Big terrorism and little wars

It’s the first anniversary of the London bombing today and I’ll be on the tube this morning and afternoon. Not out of any particular spirit of defiance, but from the ordinary pragmatic reason that it’s the easiest way to get to my current job in London.

An article by Timothy Garton Ash yesterday (,,1813592,00.html) compared the insistence in the USA that the country is at war nearly 5 years after the 11th September acts, with the UK’s refusal to take this line only a year after a major Islamist attack on the country. He comments on how exceptional the conservative American view is today in their militarism, as compared both to Europe and the UK (more militaristic itself than Continental Europe).

Coming at it from a historian’s point of view, the distinction between calling the events of the last 5 years terrorism and war (at least from the point of view of the US and the UK) is that if it’s a terrorist threat it’s a big one. If it’s a war however, it’s a tiny one (provided you’re not Iraqi). The World Trade Center attack was an extraordinarily large terrorist attack, with several thousand people killed in a day. It far dwarfs the London bombings (50 dead) or Madrid (190 dead). In terms of past wars in Europe, however, it’s nothing remarkable. Britain has just been remembering the Battle of the Somme, 90 years after it happened. On the first day, almost 20,000 British soldiers died. Meanwhile, as Max Hastings comments, in World War 2 ‘Stalin’s armies experienced a hundred Sommes, and Russia lost 27 million lives.’

In the autumn of 2001 I was in Magdeburg. You probably won’t have heard of it: it’s a grim industrial city in Eastern Germany, whose glory days were in the early Middle Ages (why I was there). An exhibition in the Cathedral discussed a WW2 bombing raid by the British and Americans. In 15 minutes around 3000 people died. This wasn’t the biggest of the terror bombings (they have to be called that) by the Allies at the time: think of Dresden or Cologne. And in turn, they were a response to the Blitz, to the destruction that had been wreaked on civilian lives in Plymouth and London and Coventry and so many other British towns. It wasn’t the first time Magdeburg had been destroyed, either: it had happened before during the horrors of the Thirty Years war.

More recently, and even today, there are places at war where civilians must worry every day whether they can get through daily life safely. Belfast in the Troubles, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Iraq and many others. If you’re a civilian in the US or the UK today, your daily life is almost unaffected: you face a small risk of an attack even in the biggest cities. Compare it even to times in the Cold War, when there was a genuine and widespread fear of a possible nuclear war and the threat is almost negligible. This isn’t a war by any normal standards: claiming it is is simply a misuse of language.


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