A war without victors

AS I GAZED AT the faces of the more than 2,000 American service members killed since the war in Afghanistan began almost 11 years ago, I found myself thinking of lines of Kipling:

By Roger Cohen (Globalist)

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Published: Thu 30 Aug 2012, 8:56 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:30 PM

If any question why we died/

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

The untruths have been almost too numerous to chronicle, beginning with the great untruth that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that justified the war in Iraq (where more than 4,480 US service members died); and sliding into the smaller, no less lethal untruths about how Pakistan was an ally in the Afghan struggle, and global terrorism beatable on the battlefield, and nation-building feasible in Afghanistan, and sacrifice in the cause reasonable when half of the United States was off at the mall shopping, and victory always – always – within reach.

Afghanistan is a country where President Barack Obama appointed an able envoy, the late Richard Holbrooke, only to emasculate him; where the president, Hamid Karzai, has long manipulated Western succor to his private ends; and where the greatest emergent threat comes from Afghans in the uniforms of the security forces America and its allies are training to take over from them in 2014. The country is a bottomless pit of hypocrisies.

As James Dao and Andrew W. Lehren wrote in a devastating New York Times article, “In just the past two weeks, at least nine Americans have been killed in such insider attacks. For the year to date, at least 40 Nato service members, most of them American, have been killed by either active members of the Afghan forces or attackers dressed in their uniforms – already outstripping the toll from all last year.”

Marina Buckley is the mother of Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr., a Marine who was the 1,990th service member to die in the Afghan war, apparently killed by Afghan security force members. She said this: “Our forces shouldn’t be there. It should be over. It’s done. No more.”

Yes, after almost 11 years, it’s done, no more.

There have been achievements; the sacrifice has not been vain even if it has been disproportionate to the gains. I’ve seen girls with bright backpacks on their way to schools in small Afghan towns, girls who would have been condemned not so long ago to the Todd Akin view of women.

Osama bin Laden has been killed in the Af-Pak theater and Al Qaeda forced to abandon its Afghan base and weakened overall. The Taleban are not defeated but can no longer impose their will on Afghan society. The nation has an army in the making even if it is shot through with problems.

But there will be no victory; further gain will be incremental or, more precisely, generational. It is time to go.

Countless lives have been needlessly lost. It took nearly seven years from the start of the war for the death toll to reach 500. Then the killing accelerated. The Afghan war is a story of inattention, distraction, carelessness, imprecision, uncertainty, corruption – as well as a chronicle of a Nato alliance where some fight and die and others much less so.

Other lines, these from Wilfred Owen, also came to mind looking at the faces of the American dead, whose average age is 26.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

No, in such circumstances, it is not “sweet and right to die for your country” – almost 11 years into an unwinnable war.

Owen, of course, was writing about World War I. On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, over 19,000 British troops were killed. Seen through the prism of the history of war, 2,000 dead in more than a decade is a paltry toll. As Dao and Lehren point out, more active-duty and reserve soldiers killed themselves last year than died in combat in Afghanistan.

But this is scarcely consolation. We have sanitised war. It is kept at a distance, hardly more real than a video game. The shopping continues (although less of late). When a milestone is reached – 2,000 dead – attention flickers up.

But otherwise the war seems far away unless you are from a military family. Pilotless drones do ever more of the killing. The thing about robotic warfare is you can watch Afghans get vaporised on a screen near Las Vegas and then drive home for dinner with the kids.

The faces of the dead are a reproach to America – a reproach to its numbness, to its leadership over the past decade, its divisions, its obliviousness, its loss of community, its factionalism, its hypocrisy and its broken politics.

They are a reproach to Europe – to the coddled allies who have not shared proportionately in the sacrifice. And they are a reproach to every one of us who has given far less and looked away.


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