The NeverEnding Story

by Quinn

I was depressed to hear Alan West state over the weekend that the war against terror “will take 10 to 15 years” to complete, if we all just knuckle down. No, I wasn’t depressed because 15 years seems like a long time – in fact it seems like no time at all to rid the world of an abstract noun – just depressed (though not surprised) that yet another government official has found the need to announce a meaningless sound bite. I was further depressed because until recently Alan West wasn’t even directly involved in politics and so you would hope he could bring a bit of common sense and realism into government; but then, as in so many other walks of life, you probably have to be something of a politician in the first place to rise through the ranks of the Royal Navy, so I’m not all that shocked.

Why declare this “10-15 years” figure? You’re not telling me that it is an estimate arrived at through analysis and investigation. Why not just haul out the phrase “we are in for a long haul”, or take the vague term “the long run” out for a run? What is the point in announcing such an arbitrary time scale? Well, if you share my exasperation it seems we are in good company, because terror expert David Capitanchik of Aberdeen University is similarly nonplussed by all this talk. “The 15 years puzzles me,” he said, when speaking to LSE (that is Life Style Extra, not the London School of Economics, nor the London Stock Exchange), because it “doesn’t seem to relate to anything”. Well said. Putting such a time scale on the war on terror is sheer folly, isn’t it?

Our terror expert continued

When he was Home Secretary, John Reid said it would take as long as the Cold War lasted…The fact is we are going to continue to have to be prepared for these plots for around 40 years.

Ah right, I see. So the “15 years” line should be dismissed because it doesn’t seem to relate to anything; so far so good. But we should in fact be prepared for a 40-year battle, because that does relate to something, insofar as the sainted Dr John Reid once made a speech invoking the Cold War. Because that lasted for around 40 years, so the war on terror must also last for around 40 years. Brilliant. Can I be a “terror expert” please?

Clearly we should consign Alan West’s crazy optimism to the bin (15 years indeed!); instead we have to plan for 40 years. But is that it? Do I hear any advance on 40? I think I do. What has the Cold War really got to do with anything in this context? Surely this war on terror is more a clash of civilisations than ideologies, a battle between Christianity and Islam more akin to the Crusades; and according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia the Crusades were fought between 1095 and 1291. So, shouldn’t we be planning on this war lasting for 196 years? Ditch that, it’s not a nice round figure; let’s strap ourselves in for the Two-Hundred Years’ War!

“But we can do better than that” I hear you cry, and of course we can. Wikipedia also has an entry on the “longest war”; the Three-Hundred-and-Thirty-Five Years’ War between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly, ended by a peace treaty in 1986. Now, the war on terror is far more significant that some trifling oversight in signing a peace treaty over something and nothing (and probably tulips), so it seems only fair to set 335 years as a more appropriate target for its conclusion; if nothing else it is something we can aim for.

There was a time when politicians would promise that wars would be short-lived, that “our soldiers will be home for Christmas” in order to curry favour with the public. Now it seems that rather than being honest – that they simply just don’t know how long this current situation will last – we are instead set long-term deadlines that hint at knowledge but invite ridicule. What figure will they come up with next? All bets are off, except perhaps for openly countenancing Orwell’s idea of a perpetual war. That, I think, is a concept best left to us cynics.

PostScript: I originally wrote this post yesterday morning, an uncharacteristically topical bit of blogging, at least for me. Unfortunately I was thwarted in posting it by my ISP, which was down for most of the day. So here it is anyway, one day late. Never mind.