Military genius Von Clausewitz wrote that “In war everything is simple, but even the simplest thing is incredibly difficult.” On Sunday, courtesy of 36 students at Oxford and Cambridge, we have had a demonstration of this stark truth in the Boat Races.
Having rowed as a schoolboy myself and (more recently) been the proud father of a son doing the same at the top level, I can attest that rowing is simple. But difficult. Winning requires eight oarsmen (or women) to push themselves to their physical limit in perfect unison. This they can only do if the know that the other seven are doing the same. At the same time the cox has to exhort them to even greater efforts while smoothly steering the boat to advantage. Brutal honesty, self-knowledge and integrity are fundamental. Rowing is probably the purest team sport – if you lose it’s because either you cocked up under pressure, or you weren’t good enough. The answer is more training.
Warfare is similarly stark, except you might not get a chance to fight again. The costs of preparing for war are not trivial, until weighed against the cost of losing. The Times reported last week that the defence budget has (yet another) shortfall of £10 billion, although given the complexity of defence accounting this figure is meaningless. It is suggested that the Royal Marines might be cut.
The Royal Marines are part of the Royal Navy. They provide parties of infantrymen on warships, three infantry battalion equivalents, some special groups and the Special Boat Squadron – broadly equivalent to the SAS and now closely integrated with them. In naval terms, their budget is a rounding error (a warship now costs about £1 billion – aircraft carriers fives time that or more), and in that happy state of financial irrelevance they have been able to focus on being superb soldiers. Which they are.
We also read this week that the lead elements of a battlegroup (broadly a battalion) have deployed to the Baltic states to demonstrate NATO solidarity and deter Vlad. So it would appear that we are deploying one sort of infantry while contemplating cutting another. Kafka might appreciate this; Clausewitz would not.
Land warfare requires manpower; simple fact. The gods of war are on the side of the big, well equipped and well trained battalions (as Voltaire should have said.) Soldiers and Marines cost money; If you want to demonstrate military power you need to spend the money. If you aren’t prepared to spend the money, get out of the game. As Boris huffs and puffs in support of Gibraltar and Michael Howard expands on the history of British combat over obscure places with Spanish-speaking nations, it would seem Westminster wants us to stay in the military game. Fine; pay the bills.
In this case the defence budget was set by the current Chancellor, ‘Spreadsheet Phil’. If his Budget was wrong, as it appears to be, surely even Michael Fallon can win the argument with the Treasury that the money needs to be found.
He might point out that while the 18 distraught Boat Race losers at Mortlake on Sunday will recover and go on, shortfalls in defence spending are paid for in Tommy Atkins’ blood and measured in body bags. He needs to have a Bob Geldof moment (which worked with Mrs Thatcher) “Just give us the f***ing money.”
(Image: Jonny White)