Summary: NATO’s expedition to Afghanistan returns, having accomplished nothing but adding another chapter to the destruction of that sad region. Now begins the next phase: to induce amnesia, so that we learn as little from it as we did from Vietnam. James Meek reviews four books about the insurgency at home, people fighting the government’s narrative to help us remember and so do better in the future. Much depends on this. No matter how powerful, a people who cannot learn from experience have no good future.
Review by James Meek
London Review of Books
18 December 2014 issue
Posted with the permission of the author and the LRB.
‘The British wrote cheques they could not cash.’
— American Special Forces officer
In the morning, I left the village where I’d spent the night, the village where, in the ninth century, a famous king had beaten the army of a northern warlord. I climbed a steep path to a high plateau and walked along dusty tracks. There was gunfire in the distance. In the early afternoon I rested on a hilltop, on the ramparts of ancient fortifications whose shape was outlined in soft bulges and shadings on the slopes. Down in the fertile flatlands, I could see rows of the armoured behemoths Britain bought to protect its troops in Afghanistan from roadside bombs, painted the colour of desert sand and crowded around the maintenance sheds of a military base. There was a roar from the road below and the squeak of tank tracks. A column of Warriors clanked up the hill. The Warrior is a strong fighting vehicle. It can protect a team of soldiers as it carries them into battle. Bullets bounce off it. A single inch-thick shell from its cannon can do terrible damage to anything unarmoured it hits. But these Warriors looked tired. They came into service in the late 1980s, just as the Cold War they’d been designed for was ending, and Afghanistan has a way of diminishing and humbling military technology.
I’d walked the same route last year, leaving Edington after breakfast, walking round the edge of the military exercise area on Salisbury Plain and pausing at the Iron Age fort on Battlesbury Hill, which looks out over the British army’s Wiltshire estate. Since then most of the army in Afghanistan had come back to Britain, and an item of furniture had been added to the Battlesbury ramparts, among the cow parsley and purple clover: a bench. I was glad to sit down, as my pack was heavy. But the bench is also a shrine. When I came across it – this was in July – candles had been placed on it and a sun-bleached cloth poppy fastened to the back rest. It’s a memorial to six British soldiers: Nigel Coupe of the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, and Jake Hartley, Anthony Frampton, Christopher Kershaw, Daniel Wade and Daniel Wilford of the Yorkshire Regiment. All except Coupe, a sergeant and father of two children, were aged between 19 and 21. They died in Afghanistan in March 2012, out on patrol in Helmand province, when their Warrior triggered the pressure plate of a huge home-made mine. The explosion flipped the vehicle on its side, blew off the gun turret, ignited its ammunition and killed everyone inside.
The British army is back in Warminster and its other bases around the country. Its eight-year venture in southern Afghanistan is over. The extent of the military and political catastrophe it represents is hard to overstate. It was doomed to fail before it began, and fail it did, at a terrible cost in lives and money.
How bad was it? In a way it was worse than a defeat, because to be defeated, an army and its masters must understand the nature of the conflict they are fighting. Britain never did understand, and now we would rather not think about it. The troops are home from a campaign that lasted 13 years, including Iraq in the middle. They are coming home from their bases in Germany, too. The many car parks’ worth of mine-proof vehicles you can see from Battlesbury Hill, ordered tardily for Afghanistan at a million pounds apiece, will be painted European green and dispersed to other barracks.