Britain’s bloody campaign in Afghanistan has been marred by hubris, confusion and a failure to understand our Taliban adversariesby Stephen Grey / August 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Read Anthony King’s response to this article, “Why we’re getting it wrong in Afghanistan,” here
A cartoon was on the television but little Lilly grabbed the album and leafed through the photos of her father, the late Sergeant Lee Johnson. I was talking to her mother about his death, which I had witnessed in Afghanistan. When I saw Lilly up in Stockton-on-Tees last November, and I thought of my own young child, I struggled to reconcile my doubts about this war with wanting to remember Johnson’s death as honourable and meaningful.
Even in chaos and dysfunction, the British army is good at preserving a belief in order and purpose. And when men die their officers steel them and move onwards with poetic speeches, just as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thomson did on 10th July 2009, after a dreadful day near the town of Sangin in Helmand in which five of his men were killed. In his eulogy Thomson wrote about men saluting the fallen, and returning to the ramparts. “I sensed each rifleman tragically killed in action today standing behind us as we returned to our posts, and we all knew that each one of those riflemen would have wanted us to ‘crack on’… And that is what we shall do.”
Crack on. From Basra to Sangin, I’ve heard that phrase as regularly as Amen in church. Cracking on: the army’s greatest quality, and perhaps its greatest weakness. I remember standing vigil on Sergeant Johnson’s body at dusk on a hilltop, after he had died in the battle for the town of Musa Qala in December 2007. His fellow soldiers were silhouettes, drawn close to their commander. On the horizon muffled bombs flashed through the drizzle. Major Jake Little told his men to put their grief to one side, to deal with it later. After the battle.
Cracking on could also mean failing to challenge impossible orders, or unwillingness to expose a flawed strategy. In the year I spent studying the Helmand campaign for my book, I sensed a questioning, a doubt about whether it was worthwhile. One senior Whitehall figure stunned me by declaring, almost as his first words, that Helmand “was a terrible strategic blunder.” His views were not uncommon.