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In the Times Literary Supplement for November 20, 2009, the historian and commentator Christopher Coker reviewed two books — Patrick Hennessey’s The Junior Officer’s Reading Club, and James Fergusson’s A Million Bullets. In the heat and boredom of Iraq, Hennessey had set up a reading club and tried to do the same thing later while serving in Afghanistan. Fergusson, a freelance journalist, describes a soldier’s life in a war many of the British contingent regard as unwinnable. Coker’s review in the TLS provides a thumbnail interpretation of the Afghanistan war and what he sees as its likely outcome. A shortened version appears below.

The reading club that Hennessey and his friends set up flourished in the same boredom and heat that Winston Churchill once had to endure in Bangalore. (Coker describes how Churchill had embarked on a self-educative reading programme while on military duty in India, starting with Gibbon and Macaulay and going on to Plato, Schopenhauer, and Darwin.) They did not all read books: it was more a discussion club.

Hennessey himself failed to make it past the first hundred pages of Don Quixote, but he read Hunter S. Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear… These days of course most officers are apt to educate themselves about the modern face of war by watching DVDs. At Sandhurst 57 per cent of the course teaching material relies on scenes from war films for the instruction of warriors in the making. Gladiator is a favorite; so is Saving Private Ryan, and about half an hour of Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam war classic, Full Metal Jacket.

Yet it is not only the medium of instruction that has changed; so has the language, which is now very removed from the heroic language of books or films. Traditionally soldiers have read books to orientate themselves, either to make sense of their personal experience of war or to have a greater understanding of the larger picture, “what it’s all about”. Churchill tells us he was spurred on to study by catching himself using a good many words, the meaning of which he could not define properly.

But what would he make of war today?

As Matthew Parris pointed out in The Times, the NATO mission in Afghanistan is a semantic nightmare: “agent for change”; “asymmetric means of operation”; “capacity building”; “conditionality demand reduction”; “injectors of risk”; “kinetic situation”; “licit livelihood”; “light footprint”; “partnering and mentoring”; “reconciliation and reintegration”; “rolling out a touchdown approach”; “upskilling”. Today’s soldiers (or “stability enablers” as NATO prefers to call them) are lost in jargon.

No wonder the soldiers are confused. In Afghanistan they find themselves fighting a war which is more intensive in terms of firepower than any they have fought since Korea. It is the British Army’s fourth Afghan war, and in its own way just as frustrating as the others. They are training the Afghans to take over, as they tried to train the Iraqis — “leveraging local capacity”.

Hennessey does not mince his words. They had come “to play with the Afghans and to teach them to use their rifles for the time when the real soldiers had blown up all the Talibaddies and could hand over a peaceful, if not prosperous, province (Helmand) with smiles and handshakes and flag-ceremonies”.

Today’s soldiers, Fergusson points out, are as brave as ever. The first iPod generation of recruits are as reliable as the previous generation — they may make videos and drive by with gangster rap blaring out, but the best of them are still brave… Yet if soldiers are told they are on the “front line” of the War on Terror, they don’t know who they are fighting.

First, they were called Taliban, then the “Anti-Coalition Militia” (or ACM — another acronym), a convenient catch-all for everyone from al-Qaeda, hardliners and foreign jihadists to disgruntled poppy-farmers, co-opted villagers and adventurers looking for a bit of fun. Intelligence Officers later began to speak of “Tier One” and “Tier Two” Taliban in an attempt to distinguish between the committed ideologues who would probably never surrender and the opportunists who might be “folded into” future negotiations. The squaddies’ nickname for their opponents — “flip-flops” — captures a truth that often evades our politicians.

And many of them suspect that the whole operation is likely to end in tears. At one point Fergusson passed the site of one of the great British victories in 1842, just outside Kandahar. In the first two wars, the British won most of the battles, but lost the campaign. They managed to win the third war in 1919 — but to little avail.

Writing in the Toronto Daily Star in October 1922, Ernest Hemingway reminded his readers that the Royal Air Force had largely won the war by bombing Afghan cities behind the lines and destroying the mud forts where the hill-men congregated. But when they came to sign the Treaty, the British gave up every right they had always fought for in Afghanistan: for the first time they allowed it to sign treaties with other countries, including the Soviet Union. The war may have resulted in a British victory, but the peace was an Afghan one. As Hemingway concluded, “the Afghans had always hated England, but now they felt contempt for her.”

The American Surge may well work (brute force usually prevails for a while), but at the end of it they will still confront an enormous political vacuum, an unsustainable government, a jigsaw of tribal rivalries, and the Afghan people themselves. No one is likely to win the present struggle in Afghanistan. A few fortunate warriors like Hennessey may experience a personal victory: for them, triumph enough. As for the Afghans — they are suffering the most, but they also usually have the last word.

Posted in War and Peace.

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