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The Old Lie

September 6, 2021

I wrote something a couple of weeks ago, just as the evacuation from Kabul and the accompanying recriminations, were going into high gear. After the ISIS bombing outside the airport, I felt it would be wrong to post it while people were dying once again for a lost cause. I suppose that now that thousands of families, soldiers and a few dogs and cats have been airlifted to safety and that door is now shut, this is as good a time as any to talk about our attitude towards the human cost, at least on the part of my countrymen and women who didn’t make it back alive.

One of the saddest themes of the episode just ended is the question of whether or not those killed in the conflict died in vain. How often do we use fiction and myth as balm that makes the stark reality of life palatable?

From a British perspective, a cynic might say this: that the discussion over whether members of the our armed forces did, or did not, die in vain in Afghanistan may be necessary for the families of those killed. That for the rest of us it’s irrelevant. That nobody dies in vain, and very few of us die for a cause. And that if we do die, the cause is irrelevant, because we don’t live to see whether our self-sacrifice is worthwhile.

A less contentious view would be that soldiers, police officers fire fighters and, to an extent, health workers, put their lives on the line mostly in full knowledge of the risks inherent in their professions. I make a qualification in the case of health workers because most National Health Service staff would hardly have considered the possibility that they would be caught up in a deadly pandemic.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that most people become soldiers not because they believe in British values, because they care about the Queen or because they have a deep-seated love for their country. They do so because it’s a job. A job that carries a higher risk to life and limb than other professions, but a job nonetheless. They are people who, when called upon, fight, or support others who fight, for a living. And they do so with courage and professionalism. What they get in return is a living, respect and a sense of job satisfaction. In Britain, we don’t ritualise that respect into formulaic expressions of appreciation, such as “thank you for your service”, but respect is there nonetheless. And among those who do serve, for the vast majority there’s surely a sense that they’re doing something worthwhile, which indeed they are.

But modern equivalents of Edwardian paeans to patriotism and sacrifice – “I vow to thee my country”, and so forth – seem to me to be no less manipulative than they were in the early 1900s.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m deeply grateful that there are people who are prepared to risk their lives to ensure my safety. I respect them and value them. But do most people sign up because they believe in the words of Tony Blair, Boris Johnson, or Winston Churchill for that matter? Or in what the war poet Wilfred Owen called “the old lie” of patriotic sentiment? I doubt it. (For those unfamiliar with Owen’s Dulci et Decorum Est, which he wrote after witnessing a gas attack, I close with an excerpt).

Our soldiers, sailors and flyers are professionals. They do what they’re ordered and go where they’re told. Of course they need motivational leaders and example-setters. Not the same situation as during the two world wars, in which, before conscription was introduced, citizens needed to be persuaded to join up through appeals to their patriotism, as in “Your Country Needs You”. Nowadays recruitment ads for the armed forces seem to focus on adventure, skills and personal development. This isn’t to say that our men and women in uniform don’t have a deep-seated sense of patriotism, or that our police and fire-fighters don’t join up because they want to do good in their communities. Undoubtedly many do.

And in the end, happy are those of us who do jobs that we believe to be worthwhile. Objectively, that can’t be said about all jobs, even if we justify the bullshit work we do on the grounds that we’re feeding our families.

But making value judgements about sacrifice seems to me a futile exercise. Every life is precious, and the waste of lives through carelessness or incompetence is a disgrace. Do we ask whether a brilliant scientist knocked over from her bike in London died in vain? Or 80 people in Grenfell Tower whose lives were cut short? Or a holidaymaker drowned off the coast of Cornwall? No, we call these deaths tragedies, as indeed they are for those closest to the dead.

And just as we have a social responsibility to protect people living in tower blocks and cyclists on our roads, so we have a responsibility as a nation not to put our armed forces in harm’s way without good reason underpinned by sound leadership.

Whether or not the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan was worth the suffering and the loss of life and limb is almost an unanswerable question. Depending on who we ask, there may be thousands of different answers. But they will come from the living, because the dead can no longer speak. And the answers we receive might be different five, ten or a hundred years from now.

I only know that if I’d lost a loved one in a dusty outpost so far away from home, only to find that the enterprise for which they had fought had come to nothing, I would find it hard not to be consumed with bitterness until the end of my life. I hope that I would also spare a thought for the families of tens of thousands of Afghans who have died in the conflict, and whose participation was never a matter of choice. My only consolation would be to focus on the intention rather than the result.

Would that translate into “not dying in vain”? That’s not for me to say.

“If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
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.”

From The Old Lie, Wilfred
Owen, 1917

From → History, Politics, UK, USA

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