The Myth of Our ‘Military Prowess’



Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has boasted of Britain’s ‘military prowess’ as a means of combating the advance of ISIS – and as if to vindicate his call for military action, the heroic statue of King Richard Lionheart outside our Parliament salutes with an upraised sword the majority of MPs within the House who’ve sanctioned airstrikes in Iraq.

As it happens, I’ve recently completed a new account of the Lionheart’s own military adventures in the Middle East, and can report that they were anything but glorious – involving as they did starvation for the Christian armies, a series of bloody, inconclusive clashes and the slaughter on King Richard’s orders of as many as three thousand bound and helpless Muslim prisoners on the Plain of Acre.

Not that the medieval crusades were any more barbaric than any other war. At Agincourt King Henry V, that other celebrated hero, ordered his troops to cut the throat of every prisoner they took. In the Napoleonic wars French prisoners were gaoled in lethally subhuman conditions – as were the Boers in the South African War, where as many as 48,000 civilians died in British prison camps. Following the siege of San Sebastian in the Peninsular, Wellington’s troops embarked upon an orgy of killing, rape and torture which lasted several days. At Amritsar in the Punjab, British troops fired on an unarmed crowd of demonstrators until their machine guns ran out of ammunition. In the First World War we too shot nurses and used poisoned gas, and in 1920 deployed chemical weapons in Iraq. In World War 2 we carpet-bombed no less than 61 German cities, in a campaign described by Vera Brittain as ‘a climax of infernal atrocity’. At Hamburg within the space of two days we killed 42,000 people, with incendiary bombs which burned alive men women and small children. Proven cases of torture by British troops, some of them involving blinding and castration, have been recorded in Malaya in 1948, in Kenya and Cyprus in the 1950s and in Aden in 1966. Nor is our recent record in Iraq and Afghanistan free of reported brutalities to prisoners and civilians.

It is high time we stopped allowing individual acts of valour to blind us to the truth. High time we stopped pretending that war is anything but savage and inglorious. High time we stopped selecting so many of our leaders from public schools who pride themselves on training boys to think of it as manly sport.

Okay, there may be times when as a last resort we’re forced to go to war. But let’s not rush to meet it. Let’s not glorify our nation’s history of aggression, or boast like Cameron of Britain’s ‘military prowess’ – or allow a medieval war criminal to characterise our Government and people with his beligerant stance outside our Parliament.

It’s surely time to knock King Richard off his prancing warhorse as I’ve done in my novel. Or move his statue to Whitehall, to flourish his bloody sword outside the windows of our misleadingly named Ministry of Defence?

Books by Richard Masefield