Of the many harrowing images coming out of Afghanistan, one commandeered public attention for longer than most. It showed a small child being handed to an American soldier over the wall of Kabul airport and demonstrated, shocked viewers were told, the desperation of parents to save their children, even if it meant entrusting them to strangers.
Now two observations might be made about this. The first is that it was not quite as it seemed. It was later reported that the child was ill and was being passed for treatment at a Norwegian medical facility on the other side of the wall. The family were subsequently reunited.
The other is that, even if our initial conclusions had been correct, a parent making the agonising decision to part with a small child as the last best hope of that child’s survival and maybe the chance of a better life is hardly unique to today’s Kabul. It is, alas, one of the eternal images of war. The Jewish parents who entrusted their children to the Kindertransport did so, knowing that they were probably saying goodbye to them for the last time. Indeed, the arrangement required them to accept that they would never be allowed to join them.
Nor has the child being passed to a foreign soldier been the only classic image of war to come out of Kabul in recent days. Those of us watching on TV from the distance of safe countries have seen chaotic scenes of people crammed into confined spaces, enduring night upon night without sleep, without food or water; people brandishing documents, clamouring for attention, in eternal hope.
We have seen people waist-deep in sewage, trying to reach officers who can decide their fate; we have heard of crushed bodies, heaped on one side, almost ignored. We have seen parents mourning children; lost children in search of their family, and the endless single-file processions of refugees with their one suitcase.
Horrific though these pictures are, though, they are the images of war down the ages. And what has struck me as much as anything is how so many – including some reporters – are treating them, and what is playing out in this small corner of Kabul, as somehow unique and uniquely appalling, in a something-must-be-done and right-now, mode. Regrettably that is mostly not how wars work. Indeed, for all the frenzy in and around Kabul airport over the past week, troops from the US, the UK and elsewhere have – so far – been able to impose more order than might have been expected in an emergency mass evacuation at the tail-end of a protracted armed conflict.
To be sure, we have our many memorials to those who fell in wars fought abroad, and our Remembrance rituals. We have veterans – who are not for the most part well-treated – of our recent foreign wars. But it has also been convincingly argued that the lack of experience of war among politicians today may have made them readier than they might otherwise have been to commit British troops to fight. Jacques Chirac cited his experience of Algeria as a reason why he was opposed to France taking part in the Iraq war. Joe Biden’s son, who died of cancer in his forties, had fought in Iraq; when the US President asks Americans whether they would send their own son or daughter to serve in Afghanistan, he knows of what he speaks.
A country’s armed forces need not just public support but public understanding, and this is shrinking. Sweden reintroduced conscription four years ago, citing growing threats to national security, but also a desire to enhance social cohesion. To follow Sweden would be a hugely controversial move for any UK government, but national service, with options of civilian, medical or military service in some form, could be a way of bridging this gap.
The second is to return to the common response to the scenes from Afghanistan as uniquely horrific. Regrettably, as I said, they are not; they are common to war itself. Before the pandemic struck, a Czech film called The Painted Bird, based on Jerzy Kosinski’s novel of the same name, drew criticism – and calls for a ban – for what was judged as its extreme and gratuitous violence (which included gang rape, paedophilia, executions, desecration of the dead, and a lot more). Set during the second world war in an indeterminate part of east and central Europe, the film followed a small boy left to fend for himself in regions where power shifted, often violently, from day to day.
Having glimpsed tiny fragments of these times from the family of my late husband, whose history this also was, the critics’ attacks seemed to me to reflect less the quality of the film than the sheltered lives most of us have lived in the 70 or so years that North America and most of Europe have been at peace. The violence and the ruthlessness, the desperation to survive; the perversity of fate, who lives and who dies; the rare flicker of kindness… this is what war is about. The mayhem at Kabul airport is not a one-off; it is not unique in its horrors. It is what happens in war – and the more people know that, the better.