David Cameron has apparently declared "mission accomplished" for British troops in Afghanistan. Pedants might point out that he was responding to a journalist's prompt, so the term is a plant with an eye to a headline, but this is incidental. The meaning of the spectacle is captured in the use of the word "declared", with its cricketing connotations of the captain's judgement. The Prime Minister has decided that we have done enough and it is time to quit the field. Just to reinforce the point, he was even accompanied by a celebrity retiree in the person of Michael Owen.
In an earlier age, the term "mission accomplished" would have been voiced by a military leader reporting to the civil power that had commissioned him. This was not merely confirmation that the will of the state had been successfully executed, but that the powers temporarily vested in the military had now been formally returned. The model for this was the practice in classical Greece and Republican Rome of treating warfare as an episodic activity requiring limited sanction. In the modern era of citizen armies, conscription and demobilisation became the ceremonies that marked these power exchanges, with triumphal processions and laurel wreaths going out of fashion in democracies in favour of impromptu kissing couples in public squares.
The ragged wars of the post-1945 period could not be characterised as successes by the West, and usually lacked call-ups and demobs, so there were few opportunities to claim "mission accomplished" until Thatcher decided to buck the trend with a Roman triumph as the armed forces marched into the City in 1982 to celebrate victory in the Falklands. But if that was a throwback in style, it also marked a return to the celebration of political will as much as military accomplishment. For all the praise of the fallen and the scarred, the chief message was clearly "we were right, and don't anyone say otherwise". The triumph was less a military conclusion than a political validation.
This neocon fashion reached the height of unintentional parody in 2003 when George W Bush did his Top Gun impression on the USS Abraham Lincoln beneath a banner with the legend "Mission Accomplished". The irony was that the military (rightly) did not consider that the mission in Iraq was anywhere near accomplished. The White House subsequently claimed that the banner's meaning was taken out of context, but their failure to spot the obvious hostage to fortune was a pretty good indication of both their hubris and the casual contempt for facts in the "war on terror".
Cameron's declaration is less vainglorious, but it is no less of a stunt. It is not difficult to make the case that the original objectives of Britain's involvement in Afghanistan have not been met, but the government has now reframed the brief to match the current reality, specifically bumping the Taliban training camps into Pakistan. According to the Prime Minister: "the purpose of our mission was always to build an Afghanistan and Afghan security forces that were capable of maintaining a basic level of security so this country never again became a haven for terrorist training camps". Job done. Let's get out of here before that "basic level" crumbles.
Given the current cuts in military spending, and the determination of most politicians to spunk an increasing slice of what is left on a Trident replacement, not to mention the emerging money-pits of cyber-warfare and drones, British troops aren't likely to see much action over the next decade or so (bumping the al-Qaida franchise out of Syria will be pursued via proxies). The current sentimental mood of Help for Heroes and tabloid-sponsored award ceremonies will linger on, but we'll gradually revert to the British tradition of seeing squaddies as crypto-hooligans whom it's best to steer clear of.
Just as Obama's kill-list symbolises the increasing bureaucratisation of war (and the militarisation of the bureaucracy), Cameron's downbeat triumph symbolises the increasingly trivial nature of the decisions taken to enter and exit wars. It's just business. With the ever-present background hum of total surveillance and cyber-warfare already in place, we are now in an era of permanent, low-level conflict, preferably at arms-length. The exceptional powers of the military have been abrogated by the state as a none-too-subtle way to bypass democracy. In such a world, we have no need of triumphs.