AMONG the myths of modern life is the idea that the United Kingdom has been at peace, shielded by its nuclear weapons, since the end of the Hitler war.

What we really mean is that violence has left us unscathed at home, more or less, or that no government has made a formal declaration of hostilities against another state. Peace is a technicality.

Even the description is a long way from exact. However you define them, the Troubles in Northern Ireland claimed a great many lives, military and civilian, over three decades. Figures around the 3500 mark are usually given. Between 1969 and 1998, 763 British military personnel are known to have been killed. No dictionary ever called that peace.

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The seemingly perpetual war on terrorism is fast falling into the same category. No declaration of war; no specific enemy identified; but soldiers and civilians have died and continue to die in terrorist atrocities here or in combat zones abroad. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we have followed the United States. The special relationship has been one of obedience. The consequences have been dire.

The record says, in any case, that there has not been a year since 1945 when British personnel have not been in action somewhere. In the first few decades after the toppling of the Nazis, our forces were Cold War warriors or post-colonial police. They fought communists of various sorts from Greece to Malaya to Korea; they "intervened" in Cyprus, Suez, Aden or Oman. Their last hurrah under their own steam was in the Falklands.

Since then Britain has done its bit at America's command. Where once Harold Wilson used all his wiles to keep us (more or less) out of Vietnam, successive prime ministers have enlisted in Washington's wars of choice with little hesitation. Some - Tony Blair above all - have shown more loyalty to US presidents than to their parliament, people or party. They have not covered themselves in glory.

What has been to their credit? The first Gulf War in 1990-91 certainly liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, but it did more to secure oil supplies than it ever did for democracy in the former British protectorate. The UK's part in belated international efforts in the Balkans during the rest of the decade was hardly a model of liberal interventionism. Only a brief, solo incursion into Sierra Leone during its civil war is offered for justification by Blairite proponents of military force.

The rest, Iraq and Afghanistan above all, have been catastrophic. The latter has brought the number of known British military dead since 1945 close to 5000. A great many more service people have been horribly injured, mentally and physically, for alleged aims that have been revised repeatedly. In the 21st century, our forces have suffered, time and again, thanks to choices made in Washington.

America does what is in America's interests. Why would it do otherwise? In the US scheme of things, British loyalty, like Britain itself, is taken for granted.

This is not a partnership in any real sense. If Defence Secretary Philip Hammond flew off to Washington to upbraid the US government over its spending policies, the first question he would provoke would be simple: "Who is this guy?" If the minister, far less one of his retired predecessors, then declared that the US was not pulling its weight there would be a merriment and short shrift for the impertinence. America takes lessons from no-one.

Last week, retired US defence secretary Robert Gates turned up on Radio 4 and interfered without inhibition in UK domestic politics. He didn't care for cuts in defence spending. He warned against any thought of nuclear disarmament. We are in danger, he said, of losing our status as "full partner". He might as well have stripped the UK of its brass buttons. Gates was neither ignored, as he should have been, nor told to mind his business. Instead, David Cameron came running to insist the UK is still a "first-class player" in the big-power game and to boast that even now "we have the fourth-largest defence budget anywhere in the world".

Meanwhile, Labour's Vernon Coaker, shadow defence secretary, declared that the Prime Minister should be worried by the opinions of "Britain's strongest ally".

Why? So we can be ready for another Iraq or Afghanistan? So the delusion of global power and influence can be maintained for another decade? So that still more billions can be poured into the defence procurement money pit while the people of these islands struggle to cope with degraded public services and a collapse in living standards? The Coalition's defence cuts are an opportunity, ironically enough, to think again about Britain's role as a camp follower in hideous American adventures - adventures that have done nothing to keep us safe. Scotland's independence referendum offers one chance to step away from the delusions of "full spectrum" military power. There is a lot to be said for being a small country denied grandiose ambitions. Nevertheless, this argument applies to all, north and south, who have grown up with post-imperial Britain's devotion to the new kid on the block. The consequences have been bloody and bad. They have also been degrading.