bid farewell to their loved ones aboard Royal Navy ships bound for an area of rising diplomatic tension.
Officially, HMS Illustrious and the other vessels were being routinely deployed to Gibraltar as part of an exercise called Cougar 13. But the presence of helicopters carrying TV cameras pointed to the timing of the fleet departing against the backdrop of a row between Britain and Spain over the Rock. Here we go again – another hot spot heating up.
It's sobering, amid the outpouring of jingoism at such moments, to remember just how much British blood has been spilt, and how much money has been spent, in the last four decades, fighting in our name.
Since the end of the Second World War, there has been only one year – 1968 – when a British soldier has not been killed on active service. For what? It is nearly 45 years (on 24 August) since the first civil rights march was banned in Dungannon in Northern Ireland in 1968.
The protest went ahead and passed off peacefully, yet stirred both sides and triggered events leading to the troops being sent in after riots a year later. Some 30-plus years of agony followed.
Today, Northern Ireland is subdued but the underlying schism is not solved – this week 56 police officers were injured in one night's Loyalist rioting in Belfast, pictured.
From being a sleepy province ignored by successive governments until the Troubles started, Northern Ireland has become the most subsidised part of Britain, with public spending at 68 per cent of local GDP.
The conflict is estimated to have cost the British taxpayer around £100bn more than if peace had prevailed in extra security, bomb damage and lost economic activity. Despite that, there is still no tangible sign of lasting peace.
The Falklands War represented a clear-cut victory, but had the British government made an early show of force, 255 British casualties and a £5bn bill could have been avoided. Despite their defeat, the Argentinians refuse to withdraw their claim.
We triumphed in the first Gulf War in 1990-91. There was, though, no toppling of Saddam Hussein – that came later. Also, we did not have to pay – Saudi Arabia footed most of the bill. Still, chalk one up to the politicians and generals.
Tony Blair's Balkans adventures were a success. They didn't prevent ethnic cleansing but they stopped mass carnage. There was a financial cost: some £500m to have British troops stationed there.
Where Iraq and Afghanistan are concerned, we exited the former, humiliated. Will it be the same in Afghanistan? Certainly, we can't hail a positive result in a war that has now lasted longer than the First and Second World wars combined.
A new book, Investment in Blood, puts the bill for Britain's involvement in Afghanistan alone at £37bn. To the Arab Spring. Estimates of the cost of our incursion in Libya range from £200m to £800m. Say it's a conservative £500m. Did it help create a stable Libya? No.
So, £143bn (I've added it up) has bought us a lot of deaths, injuries and not much else. Certainly, many of the issues we went to war over, and our troops died for, are unresolved.
Even when there was no conflict, the cost was huge. The historian Correlli Barnett points out that after 1945, we spent more on refurbishing the officers' mess in Cairo than on the British telephone network.
Currently, we're forking out billions to be in the nuclear club – £10bn-plus for Trident and at least another £25bn for its replacement. Just think how lucky the Germans, Italians and Japanese have been, not to be involved in war of any kind since 1945 (apart from getting sucked into the Afghan mire).
The Germans, in particular, have had funds for their infrastructure, education and training, sums that UK chancellors have not, as we spent our billions on wars, low-intensity military operations and imperial flag-waving.
Our better motorway network, improved trains, boosted London Tube service, bolstered schools and proper apprenticeships have been buried in the fields of Tyrone, streets of Basra and alleyways of Helmand.
As we hum “Land of Hope and Glory” and prepare to defend Gibraltar, the Government and MoD top brass should bear in mind: intervention will never be over by Christmas, to paraphrase what everyone thought at the start of the First World War; it never is.
They should remember, too, that heroes can be those who resist sending in the military, like Harold Wilson. He kept us out of Vietnam in the face of huge US pressure, yet managed to keep relations with the US on an even keel.
We never learn from our mistakes. Our tendency is to grab a sledgehammer to crack the nut. In Northern Ireland, in August 1971, we introduced internment without trial and six months later came Bloody Sunday. All we did was give succour to the IRA.
It took years to match their cunning, setting up informers, eradicating the hardliners and then giving moderates the opportunity to negotiate. (Crucially, in Afghanistan, we missed the chance to talk in the early days as the US was hell-bent on defeating the Taliban.)
Thirty years later, in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was the same. We disbanded the Iraqi army and created an enemy, rather than enlist its support. In Afghanistan, we did nothing to give farmers an alternative crop to opium poppies – a trade that funds terrorism.
What we require is a different approach, an army of people who can speak the language, know the culture of potential conflict zones and are ready to do clever things to defuse the temperature – instead of the current, knee-jerk system of sending large numbers of squaddies to a dusty part of the world, possibly to die and become largely forgotten after a few years by an indifferent public.
Never was Tommy Atkins more abused. As we set sail for Gibraltar, for once, could we attempt to stay out of trouble?