Monday, April 5, 2010
One of the strangest consequences of the Afghan war has been the evolution of the Wiltshire market town of Wootton Bassett into a shrine to the fallen. It has become risky to question any aspect of a burgeoning cult of flag-wrapped coffins and weeping onlookers, which is why no politician with an ambition to remain in Parliament would dream of doing so.
Instead, it has taken a serving officer in Afghanistan to question whether the manner in which the dead are being honoured is not inflicting some damage on the Army. This is principally because the now almost constant sight of funeral cortèges moving slowly through Wootton Bassett, past rows of weeping bystanders, has become the defining feature of the campaign in Afghanistan in so many people's minds.
Without mentioning the town by name, Lieutenant Colonel Matt Bazeley casts a critical eye on what he calls a pervasive culture of pessimism over the Army's campaign in Afghanistan, which he believes has been exacerbated by "the post-Diana reaction to fatalities as they are brought home", and which he says does a disservice to British forces in the country.
While every casualty is to be regretted and mourned, he maintains the Afghan campaign has not been especially costly in terms of fatalities, measured against a backdrop of 300 years of Army history, noting that 129 soldiers died in Northern Ireland in 1972 alone. By comparison, 270 British troops have so far been killed in the Afghan war.
British soldiers in Afghanistan are professionals, not conscripts pressganged into serving in some conflict of which they know nothing. That some have been killed in action is tragic but not in itself surprising. Many people do not believe British troops should have gone to Afghanistan. Others are now convinced that we can never "win" there, however victory is defined. The argument over Britain's involvement in this country will go on. In the meantime, most of us will agree there is nothing to be gained by undermining the morale of the troops already there. In that context, this call for a more balanced, less lachrymose portrayal of the war is timely.