Thursday 20 August 2009

Modern Warfare and the Decline of Parliamentary Sovereignty

by Trowbridge H. Ford

When a country, at least in modern times - especially in the Anglo-American world - suffers a disastrous military campaign or the loss of a serious war, there is rarely an inquiry into why everything went so wrong. Even if a country somehow still manages the adversity, there is rarely a complete investigation of why affairs went so badly at first. Of course, the reason for no such inquiries is that they happen so rarely that when they do, they are just dismissed as unique occurrances from which nothing worthwhile can be learned. As I recall, there was no inquiry into why the Northern States nearly lost the Civil War, and why the US government clearly lost trying to dictate its solution to the Vietnamese one.

The first such attempted investigation that comes to mind is that which started in Britain during 1810 when the invasion of Walcheren island in the Scheldt estuary along the now Belgium-Dutch border during the depths of the Napoleonic Wars turned out so badly. The plan was based upon a 40,000-man invasion force to make sure that the French Emperor did not secure total dominance of the continent - what was attained soon thereafter by his smashing victory at Wagram..The irrelevant force was then decimated by a plague of diseases, leaving the commander of the whole operation under threat of serious consequences. He was the Earl of Chatham, son of the famous Prime Minister, and a member of current Prime Minister Spencer Perceval's Ministry, who blamed the mission's failure upon the naval commander on the scene in a secret personal statement to ailing monarch, King George III.

Rising barrister Henry Brougham made such a case against such futile efforts that the Tory Ministry was engaged in around the world that the Whig opposition was obliged to see that he was elected to a seat in the Commons so that he could lead the fight against the Ministry. In his maiden speech, he charged that Chatham had engaged in unconstitutional behavior by dealing privately with the King, contrary to its customs and conventions, calling upon the House to censure the Government - what it threatened to dissolve Parliament if it occurred during this most difficult time.

When the whole House became involved in debating the question, however, it was compounded by Francis Burdett's breach of privilege by publishing in Cobbett's Weekly Political Register his challenge to Brougham's view of the Constitution, especially the role of the Crown in its functioning - what permitted the Percevel Ministry to defeat passage of Lord Porchester's hostile Resolutions, approving instead the continued retention of Walcheren during the confusion, as Brougham so lamented:

"Had it not unfortunately been mixed up with other subjects, so successfully introduced by the minister for the express purpose of distracting the public attention, we should in all likelihood have owed to the most eloquent event - that powerful display of the rhetoric of numbers - a complete change in the opinion of the people on the cause of reform, and a certain prospect of its being speedily victorious." (Quoted from Henry Brougham, "Rose on the Influence of the Crown," Edinburgh Review, vol. 16, no. XXXI, April 1810, p. 205.)

What Brougham threatened for the Perceval Ministry occurred for real in 1855 when Lord Aberdeen's Government floundered in its conduct of the Crimean War against expansive Russia. Thanks to its lack of planning, especially a strategy of reasonable targets to hit - what was exposed by the famous charge of Lord Cardigan's Light Brigade, and the treatment of casualities resulting in the process, the Commons got so worked up during the continuing hostilites that it called for the appointment of a select committee to investigate the manifest failures - everything from the recruitment of capable military leadership to the flogging of insubordinate subordinates - what the Ministry made a matter of confidence, resulting in its retirement when it failed, and shortly thereafter the resignation of its leading administrator, First Lord of the Admiralty Sir James Graham. The leadership of the succeeding one, Lord Palmerston, was so vigorous in the pursuit of victory that the necessary changes in Britain's military establishment were postponed in making for another decade - the Cardwell reforms effected by Gladstone's Secretary of State for War.

This experience was not lost upon British officialdom when similar kinds of disasters had to be covered up from the public. When the United Kingdom mounted Winston Churchill's dubious assault on Gallipoli in the midst of WWI in the hope of knocking Turkey out of the war, and opening up the Black Sea to unimpeded Allied forces, it resulted in an even worse result than the Scheldt adventure through disease and Turkish resistance, but there was no immediate inquiry into why things had gone so wrong for fear of breaking the Allied support for the continuing, irrational conflict. It did result in the recall of Mediterrean Expeditionary Force commander Sir Ian Hamilton, Churchill losing his position at the Admiralty, and Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith having to give way to a Coalition Government under Lloyd Geroge.

Only when the crisis had passed with the Allied victory at Beersheba in Egypt - what accomplished what Gallipoli had attempted - the Dardenelles Commission was appointed in 1916 to investigate what had gone so wrong in the Gallipoli campaign, particularly to molify AnZac complaints about its planning and conduct, and its composition - especially the presence of former Australian Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, the colonial politician so noted for his support of Britain through thick and thin, and so damning of the campaign as it was unfolding - assured that its report would only be a belated one, and even then only containing what everyone already knew. The commission had been headed by William Pickford, an uninformed Appellate Court judge, who later went on to become Master of the Rolls. The commission finally reported in 1919.

The lack of official assessments of British conduct during not only the wider war but also WWII only compounded the problems of keeping a handle on the whole process. Britain came quite close to losing both conflicts, but the public hardly even suspected it, much less why it almost happened. There is nothing of an official nature assessing their conduct, leaving even British officials to rely upon the volumes of the Foreign Relations of the United States to help reconstruct what happened during both wars. With the public having such wide misconceptions of what was attempted, and achieved until much later - what historians only started seriously supplying during the 1980s - it was most difficult for Governments to focus the public's attention on the real problems, and how to meet them, given the complete mythology about the real conflicts. - i. e., the 'good war' versus the 'bad war' when both claims were highly arbitrary. Rather than trying to educate the public about such complex concerns, Ministries simply settled for getting by in the hope that everything would work out okay.

Of course, Britain could have had a similar inquiry like the one about Gallipoli over the ill-fated Suez invasion in 1956 while it was trying to hold onto its Mideast influence as its empire was starting to fall apart, but the humiliation was so immediate, and so obvious to all that no inquiries were required. Without the expicit knowledge and approval by Washington of what Britain, France and Israel had planned in the area by the covertly coordinated assaults, they were doomed to fail unless they quickly toppled Egyptian President Nasser. President Eisenhower called for an immediate cessasion of hostilities, and a quick pullout of the forces involved or the United States would stop supporting sterling, undoubtedly causing its devaluation at a most critical time, the imposition of oil sanctions on the offending powers, and replacing them with UN ones if the offending ones refused to move. The result was the physical collapse of Prime Minister Anthony Eden, forcing his resignation when he tried to make a comeback after the dustup had settled, a cost which required no inquiry nor further resignations, not even that of the most deceitful Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, thanks to Ike's willingness to provide the necessary "fig leaves" to cover up the special relationship's snafu.

While the Suez debacle did not prevent Britain from going it alone in such adventures without explicit American approval when it considered action especially vital, as its recapture of the Falkland Islands confirmed when Washington provided another "fig leaf" - crucial air intelligence about Argentine air strikes - it still pretty well knew how to handle such difficulties if they occurred, especially if they backfired - i. e., having no serious parliamentary involvement in investigating the problem as it might well bring down the Ministry, having peripheral investigations which helped dilute the controversy by settling unexpected developments, especially of a personal nature, establishing no main inquiry even after the difficulty has been resolved, and making sure then that it was not conducted by someone with a well-known reputation for intelligence, independence, and probity - using someone who is used to being told by others what to think and do. Britain wanted no more Broughams, Fishers, or even Pickfords to tell it where it had gone so badly wrong in wars.