- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2000

The British have something called the "Dunkirk Spirit," defined as taking an ineffable pride in losing a battle. Not even the Brits, however, ever wanted to make victory look like defeat. That takes a very special kind of twisted thinking.

This month's announcement that Margaret Thatcher may be summoned to appear before the European Court of Human Rights and charged with "war crimes" is only the latest in a series of attempts to humble the victors of wars. It appears a number of relatives of military personnel killed while aboard the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano, which was sunk by British forces during the Falklands War, are claiming it was an illegal and criminal act. They want compensation and a suitable punishment handed down to Mrs. Thatcher. No doubt Ronald Reagan can look forward to a similar suit brought by Col. Moammar Gadhafi for damage to property during the Tripoli raid.

These charges are baseless. The Belgrano was a legitimate military target destroyed in the course of a war. Not only the Argentinian government, but also the captain of the doomed ship, has stated that the Belgrano was a legitimate military target.

The facts, however, are of little account. Mrs. Thatcher's enemies and there are many, a good proportion of whom haven't forgotten her loyalty to Gen. Augusto Pinochet (who allowed British aircraft to use Chilean bases during the war) have leaped to sully a bona fide victory. Henceforth, even if (or when) the charges are thrown out, no mention of the Falklands War will be complete without some sneering reference to Maggie's War Crime (sometimes prefixed with an italicized "alleged"). The upshot? The Falklands War, once popularly believed to be a cleanly fought and patriotic conflict, is yet another dirty little punch-up.

Earlier this year, Gen. Barry McCaffery received the same treatment from Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker when he was accused of the most hideous of crimes after the end of the 1991 Gulf war. Despite the spuriousness of the charges, for the rest of his life there will always needlessly be a sinister-looking question mark after his name, though at least the New Yorker got its scoop. Crucially, however, despite liberating Kuwait, American soldiers can now be imagined as modern-day SS troops machine-gunning the helpless. As the online magazine, Salon, exclaimed: This was a "different kind of war, one characterized by a one-sided attack led by McCaffrey and his troops." You see? The Gulf war was just another case of Uncle Sam beating up Johnny Foreigner.

Another casualty of these efforts to taint military victories is Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO supreme commander in charge during the Kosovo campaign. He is also threatened with being hauled in front of an international tribunal to face war crimes charges as if he were some sort of latter-day Heinrich Himmler. NATO's crime, apparently, is that civilians were killed during the bombing raids on military objectives. Left unsaid is that a team of military lawyers examined each and every target suggested by commanders and decided whether the risk to civilian lives was out of proportion to the military advantage gained. They consistently erred on the side of caution. Has this ever happened in the history of warfare?

The most bizarre aspect of this desire to turn victories into defeats is that its practitioners often end up siding with the bad guys. Those activists who want to lynch Gen. Clark are, unwittingly or not, parroting propaganda written in the Belgrade headquarters of Serb Intelligence. A similar thing happened during the Bosnian war when we used to hear the refrain that "all sides were equally responsible for the atrocities." Since all have blood on their hands, all are morally the same. Thus, by smearing NATO under the guise of legality, the Milosevic regime not only drags the U.S. down to its level but convinces us that somehow we were in the wrong, Serbia's aggressive policies being forgotten in the rush to blame ourselves.

Why is pro-defeatism, or what could be called mea culpism, growing more popular? The invention of the International Criminal Court, the dissolution of sovereign immunity (so long as its Gen. Pinochet and not Fidel Castro we're talking about, obviously) and dubious human rights activism play a major role. These developments certainly make it easier to bring "war criminals" to book. But it is mainly because of an odd, typically Western guilt about military success which should not be confused with magnanimity toward the conquered dating back to 1918. It took a hiatus in 1945 when whipping Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was regarded as an unalloyed good, but has resurrected itself in the aftermath of the defeat of the Soviet Union.

Within a few years of the 1918 Armistice, in which German "guilt" for the outbreak of the First World War was firmly expressed, a wave of empathy swept the victorious and economically prosperous European powers, especially Britain and the United States. Dozens of best-selling books were written in the 1920s that sought to downplay naked Wilhelmine aggression and exaggerated Allied "imperialism" and bellicosity in order to flatten the moral ladder. The campaign climaxed in David Lloyd George's memoirs with the famous (and non-judgmental) phrase: "Who was responsible? The nations of Europe slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war."

The U.S., which since 1776 took pride in its soldiers and their martial achievements, today finds it more convenient to reduce them to the level of America's enemies. It's a shame, especially when the ranks of those enemies are growing.

Alexander Rose is the foreign affairs columnist at the National Post in Toronto, Canada.

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