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As I write the news comes in that two more British Royal Marines have been killed in Afghanistan. Seven Americans died last week in a single Taliban bombing attack. What did they die for? Did they give their lives in a fight for freedom? Do their grieving families comfort themselves that their deaths in some way will, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, ensure the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
And the 4,722 US soldiers who were killed in Iraq: did they die for liberty or happiness? It’s difficult to argue they did, because the Washington Post reported that “In a defiant warning . . . thousands of young men marched through Baghdad’s Sadr City on Thursday to prove they could restart the insurgency if American troops do not leave the country by the end of the year. The parade by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army lasted for hours as seemingly endless clusters of men marched past tens of thousands of well-wishers.” Is this demonstration of potent hatred what these American soldiers died for? And make no mistake, this parade was professionally organized, with tens of thousands of young men in immaculate quasi-military uniforms ? and no doubt with weapons ready to hand.
“Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army” : how evocative that is of former imperial conquests and countless other wasted lives. At the moment I am editing the diaries and letters of a British officer who fought the Mahdi Army in Sudan over a century ago. On March 13, 1885 he wrote that:
“. . . everyone lives in hope that Govt. will see the utter folly of trying to repair their miserable policy by a fresh campaign next autumn ? if they do they will only get into a worse mess than they are now. Suppose we do take Khartoum next winter, of course at enormous loss of life and money, what will happen? The Mahdi of course will be 200 miles away somewhere near El Obeid, and an English force can’t follow him. So to avenge Gordon’s death is impossible and surely we don’t want this accursed country.”
“This accursed country”, indeed. How many soldiers, dead before their time in Iraq and Afghanistan, would have agreed with that young captain? But there are other people, who have never been soldiers, who would argue with him.
There is a particularly smug little politician in Britain called William Hague (in fact, William Jefferson Hague; how riveting). A few years ago he was a pathetically unsuccessful leader of the Conservative Party and is now, heaven help us, the Foreign Secretary. He was a machine politician from birth, and his earliest publicity was obtained by giving a speech to his party’s national conference at the age of 16.
He imagines that skill at political tap dancing is the equivalent of achievement. And like almost all politicians he’s addicted to Spin. When a newspaper reported that he had shared a hotel bedroom with a male employee (who then resigned) his immediate and vulgar response was to publicize the fact that his wife had suffered several miscarriages. His association with an iffy billionaire donor of mega-cash to his party gave rise to the well-deserved comment in the Guardian newspaper that he was “forced to choose between appearing as a conspiring knave or a credulous fool.”
The picture I’m painting is that he’s a prat. And in no way did he demonstrate his prattishness more effectively than by his statement on May 22, on behalf of the British Government, that Iraq “is a much better place than we found it. Remember it was a ruthless dictatorship, and a menace and a danger to the peace of that region and the wider world.”
On the day he made this pronouncement there were reports of massive violence in Baghdad and elsewhere in that unfortunate country. For example, “According to police, the city was hit by at least seven deadly explosions between 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., many of which appeared aimed at police officers or government officials.” Then: “At least seven people have been killed in separate attacks in northern Iraq. Police say a roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi army patrol killed two soldiers and wounded two others in the city of Kirkuk.” And two American soldiers were killed in Baghdad.
But it continues to be claimed that Iraq is a better place than it was before the illegal U.S.-led invasion.
Hague ignores the fact that since the war on Iraq began in 2003 “millions of Iraqis have fled their homes ? either for safer locations within Iraq or to other countries in the region ? and are living in increasingly desperate circumstances.” ?? Now these are real people, suffering poverty and misery. They fled because they feared for their lives and now exist in appalling privation because of the American-British invasion. If the war hadn’t happened they would still be living in their own houses, in their own towns, and not as hopeless refugees disregarded by imbeciles such as Wonder Boy Hague and similar eggheads.
The L.A. Times observed on May 22 that “The bloodshed highlighted the tenuous situation around Baghdad, where assassinations and other attacks still occur almost daily. It also drew attention to Sunni Arab and Shiite militants’ continuing efforts to kill American troops, who are scheduled to leave at the end of the year. There has been an increase in the shelling around US military bases within Baghdad’s airport grounds as well as the American Embassy compound in the fortified Green Zone enclave.”
But the apologists for slaughter and mayhem mouth slick obscenities like Hague’s “It has been worth doing what we’ve done,” and won’t admit that what they accomplished was devastation of a country.
Three days before Hague’s comments a rather more important person also spoke of Iraq. The U.S. President mentioned ‘Iraq’ a whole four times in a major speech about the Middle East on May 19, and in the understatement of the year observed that “ like all new democracies, they will face setbacks.” Yes : the country has had setbacks ? like 4,000 civilians being killed in hellish butchery last year. And 1200 killed so far this year. So how many “setbacks” are to come?
Of course one man’s setback is another’s cataclysmic disaster : like the destruction of his family. He then despairs, like the heartbroken Afghan, Noor Agha, whose family was wiped out by a US air attack on May 28, and mourns that “My house was bombarded in the middle of the night and my children were killed . . . the Taliban were far away from my home. Why was my house bombed?”
It was bombed, as Mr. William Jefferson Hague declared on May 23, in the course of a war “to make our own nation more secure and our allies more secure. We’re here really to try to make sure that Afghans can look after their own affairs and their own security in the future without Afghanistan presenting a danger to the rest of the world”.
110 foreign soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in April and May, all in the politicians’ cause of trying “to make our own nation more secure,” or, as Mr Obama told troops during his six hour visit to Afghanistan last December, in the course of “protecting your country.”
I remember believing what Australian politicians said before I went to the Vietnam war, and of course I was stupid, gullible and entirely wrong. Because I wasn’t protecting my country; I was obeying grubby politicians who were grovelling to Washington. And the generals went along with the politicians because it’s their job to do that. (When was the last time you heard of a general resigning on a point of principle?)
The situation in Afghanistan is chaotic, with more soldiers being killed every week, and yet there is supposed to be a reduction in the numbers of foreign troops starting from July.
Or maybe not. Because the current Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff has just said that “I think we’ll have a much better fix in terms of clarity towards the end of this year in terms of longer-term ? potential outcomes ? and when those might occur ? than we do right now.” Which is somewhat opaque, even Delphic, as a statement of military policy.
Nobody knows what Washington’s policy is concerning Afghanistan. Not the 45 other governments contributing troops (who are in any event irrelevant). Not the terminally corrupt and incompetent Afghan government. And, especially, not the soldiers who are fighting this unwinnable war.
Think of that young British officer in 1885 who wrote “surely we don’t want this accursed country.” He was right, because he realized he would be fighting for nothing.
Nobody wants Afghanistan. It’s ungovernable and always has been. And I keep thinking of all the young soldiers, my comrades, who have died . . . for what?
Brian Cloughley’s website is www.beecluff.com