I’m in Dallas, Texas, for a Heritage Foundation conference when who should march into my hotel but a battalion of US marines, ahead of their deployment to Afghanistan.
I’m in Dallas, Texas, for a Heritage Foundation conference when who should march into my hotel but a battalion of US marines, ahead of their deployment to Afghanistan. I watch, agog. The marines all look desperately young, even the ones who’ve done several tours of duty. Interestingly, though they all must have bonded intensely in the field, off duty they still socialise by ethnic group — blacks with blacks, Hispanics with Hispanics, and so on.
Later, I ambush a senior NCO and a rookie smoking in the garden. ‘Can I ask you a question?’ ‘Yes, sir!’ says the NCO. (They’re achingly polite and respectful, the US military.) ‘When you’re in the field, how many of you smoke?’ ‘Pretty much all of us, sir.’ ‘But doesn’t it interfere with your fitness?’ ‘No, sir. When you’re under fire the adrenaline takes care of everything.’
I suspected all this already, of course. Really, it was just an excuse to spend a few minutes imbibing the spirit of the world’s most magnificent death cult. And it is a death cult. Anyone who has read With the Old Breed or A Rumor of War or Jarhead knows that. US marines rejoice in the fact that they always get the shittiest assignments, be it taking Pelleliu or clearing Fallujah. They expect to die. And if they don’t, that’s the cherry on the icing on the cake of having served with the greatest of all martial brotherhoods. Semper fi.
But just because I have an almost pornographic interest in soldiering, military history and the grisly detail of combat doesn’t make me one of those armchair generals who thinks sending in the troops is the answer to everything. On the contrary, it’s all too often the wrong one, especially if it breaches the cardinal rule of armed intervention: don’t get embroiled in a war you’re not going to win.
It ought to be obvious, that, you’d have thought. War is hugely costly in blood and treasure. The very last thing you’d want in return is one of those scenarios — Basra, anyone? — where your credibility is shredded, your armed forces humiliated, and your only net gain is a juicy book contract for Sergeant Dan Mills. (Great book, mind.)
Hence my scepticism about our involvement in Afghanistan. (Libya too, come to that.) It’s not that I can’t envisage a world in which it would be a good idea to be there. Just that the world doesn’t currently exist. We’d need around 500,000 troops, minimum (current coalition levels stand at around 130,000); we’d need to run the place on Roman lines, with well-maintained roads and watchtowers every few miles. And within a century, hey presto, every village in Afghanistan would have a working ferris wheel, possibly even a girls’ school where the girls don’t get acid chucked in their faces every other day and the teachers don’t get beheaded. We can but dream.
The world we inhabit, unfortunately, looks more like the one in Toby Harnden’s unputdownable Dead Men Risen about the Welsh Guards’ 2009 disastrous tour of Helmand. This was when they lost in action a CO (Rupert Thorneloe), a company commander (Sean Birchall) and a platoon commander (Mark Evison): the first battalion to suffer such attrition since the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers during the Korean war.
No one who has read Harnden’s book could fail to feel angry and bitter about the hopelessness of the task facing our troops in Afghanistan. Really, if you wanted to devise a method by which as many magnificent men and women as possible lost lives and limbs to no purpose, you couldn’t come up with a better system than the one devised during the more recent incarnations of Operation Herrick: a dire shortage of helicopters; insufficiently armoured vehicles; thinly defended outposts with a narrow range of patrolling routes ideally suited to ambush; and so on.
You don’t, of course, come away feeling any less respect for those in the British army at battalion commander level and below. On the contrary, you are left feeling utterly unworthy that such selfless, dedicated, courageous people are fighting on our behalf. But we knew that already, didn’t we? We know Our Boys (and Girls) are fantastic. We know too that they don’t want our pity and that, despite their reservations, they’re happy to be doing the job they do because it’s what they trained for. The question is, should our political class be giving them the opportunity?
‘Militaries produce a lobby,’ Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British ambassador to Afghanistan, is quoted by Harnden as saying. ‘They always say they want more and they always say they can do it. In many ways Afghanistan has been hugely good for the British Army, billions of pounds worth of new equipment and a new public respect in Britain. A serious war, the first time in a generation. Great prestige for the generals.’ He claims that General Dannatt once told him: ‘If I don’t use these battle groups coming out of Iraq in Helmand, I will lose them in a defence review.’
One of the best speeches of the Heritage Foundation conference was given by the governor of Texas, Rick Perry. Perry is no peacenik. He pointed out, quite rightly, that the world is never a better, safer place than when the United States is acting as its police enforcer. But the second point he made was more important. The US (and its allies) can only afford to act as global policeman when its economy is on a sound footing. It’s not — so until it is, it can’t. None of us can.