Like being shot by a sniper on the western front at 10.59am on November 11, 1918, to die now as a British soldier in Iraq is its own special category of tragedy. What has he died for? Is Iraq a safer and more secure place? Is the rest of the world, including Britain, likewise? Is the Middle East more democratic, more optimistic of its future? But adjust these lofty aims: is the price of oil lower? The answer is not just that these things have stayed much the same; it is in all cases the incendiary opposite. Worse than all this futility, worse even than the bogus prospectus for the invasion that took him there in the first place, the dead soldier will know in the last days of his life that only a small number of his fellow citizens want him and his comrades to be there, and that his government, with what on the hottest Basra day must seem like glacial slowness, is trying to get him out.
Privates Scott Kennedy and Jamie Kerr, both of the Black Watch, died with a third soldier when a roadside bomb exploded near Basra on June 28. They were both 20 and came from West Fife. The prime minister, another Fifer, said, "My thoughts and prayers are with all the families of all the fallen soldiers, who died bravely serving their country."
That is one way of seeing it. Shortly before he died, suffused with homesickness and nerves, Jamie Kerr emailed his chatroom friends, "You ask why I am writing this [at 5am in Basra], well ... canny get any sleep and a want to go hame."
Why couldn't he be brought home? The British army no longer runs Basra, if it ever did. Troop numbers have almost halved from the 9,000 who were there in 2004 and the British effort now seems mainly dedicated to the protection of the British barracks and the airport: Rorke's Drift with air support. The only reason they remain, so far as one can tell, is to preserve an illusion of Brown-Bush solidarity on policy in Iraq, to spare diplomatic breaches and embarrassment, to "manage things well" - subtlely, ambiguously, without scaring the horses - until an American president can blame things beyond his control for his adventure's abject failure. There are very few causes to die for and this would not be one of them. The letters Gordon Brown sends to the bereaved must be hell to write.
Britain didn't always tiptoe towards the inevitable destination of military withdrawal in this life-wasting way, at least if the lives were British. In August, 1947, 60 years ago next month, it withdrew from a much larger and older project, British India, with a speed and directness that alarmed many Indians and with a purpose that stemmed in small part from America's then anti-colonial pressure on a country that was broke and badly in America's debt. India is far from a perfect analogy with Iraq, but in 1947 it offered some remarkably similar problems. Its politics had become lethally communalised - not Shia v Sunni, but Muslim v Hindu and Sikh. London attempted to preserve a one-nation India, but failed; by early 1947 there was still no form of Indian government to which power could be transferred. British troops in India, not counting British officers in the Indian Army, had dwindled from a prewar figure of 60,000 to no more than 12,000 two years after the second world war ended, and all of them were very anxious to come home. When Attlee's Labour government took office in 1945, withdrawal from India was no longer a matter of if, but when.
In Downing Street on the last day of 1946, a cabinet meeting pondered the wisdom of announcing a precise date when, to quote from the record, "we had no assurance that there would by then be a representative authority to whom we could hand over power." Still, the cabinet felt that a precise date might knock a few heads together and that withdrawal could be dressed up so as not to "appear to be forced upon us by our weakness" but instead the logical conclusion of policies pursued by successive British governments.
The truth is that a blunt document written in September by Lord Wavell, the penultimate viceroy, had scared them. "In India one must either rule firmly or not at all," he wrote. "With a largely uneducated and excitable people, easily moved to violence, it is essential that agitation and incitement to unbridled riot should be stopped at once." Britain lacked the will and means for the long haul. Wavell said Britain needed to quit no later than spring, 1948. In February, 1947, the government earmarked June, and then appointed Wavell's successor, Louis Mountbatten.
Mountbatten was a military nincompoop and one of stupendous vanity, with a boyish preoccupation with flags, medals, uniforms and orders of ceremony. But in India he and his cleverer wife, Edwina, charmed people, particularly India's most significant politician, Jawaharlal Nehru. For their day and class, they were remarkably free of racial condescension. A combination of charm, bluster, rashness and perhaps ignorance achieved a political settlement within months, though it meant the partition of India. By 1947, Indian politicians on all sides had begun to see the idea of Pakistan as inevitable, though neither Britain nor the US was particularly in favour of it. What may not have been inevitable was the slaughter that accompanied Pakistan's creation and for which Mountbatten's haste is sometimes held to blame; according to the historian Andrew Roberts, he should have been court-martialled when he got back to London. Somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people died.
But slowness may only have postponed and aggravated the carnage. Hindu-Muslim killings were already a fact of Indian life - in 1946, 4,000 died in the Calcutta riots - and worsening every day. Mountbatten had few British troops to call on, and probably even fewer willing to risk their lives in the cause of communal harmony. And most politicians wanted the British out as soon as possible. Nehru had said, "I would rather have every village in India go up in flames than keep a single British soldier in India a moment longer than necessary." The one indubitable benefit, from a strictly British point of view, is that very few British soldiers died between the declaration of India's independence and the last troopship home - seven officers is one statistic.
So far in Iraq, 159 British troops have died and 3,611 Americans (current rates are about 100 a month). Iraq's own parliament is bitterly and hopelessly divided, as far from reconciliation as Pakistan's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was from joining hands with Nehru. Iraq has no Gandhi to heal and inspire. Perhaps what Gordon Brown needs is that unlikely thing, a touch of the Mountbattens. He could set a date. How about tomorrow? Tomorrow would be good.
© 2007 The Guardian/UK