Ian Cobain writes: For more than a hundred years, not a single year has passed when Britain’s armed forces have not been engaged in military operations somewhere in the world. The British are unique in this respect: the same could not be said of the Americans, the Russians, the French or any other nation.
Only the British are perpetually at war.
One reason that this is rarely acknowledged could be that in the years following the second world war, and before the period of national self-doubt that was provoked in 1956 by the Suez crisis, Britain engaged in so many end-of-empire scraps that military activity came to be regarded by the British public as the norm, and therefore unremarkable. Another is that since 1945, British forces have engaged in a series of small wars that were under-reported and now all but forgotten, or which were obscured, even as they were being fought, by more dramatic events elsewhere.
A great deal is known about some conflicts, such as the 1982 Falklands war and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Britain’s role in the two world wars has become in many ways central to the national narrative. But other conflicts are remembered only dimly or have always remained largely hidden.
One strategically vital war, waged by Britain for more than a decade, was fought for most of that time in complete secrecy. In January 1972, readers of the Observer opened their newspaper to see a report headlined “UK fighting secret Gulf war?” On the same day, the Sunday Times ran a very similar article, asking: “Is Dhofar Britain’s hush-hush war?” British troops, the newspapers revealed, were engaged in the war that the sultan of Oman was fighting against guerrillas in the mountains of Dhofar in the south of the country.
Four years earlier, the devaluation crisis had forced Harold Wilson’s government to pledge that British forces would be withdrawn from all points east of Suez by December 1971 – the only exemption being a small force that was to remain in Hong Kong. Now the Observer article was demanding to know: “Has Britain really withdrawn all her forces from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula? Or is the British government, like the Americans in Laos, waging a secret war without the full knowledge of parliament and public?” The Observer located one of the insurgency’s leaders, who told its reporter that the war had begun with an “explosion” in the country on 9 June 1965, triggered by what he described as poor local governance and “the oppression of the British”. By the time the Observer and Sunday Times were publishing their first, tentative reports, Britain had been at war in Oman for six-and-a-half years. [Continue reading…]