Another day, another turgid outpouring of near random anger. Today, ladies and gents, it is the lucky old war in Afghanistan that gets to have a bunch of my bile slowly dribbled all over it. To be fair, that’s the least of their problems but being one never to miss an opportunity to make a bad situation worse, I feel obliged to get stuck in with a good old surge of nay-saying.
Alright, let’s get this show on the road. By their very nature, wars are messy affairs that often blur the lines between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and consequently need mythologising the fuck out of if they are going to go anywhere. Sometimes the myths work really well and we all get to pat each other on the back in the name of a ‘good’ war while thousands die untimely deaths as a result of stuff they had absolutely no control over. Fig. 1 in ‘The Good War Fun Book’ is WWII for the following reasons:
A) We really didn’t start that one. Further to that, the guy who did start it seemed to really enjoy being Global Dickhead #1.
B) We won…it’s really hard to have a ‘good war’ without winning.
C) By the time we did win, we had uncovered some of the most unholy bullshit ever perpetrated which lends a whole load of credibility to the ‘good war’ claim.
D) Our armed forces appeared to be composed of wholesome stereotypes (like the Cock-er-ny Tommies whistling ‘Knees-Up Muvver Brahhhn’ and “Gawd blessing” ‘er Majesty as they march off to certain death or the unflappable, pipe-chomping chaps from the home counties who quaintly understate everything before unleashing several tonnes of high explosives over a civilian area).
E) You can legitimately claim that the war fell into the category of ‘Battle for Existence’. I mean Hitler wasn’t really pissing about, was he?
Of course, if you scratch the surface a little, then things aren’t quite that simple. The bombing of Dresden doesn’t fit in quite so well with the glorious narrative we grew up with and to think it was only the bad guys who committed war crimes is plain old wishful thinking. However, those are the things that history tends to gloss over and our enduring memory is of how we bailed Jonny Europe out of a tight spot and thus gave the Daily Mail an Unlimited Ammo cheat code for the next 60 years of bitching about foreigners. So there’s World War 2. File it under ‘G’ for ‘Good’.
At the other end of the spectrum is your ‘Bad War’ and although many start out in popular perception as ‘Good Wars’, it usually isn’t too long before they’re quickly shunted over to the ‘Bad’ pile and then consigned to fester on history’s naughty step. The First Opium War is a great example (and one of many outstandingly ‘Bad’ British wars) for the following reasons.
A) We really did start that one. The Chinese were happily minding their own business when the British took it upon themselves to sell shitloads of opium to the Chinese people. When the Chinese government understandable took umbrage to this turn of events, we killed over 22’000 of them and nicked Hong Kong. Yoink!
B) OK, we didn’t lose that one (in fact, we won pretty convincingly) but it was a case of the school bully beating seven bells out of the fat and slow kid who isn’t allowed to do PE because his mum won’t let him.
C) We didn’t exactly act too sorry about it all, even though it was pretty clear that we had been utter cads. The Chinese didn’t get Hong Kong back for another 150 years.
D) Although the soldiers were still generally stereotypically wholesome, the government that sent them to war certainly didn’t end up looking too rosy and the war divided the nation.
E) There’s absolutely no fucking way you play the old ‘Battle for Existence’ card with this baby. Seriously, a war to ensure the future of our narcotic distribution infrastructure and the profits that go with it? Pull the other one.
So clearly, this ends up as a ‘Bad War’. And herein lies one of the many problems with Afghanistan: No one has been able to file it properly. Some want it in the Good pile, some in the Bad, but no one has been able to convince enough people that it’s one or the other. Being creatures who like to deal in certainties, this puts us in an uncomfortable position, like fancying a BNP member or harbouring a taste for human flesh. Although I’ve been quite firmly at the Bad end of the spectrum, it’s fair to say that it’s never been a crystal clear position and part of that is down to the fact that we’ve never been able to get a handle as to what this war is all about.
When the war kicked off in 2001, the rationale seemed pretty clear. The alleged mastermind of 9-11 was being sheltered by the government of Afghanistan and I think it’s fair to say that although quite a few of us had some misgivings, opinion in general was that America needed its pound of flesh and if that meant a bunch of Afghan civilians getting caught in the crossfire, then so be it (or as the sublime ‘Get Your War On’ put it, “You can’t make a freedom omelette without breaking a few human rights eggs”). Britain, wedded as ever to the ‘Special Relationship’ (shorthand for “We don’t have an independent foreign policy”) signed up without argument and I think it’s safe to say that most people felt comfortable in putting into the Good War bracket. And there it would have stayed, if only Bin Laden had been good enough to be easily captured, the Taliban capitulated without a fight and a vibrant democracy spontaneously bloomed in a nation with very little history of central government.
What actually transpired was a somewhat different kettle of fish. Bin Laden (the cad) managed to evade the most powerful military on earth while the Taliban went to ground and started a bloody insurgency that lasts to this day. Not only that, but it started to become clear that the original pretext wasn’t quite as plausible as it seemed. For starters, people started to point out that the vast majority of those involved with 9-11 were Saudi’s and perhaps we were barking up the wrong tree. No one doubted that Bin Laden was a de-facto war criminal, but did that really justify the tearing apart of a nation that was only really implicated by association (not mention the fact that he probably wasn’t in Afghanistan at all and more likely over the border in Pakistan)? Also, Rumsfeld’s brand of warmongering (which can be described as ‘on the cheap’) was running out of road as it became clear that you need more than a couple of divisions to build a nation from scratch. And just to top it all off, NATO as a whole was also looking decidedly unimpressed with the way things were shaping up. From their point of view, this should have been a quick smash-and-grab with everyone home in time for tea and cake. While the ‘smashing’ component went terrifyingly well, the ‘grab’ aspect was found to be somewhat more elusive. From this angle, the Good War hypothesis was starting to look shaky. Luckily, a distraction was at hand in the shape of the Iraq War (which, I’m pretty sure, will forever be in the Bad War pile) and as we all ohhhhh-ed and ahhhhhhh-ed at the fireworks of Shock and Awe, Afghanistan proceeded to slip inexorably down the news agenda and festered away like an angry sore.
By 2006, the grim realization that this democracy lark wasn’t doing what it said on the on the tin began to set in and the war entered a new phase. Concerned that large tracts of the south effectively belonged to the Taliban and their copious cash crops of opium, NATO decided that more troops were needed with the hotspots of Helmand and Kandahar falling under the purview of the UK and Canadian forces respectively. Cue John Reed’s now infamous ‘without a shot being fired’ speech (OK, so he might not have really that but the last I heard, British forces had got through 12 million rounds) and much talk of hearts and minds. However, the reality turned out to be far more grizzle. The Taliban, far from being a rag-tag militia, turned out to be Central Asia’s Society of Double Hard Bastards who flat out refused to play war by western rules (i.e. standing about in the open, waiting to be airstruck the fuck out of). Recruitment was hardly a problem for them either, what with NATO’s fondness for bombing wedding parties and the Afghan’s government excellence in the field of corruption. Furthermore, attempts to cut off their cash supply by torching opium fields simply made the problem even worse by driving otherwise sympathetic civilians into the arms of the Taliban. Three years on and things are worse. ‘Victory’ is as far off as it is ever has been, but the level of killing has accelerated. What was once a conflict on the fringe, playing second fiddle to the spectacle in Iraq is now in voters living room every night, a relentless drip-drip of tragedy that shows no sign of abating. The narrative is in serious trouble as well. The ‘avenging 9-11’ line no longer has any purchase and anyone with half a brain can see that the ‘fighting them there, not here’ argument is of the purest bullshit. As a result, governments have had to fall back on ‘nation-building’ and ‘counter-narcotics’ arguments to try and shore up the ebbing support for the war, but the line doesn’t match the reality of elections where no-one votes and heroin that’s as available as it’s ever been. The grim reality is that we’re now in a similar position to that of the Vietnam War in ’69. Everybody knows the reasoning is bollocks and destined to failure, but somehow we can’t admit that to ourselves andend up throwing away lives to save face on the world stage. But that can’t go on for ever. At some point, something has to give and we will withdraw. The government know that. They just can’t let that happen on their watch. In short, it’s a clusterfuck. A giant clusterfuck that’s heading firmly to the ‘Bad’ pile.
OK, well done: That’s the history bit over and done with (sort of). Now to the serious business of bile and its venting. As a nation, it seems that we have absolutely no concept of what war is. Look out your window right now. Is there a war on? Do you feel like part of a ‘war-effort’? Do you wake up in the morning terrified by what the news will bring today? I’m guessing that you don’t because unless you happen to know someone deployed in Afghanistan, you have nothing to fear. This is in stark contrast to the people in Afghanistan who really do know what fear is. It’s a night letter from the Taliban or a raid by NATO troops. It’s the sound of a jet plane, unloading death as it passes, all of this paid for by you. For all the talk of ‘smart weapons’ and ‘precision strikes’, the currency of war is still the same as it ever was. It’s dead kids. It’s grieving mothers. It’s lives destroyed and burning homes. You don’t see too much of that on the breakfast news.
On top of this is our perverse attitude towards the military. We seem to have this grotesque duality in our dealings with them where we laud their bravery and heroics (bizarrely illustrated by the macabre and, I suspect, media engineered circus that is Wooton-Basset), yet we (and New Labour) treat them like civil servants whose role is to do our governments bidding just so long as they promise not to get killed. Well I’ve got news for you. War doesn’t work like that. Take the helicopter shitstorm for instance. Men and women are being killed in Afghanistan because the Taliban mine the roads. Some would say (myself included) that that is what happens when you invade a sovereign nation, but that is by-the-by. In response, the media (encouraged by the Conservatives) whips up a sweaty fuss about choppers and vehicles designed, it seems, to batter the prime minister and score some cheap points. ‘Outrage’ ensues and the 6 o’Clock News is littered with vox pops of red faced shoppers, deploring the governments decision to send our boys to war without the right kit while generals are conjured up to confirm that they want more of this or that (which is, of course, their job….do you seriously think that if you asked a general “Hey there Big Hat, want some more shit hot toys to blow the crap out of stuff with?” he’s going to say ‘”No, that’s quite alright, old chap. Plenty to be getting on with and all that.”?). The fundamental point missing in all this is a tolerance for the grim fact that if you send people to war, a lot of them are not going to come back. You can rock up in god damn 100 ft Japanese robot battle suits that shoot lasers out of it’s adamantium maw, but give it enough time and someone will figure out how to blow them up. Instead of engaging with this reality and thinking about just why the fuck it is we’re there in the first place, we hide ourselves in blame games, angrily jabbing at the screen with pointed fingers whilst denying that we, as a nation, are in a hell of our own making. We need to start making like the Canadians and set a date for withdrawal.
OK. I feel better now. I’m filing this sorry page of history under a resounding ‘B’ for ‘Bad’. If you fancy reading some hefty tomes on this sort of thing, I wholeheartedly recommend Robert Fisk’s The Great War For Civilisation, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Towers, Richard A. Clarke’s Against All Enemies and Seymour Hersch’s Chain of Command. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to killing some dusky looking fellows on Call Of Duty 4. Hypocrite? Moi?