Max Hastings: the military historian who hates war

Sir Max Hastings has been called the leading voice in the anti-war sentiment: “(War) can cost an enormous number of lives and a lot of those people haven’t been killed by al-Qaeda or the Taliban but by our bombs and our guns.”

max hastings 2He describes the drone strikes as ‘pred porn’. “The military get seduced by watching live images and being able to say ‘take him out’ from their armchairs.

Everyone seems to think that the First World War in the trenches were awful but all wars are ghastly; the drone business can kid people there is a clean nice way of winning but there isn’t. You have to go in, get your hands dirty, see young men being maimed if you want war, the idea that you can push a few buttons in Lincolnshire and fire a few missiles from a drone is insane.”

Both his parents were journalists and he was determined to succeed in their world, becoming editor of two newspapers and author of 25 books.

“I was brought up to believe that the first duty of a journalist is to be a troublemaker, though I hope one is never an iconoclast doing it for the sake of doing it.”

Alice Thomson and Rachel Sylvester writing for the Times, see him as the leading voice in the anti-war sentiment.

He believes the prime minister was wrong to join the bombing campaign in Syria: “People like me have a responsibility to say, ‘Look there is no plan here, there is no coherent strategy.’ If we don’t say it, who will? . . . I’ve seen so many wars it makes me very wary that military action without purpose is a good idea.

“Cameron is not being correct to say it will keep our streets safe, this isn’t part of a coherent policy, we are making it up as we go along. I would focus far harder on what to do about Islamic radicalisation in this country and not just be thinking about making a gesture by dropping bombs in Syria . . .

“What worries me is his short-termism — his idea of strategy is how to get through until Tuesday. He doesn’t think through what he says, he once described Isis as an existential threat. He’s a clever man, he ought to know better”.

He also believes it is “nonsense” for the prime minister to suggest that 70,000 moderate Syrians are ready to fight. “We just don’t know. The prime minister should be leading a proper debate rather than chucking out spurious figures. There are three threats, Isis, migration and the Syrian war. We can try to combat Isis and treat the refugee crisis seriously but we should not take sides in Syria. There is no point in getting rid of tyrants if we replace them with anarchy or something worse.”

Sir Max, who has just written his first book on military intelligence, The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, says: “It has been a huge mistake to run down our Foreign Office so our diplomatic presence is weakened. A lot of our best information has come not from spies with moustaches but diplomats in suits . . .In peacetime the best brains don’t need to waste their minds in intelligence but during difficult times and wars intelligence is the front line. Instead of buying the F-35 [fighter jet] we would do much better to spend a fraction of that money identifying and employing really clever people to work in analysis and cybersecurity . . . we need to give up some freedom so we can monitor these people.”

On social media Isis is winning, he thinks: “I would love to scrap the aircraft carriers and run a social media offensive against Isis that destroyed their propaganda machine. Isis is just a ludicrous death cult with no coherent vision to offer rational people. They are absurd.”

What is lacking is people who understand the nuances of battle. “The recent debate in the Commons was preposterous . . . Hilary Benn’s speech was passionate but juvenile, we need to be pragmatic. Politicians can’t give all the answers but they have to pose the questions. The public aren’t as stupid as most politicians think.”

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