It’s almost 60 years since historian Charles A Beard coined the phrase
“perpetual war for perpetual peace” and George Orwell gave the idea
immortality in 1984. But it has never seemed so real as it does
now, with the “war on terror” in its fifth year, no closer to
resolution and indeed no closer to even finding out what resolution
would look like.

But supporters of this undefined and undefinable war continue to promote it with fanciful historical analogies. Today in The Australian
we hear from Neil Brown, a former federal minister and deputy Liberal
Party leader. In his view, recently released notes of some of Winston
Churchill’s comments during World War II can be used to justify
torture, illegal surveillance and summary executions.

Well, first of all, this argument is a gross insult to Churchill’s
memory. The fact that he was capable of some outrageous off-the-cuff
remarks mustn’t outweigh all the evidence that he had a very deep
respect for the rule of law. Even if he was serious (and some of his
suggestions, like the crack about executing Hitler with an electric
chair borrowed from the Americans, sound like obvious jokes), he was
easily talked out of them by his cabinet colleagues.

Brown says that “news of … Churchill’s uncompromising views has been
greeted in these more delicate times with shock and horror,” but the
reaction at the time was disapproving as well: it was Clement Atlee who
argued against engaging in a “competition in frightfulness” with
Hitler. Although Brown ridicules this view, it prevailed – Britain did not
descend to its enemy’s level of barbarism, and it won the war anyway.

Just as importantly, Brown’s argument makes unforgivable light of the
struggle that Churchill was engaged in. Any comparison between World
War II and the trumped-up “war on terror” is laughable. Nazi Germany
was a giant industrial power, controlling most of the resources of
Europe and commanding huge modern armies. Al-Qa’eda is a fugitive band
of terrorists capable of an occasional dramatic strike.

War against one was a matter of life and death; “war” against the other
is a police action. Confusing the two dishonours the men and women who
fought to preserve our freedoms. And it risks giving politicians a
licence to destroy those very freedoms from within.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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