I’m no supporter (or detractor) of Gordon Brown, nor of his flying visit to Basra during the Conservative Party Conference, but I’m finding it hard to stomach the opposition’s continual insistence that Brown is simply playing politics with our soldiers out in Iraq. What else do politicians do with soldiers? David Cameron himself went to Basra not long after he became party leader for a ‘fact finding visit’. The cynic in me would suggest that this was simply good PR, and could easily be categorized as ‘playing politics with soldiers’. Back in the 1980s, Thatcher was photographed atop a tank, Union Flag fluttering from the gun turret. In fact, I’m finding it hard to think of a recent political leader who hasn’t used our soldiers for the purposes of political PR. But then, these are just harmless photo opportunities.
The more serious politics is committing troops to war and asking them to sacrifice their lives – for security, for freedom, for democracy. And, as Thatcher proved after victory in the Falklands, such acts can boost a flagging political career.
The truth is, going to war is a political decision that necessarily involves ‘playing politics’ with the lives of soldiers. If there is a positive outcome, there is much to be gained politically from basking in the glory of a victory won by the sacrifice of others. Equally, as Tony Blair discovered, political careers can be irreparably damaged when our troops are committed to conflicts that seem utterly pointless.