Remembering Dissent

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Debate on Afghanistan is reaching boiling point. I write this on 11 November, Remembrance Day, marking the date of the armistice which ended the First World War.

That was famously the war to end all wars - although it was followed in just over 20 years by an even greater conflagration. Modern warfare has certainly seen comparable death tolls and suffering.

That war ended in revolution, most famously in Russia where the October Revolution ended the war a year early. All the defeated countries saw their regimes overthrown, strikes and occupations of factories. The victorious powers also saw mass unrest as working people who had suffered during the war decided to take a stand. In Britain there was a huge strike wave and much sympathy for the Russian Revolution.

Perhaps the overwhelming sentiments were that a world which had produced such a war needed to be changed fundamentally and that never again should the young people of Europe and beyond suffer the carnage of those four years.

While the hopes of revolution faded and fascism grew out of their defeat, the second sentiment remained strong, certainly in western Europe. Warfare since the Second World War, for countries such as Britain, has not generally involved large numbers of military casualties. Troop casualties and growing disaffection in the army was one of the crucial factors leading to US withdrawal from Vietnam.

Military casualties are a sensitive political issue, as we have seen over recent months in Afghanistan. Nearly 100 British troops have died this year alone - the highest since the Falklands War 26 years ago. This is clearly one of the major motivations shifting public opinion away from support for the war.

Each recent poll shows growing numbers wanting troops out, not understanding what the war is about, and pronouncing that they do not believe the war is making Britain safer. Opposition to the war in these polls is consistently higher among working class people than among the AB executives and professionals.

October's demonstration against the war, led by military families and Lance Corporal Joe Glenton, who is refusing to fight in Afghanistan, has resulted in a new layer of activists campaigning to get the message across to bring the troops home. More families and ex-military are coming forward. There were lots of young people on the demonstration.

Government and right wing media are desperately worried about this anti-war sentiment. The US and Britain cannot withdraw without admitting defeat for the whole project and suffering a terrible blow. So they remain locked in a war which they are losing, defending a corrupt government, and seeing opinion in Britain and Afghanistan grow against the war.

The Sun - always pro-war, but in support of "our boys" - is using this anti-war sentiment to attack the Labour government by demanding more equipment to more successfully prosecute the war. Remembrance Day has been increasingly promoted in recent years, with the wearing of poppies seemingly obligatory on television programmes and among politicians.

There was a concerted campaign headed by the Daily Mail to force all the Premier League football teams to wear the poppy embroidered on their kit. When Manchester United and Liverpool refused they were denounced as unpatriotic. All of this is an attempt to use sympathy for the troops who have been killed or injured in order to justify the war.

The ideological battle over the war will, if anything, get hotter as more troops die. Already some of the media are turning against the war, most notably the Independent on Sunday. The arguments of the pro-war camp are looking ever more threadbare. But they are also desperate.

Joe Glenton has now been put in prison for leading the demo and speaking to the media - the latter being something which the pro-war military do on an almost daily basis. We can expect more banging of the patriotic drum. And the anti-war feeling that does emerge can go in different directions. Labour MP Kim Howells has called for the troops to withdraw but for the money saved to be spent on increased surveillance of the Muslim community.

That is a recipe for attacking civil liberties and whipping up prejudice against Muslims. Instead withdrawal of troops would remove at a stroke a grievance which has helped to give rise to terrorism. But that would mean the government admitting it was wrong. Instead more troops are likely to be poured into Afghanistan and the war will continue, at the cost of more lives.

The best way to remember the dead of past wars is to keep campaigning until all the troops are out of Iraq and Afghanistan.