Afghanistan: the hard lessons of history
Apocryphal or not, it’s the noted British historian AJP Taylor who is credited with saying: ”The key lesson of history is that we don’t learn the lesson of history.”
The British withdrawal from yet another Afghan invasion and war which many perceive we have (as part of NATO this time around) lost, is underway.
Those running the NATO war in Washington have had enough. They want out. Managed exit or surrender, depending how you see it, the 2014 shut-down has been long and loudly announced.
We can all argue about degrees of success or failure. But the key, indisputable facts raised by Afghans themselves can’t be dodged – must not be dodged – any longer.
Afghans – like us – want security above all else. And critics of the war say that security is what we have destroyed for them, above all else. The Taliban imposed security as did their Northern Alliance enemies and sundry other warlords and Afghans do not forget that.
NATO will leave a host of resistance forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan intact, fighting and killing daily.
Al Qaeda – the reason for the war, remember, now spreads from the Af/Pak tribal zones across The Gulf via Yemen into East Africa, west to Mali and north into (of all places) Syria.
It’s also taken root in the UK from the 7/7 bombers of yesteryear (who bombed London they said, because of our invasion of Afghanistan) to the British jihadis in Syria.
Of course inside Afghanistan steps have been taken to try and implant a parliament, elections, educating girls, improved healthcare and all the rest of it. But as people there will tell you reasonably enough – it’s a ‘rest of it’ which means very little if there isn’t the security to make any of it function and last when we’ve gone.
Yet…yet..week in, week out, scarcely a murmur of debate – let alone dissent from the UK about continuing injuries and loss of life of British soldiers.
Critics of the war claim that, given we’ve announced our departure to ‘the enemy’, it’s hard to construct a more futile reason for British soldiers to die or get hurt than in the current Afghan war.
NATO insists it must press on though, to get the Afghan army in the best shape possible before it leaves.
Right or wrong on both sides, what we can surely all agree on is that something very weird is happening in the UK now, just as it is in the US and to other NATO players. The deaths and horrifying injuries of young British soldiers go on and on and on and yet cause scarcely a murmur here at home.
Prime Minister’s Questions routinely kicks off with the spectacle of party leaders offering condolences for the latest lives lost. This passes with the usual noises of approval in the Commons. Business as usual.
However, viewers contact me from time to time to express indignation at what they see as the hypocrisy of our leaders expressing concern for the very lives they are expending.
And here we see what some complain about as the only narrative allowable in the UK, the only way permitted to see a war which many view as: the narrative of ‘heroism’.
Move away from Westminster and we have ‘Help for Heroes’ now. Of course they’re doing exceptional work for people in terrible circumstances. But what some see as the easy use of that word again ‘heroism’ does not sit comfortably with everyone.
Serving soldiers complain to me – and more ex-soldiers – about just this.
Their concerns deserve to be heard and seldom are, in modern Britain. Their argument at once simple, yet subtle.
Yes, they say, it’s clearly important and valuable to do all we can for our young people horribly injured in Afghanistan.
They also make the valid point that for many it is obviously simply ‘heroic’ to be fighting for your country because that is what an army does, without question. Equally, the grieving families of lost British soldiers our due not simply the respect of the nation but it’s support. Nobody should have to bury their sons or daughters and to do so towards the very end of a long war where the end is already marked out and in sight takes a particular type of ‘heroic sacrifice’.
Surely most would accept this without question?
But – it is still argued - isn’t there a danger that the more we simplify and glorify this war solely as ‘heroism’ the less we confront its reality? Does ‘heroism’, it’s argued, blind us to what’s really happening? Therefore, is it ultimately in the soldiers’ best interests?
Because, their argument runs, blinded by ‘heroism’, two very dangerous things can happen. First, it makes it easier to send off future kids to future wars however ill-conceived. Second, it’s ever easier for Whitehall to neglect the casualties of war because charity will do the government’s duty.
It seems to me we should pause for thought at this. It’s sensitive stuff. And no serving soldier can say anything like this on the record, of course. They tell me they see it everywhere. The narrative of ‘heroism’ stalks the land. Nothing terribly wrong in that, so long us other narratives are heard in our media – but this intriguing one almost never is.
I read in my local paper this month of a plaque going up to commemorate two local lads killed in Helmand and again it’s all ‘heroes’ and ‘heroism’. It’s the stuff of local papers the length and breadth of the land. Like so much of the media they can only, possibly, ever, tell one ‘heroic’ story of the Afghan War. Is this not a little bit odd, given so many of their readers will be sceptical of the war, to put it politely?
TV coverage very often deals with the war from the same perspective – to an audience equally sceptical as the opinion polls have shown down the years.
Whatever the facts, such as those laid out above, it’s often as if no real debate about the war and its actual achievements and effects, is allowed.
For some critics of the war inside and outside the military, there are dangers in this.
Because they say drenching the nation in ‘heroism’ instead of facing harsh reality, however painful, has real future implications.
Time then, it is argued, to open up proper debate about The Afghan War – now longer than Vietnam. And to make this happen for those who need it most, deserve it most and are being starved of it most: our soldiers.
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