Thursday, October 08, 2009

Bringing them all back home

We've got family friends whose son is a young army officer. Six months ago he was posted to Helmand province. I've only met him once as an adult although I remember him as a lad. It's pathetic that I should feel that this gives me some personal contact with what's going on in Afghanistan. Now that we know which battle group he's with, we pay attention every time one of those radio news items starts with the words "the army has confirmed...." One of our daughters wears a wrist band with 2 Rifles on it. None of us has the remotest clue what they're going through but I have a fraction of an idea what agony it must be for his parents and even that thought keeps me awake sometimes.

He's just finished his tour and returned and, as you can imagine, they're beside themselves with happiness. But it won't be long before they start to think about the chances of his being sent back. And if you've done any reading about this conflict - if you haven't, I'd recommend Anthony Loyd's piece in The Times or Patrick Hennessey's "The Junior Officers Reading Club", both of which are written by former soldiers who know whereof they speak - you'll realise that the men are often worryingly keen to get back, either because of ambition or solidarity with their comrades.

I'm not concerned about the rights and wrongs of how we got into this fight but I do feel increasingly soul weary about the idea of kids from leafy Surrey and not so leafy Govan being sent to be used as target practice by a foe that has only one simple objective, to kill a British soldier. And I know I'm not the only one. For once there doesn't even seem to be a newspaper beating the drum and there's a perceptible feeling in the country that these kids have been sent on mission impossible. Unless there's a radical, painful and no doubt embarrassing change of policy this will be still going on in five years time and some of the 20-year-olds losing their legs will be the same schoolkids you might see in the bus station tonight. Come the election I wonder if it will be a bigger issue than the economy.


  1. NomadUK3:42 pm

    I'm not concerned about the rights and wrongs of how we got into this fight

    Maybe if a lot more people were, we'd be out of it by now. Or, better yet, never have gotten into it.

  2. I'm just reading Hennessy's book and I get the opposite impression - that there are a lot of lads from Tunbridge Wells and Kirkaldy getting quite a lot of target practice in at the young men of Helmand. Hennessy describes how he calls in air strike after air strike on the Taliban and they just keep coming back like a drunken boxer. Except they keep getting better. And as he describes how his best friends are blown up by IEDs or suicide bombers, I keep having to remind myself as to why we are over there.

  3. @NomadUK

    I know, you'd almost think an operation had been coordinated from Afghanistan that resulted in the deaths of over 3000 people in the centre of New York or something.

    It really is a mystery why we're there isn't it?

  4. The mystery is why anyone thinks being there makes a repeat of 9/11 less likely

  5. NomadUK4:17 pm

    It really is a mystery why we're there isn't it?

    To me, yes, especially given that there was never any evidence that the government of a sovereign state and member of the United Nations was implicated in said operation; that aggressive invasion of another member state is a violation of the UN Charter, to which the US is a signatory; that said government was in the process of negotiating the terms under which the criminal elements responsible for said operation would be handed over to an international court for trial; and how said criminal elements -- and, in fact, said unsavory government -- were, in fact, the outgrowth of the illegally-supported insurgency funded by the US government to overthrow the first government in Afghanistan's history to promote, however imperfectly, freedom of religion, land reform, and women's rights, simply because it was backed by the Soviet Union.

    Quite a mystery, really.

    Oh, and I forget, just how many people have been killed in retaliation for those 3,000 New Yorkers? What's the proper ratio of the life of a New Yorker to that of an Afghan/Iraqi? Let me know when you figure that out. On the other hand, y'know what, don't bother.

  6. @NomadUK:

    Yes, you're right. Immediate withdrawal is the only option. Then all will be for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

  7. Shorter NomadUK: Everything is always the fault of the Americans.

  8. A point on 'legality':

    The antiwar lobby makes much of the legality or otherwise of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I just want to pose a question to NomadUK, Huw and anyone else of this mindset.

    Imagine a scenario in which, during the apartheid years, regime change had been mooted for South Africa, on the basis that the world could no longer tolerate this most naked prejudice any longer.

    Would the SWP et al be thronging the streets demanding that the white minority government be left alone? I have my doubts. Similarly, given the company they now seem happy to keep, I imagine there would be much popular support on the Left for the forcible ending of Israel's 'illegal' occupation.

    The modern Left has a surprising and worrying level of tolerance (even outright support) for the most repressive ideologies imaginable; so much so that Germaine Greer likened female circumcision to a lifestyle choice such as a US punk's body piercing.

    The fact is that the fight against Islamic terror and fundamentalism is not felt to be worth it. Legality is not the issue.

  9. What anti-war lobby? There's a discernible pro-the-other-side lobby. But no anti-war lobby I can see.

  10. Douglas: I said I didn't think that us being in Afghanistan made another terrorist outrage less likely. That doesn't make me a bleeding heart liberal. I don't see the point in sending our troops to fight an unwinnable war in pursuit of an ill defined objective.

  11. Huw:
    Fair point, but it should be remembered that 9/11 was planned during the Clinton/Gore years.

    Also, similar reservations could have been expressed during the Cold War, about the apparent impossibility of defeating the 'implacable commies'.

    I just feel that, if a similar process occurs (as I dearly hope), namely a populist overthrow of the fundamentalist regimes across the Middle East (as the Lebanese 'Cedar Revolution' briefly threatened to be), some antiwar critics will find themselves on the wrong side, having basically viewed such regimes as a robust critique of US imperialism. I accept that you're not in this camp.

    I'm saying that, in my view, the conflict is clearly 'worth fighting', not on the scale of WWll of course, but then we are not comitting remotely comparable resources to this as we did then.

    To get back to David's original point, any politician or military spokesman would be on a hiding to nothing in a debate with a bereaved mother. However, it's worth pointing out that there are no conscripts in this war...

  12. NomadUK10:44 pm

    I just want to pose a question to NomadUK, Huw and anyone else of this mindset.

    Look, you tool, let me explain it to you.

    The use of force to impose our will upon sovereign states in the absence of a clear and immediate danger or actual act of hostilities is illegal under international law. That goes for South Africa, Israel, countries that practice female mutilation, and any of the other reprehensible entities on the face of this godforsaken planet. That makes the current and several past US administrations guilty of war crimes; every last one of them should be up on charges.

    I would have been as opposed to our overthrowing the despicable apartheid government in South Africa as I am to our having invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, to Israel's invading Gaza, to the Arab states having invaded Israel, and all the rest of it. We have — or, rather would have, had the US not done such a bang-up job undermining it virtually since its inception — an international framework for dealing with such things. Imperfect, but there.

    And the simple fact is that there would be no Islamic terror and fundamentalism to worry about had not the people whose objectives and ideology you so clearly support not spent the past 60 years intervening in and trying to manipulate countries in that region, supporting a government which is carrying out a brutal and illegal occupation, and bombing at will anyone and anyplace that we feel like for any rationale we care to concoct.

  13. @NomadUK:

    Less of the patronising personal attacks, if you don't mind.

  14. Couldn't agree more. Beginning to think that the internet ought to follow the same rules as the old officers' mess: no talk of religion or politics and don't use ladies names.

  15. NomadUK1:30 pm

    Less of the patronising personal attacks, if you don't mind

    I thought I had edited out that first line in my response, which was written in a rather heated moment. However.

    Perhaps fewer assumptions on your part as to the mindset of those of us in the 'Modern Left', with which you seem to be quite unacquainted, and fewer accusations of our tolerance of the more hideous regimes on this planet might lower the blood pressure of those replying to you.

    Beyond that, I bow to Mr Hepworth and abandon the topic, as this conversation serves no useful purpose.

  16. Surely the question is less why are we in afghanistan - but why were we distracted by Iraq?

  17. What I've thought from the beginning is that WE are in Iraq because we thought our interests were in backing the USA. Evil though the consequences have been I still understand the original judgement. That GWBush decided to be distracted by Iraq is a tradgedy for all.

  18. I am lost in admiration for the young men in Afghanistan, and Junior Officers' Reading Club is a splendid book.

    On another matter, I do wish people would ditch this lazy American habit of referring to left wingers as "liberals".

    That is the last thing they are.

  19. David,
    Very relevant to your post is today's comment in The Times from Lt.-Colonel Robert Thomson, commanding officer of 2 Rifles.

    A more rounded explanation than I was able to give. Then again, being a 'tool', what do I know?

  20. I was just reading that myself. Can't help feeling that in situations like these the military are always going to say, we're making some progress but we need more resources. The real judgement call has to be down to the politicians. Are you really going to effect lasting change in this vast country with a few thousand soldiers? I'm no military man but I find it hard to believe we are. Not without sitting down and doing some deals with some fairly repugnant individuals.