Roads to War: Henry V and Iraq
Another tenth anniversary approaches. In March 2003 the US led coalition invaded Iraq. It was a disaster on almost every level. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed and many continue to die every year in continuing instability; opinion in the Arab world hardened against the west, pushing countless young men towards militancy and Al-Qaida; in Iran the liberal, western leaning opposition was hugely damaged and its theocracy strengthened; crucial resources were diverted from Afghanistan at a time when that country was beginning a fragile recovery after years of Taliban rule; thousands of Coalition service personnel were killed or damaged by the conflict; at home disillusion with politicians and our political processes intensified.
Defending his decision to invade, Blair now cites the removal of Saddam Hussein as an unquestionable good. Few would argue otherwise, but Parliament didn’t vote for regime change as a stated war aim. Ironically, had Bush and Blair waited a few more years, he would probably have been deposed in the Arab Spring anyway, along with Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Gadaffi in Libya and Saleh in Yemen.
As we built towards what seemed an unstoppable invasion in February 2003, I was beginning work on a comic book version ofHenry V. Parallels were intense. For one thing, the play opens with Henry questioning two Archbishops on the legality of his claim to the French throne, and hence of his planned incursion into France.
This claim was tenuous, based on the fact that his great-great-grandmother Isabella was daughter of Philippe IV. The case was weak in law, partly because Isabella’s son, Edward III had renounced his right to the throne in return for substantial territories, but more importantly because French law denied inheritance through the female line. Henry asserted it did, ignoring the fact that should inheritance descend through the female line, his cousin Philippa had a better claim to the English throne than he did.
The intricacies of Salic Law are bewildering, but slightly more understandable than whether or not we had the right to invade Iraq under United Nations Resolution 1441. In a memo of 30 January 2003, Blair’s Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, had declared the war wouldn’t be legal without a further UN Resolution. Blair knew this would not be forthcoming. We shall probably never know whether political pressure was placed on Goldsmith, but in final advice written on 17 March he deemed the war to be lawful.
This was not a view shared by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who in September 2004 said it was ‘not in conformity with the UN Charter… from the charter point of view, it was illegal.’ Henry’s claim was supported by his Archbishops. Blair’s invasion of Iraq was condemned by another, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who in 2003 described the decision to support Bush as ‘mind boggling’ and in 2012 called the invasion of Iraq ‘morally indefensible.’
The case for war was made on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, which according to Blair could be used against the United Kingdom within 45 minutes of a decision to deploy them.
In the months leading up to the war, Dr Hans Blix had led a UN team searching for WMD. No evidence of their existence was found. Blix had pleaded for more time to continue his investigation in an attempt to avert the conflict, but this was disregarded.
There was clear pressure of time. The US had tens of thousands of troops stationed in Saudi Arabia and the Pentagon knew they had to go into action before the onset of summer when desert conditions would have become impossibly hot. Any delay meant either holding them in base or returning them home.
Henry V faced similar campaigning constraints. Arriving in France in August 1415 he immediately began a siege of Harfleur, but this took longer than anticipated and the town didn’t fall until September 22. Although this was late in the season and his army strength had been diminished by dysentery, Henry was reluctant to return home without further reward. He therefore headed north, for Calais. As the French army moved to block this advance, the two met at Agincourt on October 25 1415.
Here, the lateness of the campaign was to Henry’s advantage as the field of battle had been recently ploughed and days of heavy rain turned it to mud. As the leading French knights were felled by English and Welsh archers, the weight of numbers following behind meant the second wave stumbled into the fallen and tumbled into the mud. Many drowned in it or were crushed by those pushing on them behind.
The slaughter of French knights was immense, but even at the time Henry’s victory was tainted by his decision to have massed prisoners put to death. On balance, it was felt to be a legitimate decision, given his fear that the prisoners might re-arm and attack again. Less easy to justify was Henry’s conduct at the siege of Rouen in the winter of 1418-19 in which twelve thousand starving women and children left the city in the hope of safe passage. Henry refused this, leaving them to die of cold and hunger in the perimeter ditch.
In modern terms, this would certainly have been considered a war crime or crime against humanity. There is still faint hope that Blair will be dragged before the International Court in The Hague on similar charges. The concept of a ‘just war’ was much discussed in 2003. It is also a key aspect of Act 4 Scene 1 when the disguised King Henry talks with ordinary soldiers on the eve of Agincourt. One of them tells him,
If the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died in such a place,’… I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle… Now if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it.
The soldier’s words are impressive and moving. It is indeed a ‘black matter’ for any ruler to lead his country to war without good cause. In Blair’s case, everything turns on the weapons of mass destruction and the extent to which evidence of their existence was inflated.
In February 2004, Dr Blix accused the British and US governments of exaggerating the threat posed by Iraq’s WMD to justify invasion. He was not alone in this view. Dr David Kelly, a member of the weapons inspectorate clearly felt the case had been ‘sexed up’ – to use Andrew Gilligan’s infelicitous phrase. Less sensationally stated, Major General Michael Laurie told the Chilcot Inquiry in 2011 that the purpose of the intelligence dossier ‘was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the available intelligence, and that to make the best out of sparse and inconclusive intelligence the wording was developed with care.’ Since Major General Laurie helped compile the dossier, I guess he should know. His deposition echoed an earlier finding by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2008 when it stated the Bush administration had ‘misrepresented the intelligence and the threat from Iraq’.
It is possible that the Chilcot Inquiry into the war will give us a clearer understanding of what happened in the days preceding the invasion. This is uncertain, since in July 2012 the government vetoed release of Cabinet documents to the Inquiry, at the same time that the Foreign Office successfully appealed against disclosure of phone calls made between Bush and Blair.
On February 15 millions of people around the world marched to protest against the impending war. In London, there were perhaps as many as two million marchers, myself amongst them. It was an extraordinary and inspiring occasion. We failed.
It is hard to know why a politician as astute and sensitive to popular opinion should have committed himself so completely to the disastrous American led invasion of Iraq. There are various theories. One argues that by allying himself to the US, he believed he could exert a moderating influence on policy (if true, a humiliating delusion); another suggests that a successful and applauded intervention in Sierra Leone had given him a taste for military solutions. It is possible that after two election victories, a huge majority in parliament and seven years in power he had simply gone mad; a messianic sense of purpose intensified by a growing Catholic adherence and belief in his own infallibility, whatever the evidence or opposition.
On March 17 Lord Goldsmith gave his opinion that the war was legal. Two days later the bombing of Iraq began. Overnight Tony Blair became what he has remained, a figure of hatred and ridicule.