War is what happens to other people
417. That is, at time of writing, the British death toll for the Afghan war. The latest victim was Pte Gregg Stone. He was 20. To put it another way, he was 9 when the planes hit the World Trade Centre.
After over a decade, the victories of the Western Alliance in Afghanistan are hard to spot. The Afghan opium trade is estimated at $4bn, a quarter of which accrues to the farmers. The entire Afghan economy is worth less than $18bn. Shariah is an embedded part of the country’s legal framework. The corrupt government of Hamid Kharzai barely extends to the suburbs of Kabul.
The right makes much of its veneration of the martial ideal, writing off those who ask whether this is a good thing as effete, liberal-socialist intellectuals who’d struggle to do a push-up. Personally, I resemble that remark. However beyond buying their Help-for-Heroes underpants, it’s curious how little of the aftermath conservative politicians and commentators like to deal with. The government is cutting mental health provision, even though soldiers are more likely to suffer mental health problems. It is restricting access to disability benefits, so those who have lost limbs in conflict will have to justify their benefits to those famously compassionate assessors from Atos.
Prime Minister’s Questions is perhaps the most stomach-churning display. From Tony Blair onwards, our leaders have invoked the names of the dead as an incantation of silence to stop the jeering from across the aisle. That stopping these deaths is entirely within the power of the Prime Minister is never mentioned. The subtle denial that there is a war going on can be heard when political correspondents discuss Britain’s deficit as “unprecedented in peacetime”. After all for them, and almost all of us, it is peacetime. It is interesting of course that our own crusader kings rarely impress the need to wear a tin hat for democracy on their own children. I have very little time for the House of Windsor, but its latest generation dutifully went off to fight the government’s fight. Euan Blair preferred Yale. Perhaps his fathers’ words about the importance of ‘boots on the ground’ were kept to the dispatch box not the dinner table.
Increasingly, Britain uses its armed forces to shore up a waning sense of national identity and importance, to make ourselves feel we are on the side of goodness and freedom. When the futility of our interventions becomes apparent, we bring out the bunting, hence the strange new event of ‘Armed Forces Day’ on the 30th of June. We vaunt the heroes collectively as symbols of national valour. We demand young people, disproportionately from the poorer areas of our islands, die, so we can feel good about our country. In many ways this is a reversion to the state of affairs that existed before the conscription of the World Wars and post-War national service. War is what happens to other people.
The recent hand-wringing over Syria brings this point home expertly. There is nothing stopping those who believe in Responsibility to Protect catching a plane to Lebanon, buying a gun and taking up the fight against the brutal Assad regime. It’s what the International Brigades did in Spain. Indeed, it’s what the Mujahedeen have been doing for decades. However with the exception of a handful of journalists, there seems a strange reluctance to follow this path. What liberal interventionists really want is NATO to kill Syrians until the Syrians stop killing Syrians. They want a vast military machine that comes at the cost of a social safety net for America’s poor, staffed disproportionately by America’s poor, to kill human beings they have never met. Civilian casualties, which are an inevitability, are acceptable.
I have no desire to die on the steppe or in the desert. Perhaps that makes me a coward. But I’m not asking anyone else to die there either. Going off the average monthly death toll for 2012, two more soldiers will be killed between when I write this and when we fly the flags on the 30th June. They will be in their twenties. They will be from the North of England or Wales. Their deaths will be pointless, and completely preventable. Can someone, please, tell me why they have to die?