More Downs Than Ups?
From the April 10, 2007, Chicago Sun-Times
April 11, 2007
by John O'Sullivan
LONDON -- Can an entire nation go on an emotional roller-coaster?
Britain's public has been on such an emotional adventure since its 15 sailors and marines were seized in the Persian Gulf. It may not yet be over. At first there was a curious absence of public reaction in Britain. Americans seemed more angry and alarmed than Brits about the fate of the hostages in the first few days.
This was not the stoical "stiff upper lip" of imperial Britannia, however. It was an odd mood, what psychiatrists call "lack of affect," in which people remain unmoved by something that should anger or alarm them. They were ignoring a mixture of threat and insult.
Why? In part they had become so accustomed to blaming the Iraq War for anything that went wrong that they dimly felt guilty for the Iranian kidnapping of their own people. More significantly, the Brits have been drifting into a quasi-pacifist "European" identity which prefers international bodies over military force to repel attacks. A Daily Telegraph poll showed that about two-thirds of Brits no longer wanted their country to play a world role. They were becoming weary isolationists.
But it was plain after a day or two that neither the United Nations nor the European Union was going to help in any useful way. So if the Brits noticed the Iranian insult, they might have to do something about it themselves (or in company with the United States). They were saved from this awful possibility by the Iranian release of their captives. For a single day there was an outburst of national rejoicing. Newspapers and television showed the military captives, clutching their "gift" bags, alongside a smiling Iranian president under headlines of relief and celebration.
Why did it remind me of Princess Diana's funeral? It seemed that Brits, once a tough-minded nation marked by self-control, had been transformed into touchy-feely devotees of a loose and self-forgiving emotionalism. Then the mood changed.
This change was helped along by the murder that day of four British soldiers, two of them women, by a roadside bomb in Basra. Prime Minister Tony Blair cited them as victims of the same terrorism that had held the 15 Brits hostage. On the following day the Daily Mail put their photographs on the front page under the headline "Heroes," relegating the 15 to the inside pages and a lesser status.
Suddenly the earlier mood of rejoicing seemed cheap and self-delusional. The leading military commentator, Sir Max Hastings, wrote an influential article -- "Heads Must Roll" -- arguing that the episode had been a mixture of military incompetence and national humiliation.
Others took up his theme, calling for a naval Board of Enquiry. Hard questions began to be asked: Why had the helicopter protecting them flown away when Iranian military vessels were nearby? Why had the British commander not asked other vessels under his command, including U.S. ships, to intervene? Why had the 15 cooperated so readily with Iranians?
Britain's Ministry of Defense, under siege, retaliated in an ingenious way: It exempted the 15 captives from the usual restriction on service personnel selling their stories to the media -- only to have to backtrack after an outcry against it. Doubtless the defense ministry had reckoned that their tales of being subjected to psychological warfare and forced to sleep in tiny cells would play well with a British public in an emotional state. But the Dianification of Britain had not gone quite that far.
There was a firestorm of criticism. Families of the dead soldiers criticized the payments -- some as high as $200,000. Not all the 15 agreed to sell their stories. One said the idea was undignified. And while this reaction was building, the Iranians released footage of the 15 captives playing table tennis and tucking into hearty dinners.
No one likes this. Commentators in the media and the blogosphere make pointed comparisons with previous British (and American) captives who resisted more resolutely. But they have difficulty in explaining exactly why the 15 should have behaved in a more manly way. After all, isn't this how post-imperial Sensitive Man is supposed to behave?
The crisis has held up a mirror to the new post-imperial and Dianified Britain -- and the Brits don't like their own reflection.
John O'Sullivan was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.