Each of us has a war story or two. By which I mean an actual story about an actual war, not just an anecdote about that time a skinhead threatened you with a kumquat. I have several, almost none of which involve me. They’re family stories, handed down by our family’s official teller of stories, my aunt.
Stories such as: how World War II broke out on her fifth (I think) birthday; how Uncle Bill (her mum’s brother) was “the only Canadian” on the beach at Dunkirk; how he, later in the war, happened to meet up with (I think) his cousin and another friend or family member in the middle of the North African campaign (there’s a photo somewhere). In case you’re wondering, her father – my grandad – was in a reserved occupation and didn’t see active service.
When I hear these stories I invariably ask myself how I would have fared in that war – or worse, World War I. When I was twenty I was at college, watching on TV amazed as the Berlin Wall came down; in World War II I might have been fighting in the skies over Kent, resisting what seemed an inevitable German invasion. In World War I I’d have been in the trenches.
I remember in January 1991 when the Gulf War started: a newsflash jumping into coverage of a football match, TV quickly patching into the CNN feed from Baghdad: chunky graphics and Bernard Shaw on a crackly phone line describing the bombs falling. I was working on my final year project and the adrenalin rush made my hands shake enough that I couldn’t write. I expected, as did many others, that Saddam would use chemical weapons on Israel – live on TV. We saw news reporters in gas masks; Kate Adie in a tent “in eastern Saudi Arabia”; John Simpson kicked out of Baghdad. It took just a few weeks to kick Saddam out of Kuwait.
A more local conflict followed as Yugoslavia imploded and NATO finally, reluctantly, acted. War in Europe, but not a european war. John Simpson dodging bombs in Belgrade this time.
And then Bush came to power and used the attacks on New York and Washington to bring his own idea of democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq. I agreed with the original goals in Afghanistan, but I knew the Iraq war was a sham as did millions of others. A shameful war, justified by lies, supported by sycophants, and driven by fundamentalist Christian ideology. The only plan to invade and conquer, the only goal revenge, the only possible result an entire region destabilised for decades. I watched on TV; sadly I’m still watching.
Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, and the deaths continue. Democracy in Afghanistan has resulted in a corrupt election with Karzai last week declared the winner. Why are we still fighting this war?
Gordon Brown made a speech yesterday on the UK’s Afghanistan strategy. Here’s one passage:
“The first priority of any government is to provide security for its people. It is not sustainable to subcontract that task indefinitely to the international community. So the expansion and training of the Afghan army and police must be the new government’s first priority.”
And then three paragraphs later:
“President Karzai agreed with me yesterday that the first priority of his new government would be to take decisive action against corruption.”
I wonder which of the many first priorities Karzai will tackle first, and which he will only tackle first.
Why is our “strategy” on this war so apparently cobbled together that ridiculous, contradictory statements like that can get into major, supposedly defining speeches? Why are we still fighting this war?
Brown defines success in Afghanistan:
“We will have succeeded when our troops are coming home because the Afghans are providing security themselves, continuing the essential work of denying the territory of Afghanistan as a base for terrorists.”
If we pulled out all our troops today, who would provide security? The Afghans themselves. There: done. In any meaningful sense this is not a measurable way to define victory. The reality is: success is when we declare success. Why are we still fighting this war?
Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday. I wear a poppy. I observe the two minutes’ silence. I’m grateful that men and women fought and died, and continue to fight and die, so that I may live in a world in which I don’t have to battle in the skies over Kent, or in the trenches, or in the deserts of Iraq or Afghanistan, or anywhere else. I won’t have any first-hand war stories to pass on to the offspring I also won’t have.
But I want the war stories that today’s soldiers tell their children and grandchildren to be about wars that were fought for a just cause, for a clear goal, for honourable reasons. The worst, most poignant war stories don’t end with death or destruction, but with one word: “why?”.