The violence of war is shocking to behold, but appeasement and surrender are not the answers

The terrible injuries suffered by our troops in war zones should give us pause for thought. But they deserve more than the shallow defeatism of the liberal-establishment

Will James
On 13 April 2011 06:19

Late Sunday night saw a repeat of a programme called The Air Hospital. In it, a documentary team tracked the extraordinary activities of the Royal Air Force’s Critical Care in the Air Support Team (CCAST).

What followed was perhaps some of the most challenging and heart-wrenching television in a very long time. CCAST are voluntary National Health Service medics who turn the belly of a C-17 Globemaster into a flying intensive care unit. Piloted by 99 Squadron, CCAST undertake gruelling journeys to Camp Bastion, in southern Afghanistan. There, the C-17 is loaded with critically wounded personnel to be transported back to the UK.

Young men – many just teenagers – lying motionless, with limbs blown away by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Nurses struggling to keep a wounded soldier sedated, so that he would not rupture his wounds during the flight. The recollections of a soldier, saying how lucky he was only to be shot six times. The grim fatalism of servicemen putting tourniquets on their limbs before they go on patrol, to staunch the blood of anticipated injuries.

What The Air Hospital did was to bring the most uncomfortable and distressing side of war, not readily seen, into the nation’s living rooms. This wasn’t proud veterans marching past the Cenotaph, or Hollywood’s latest action thriller. This was the depths of what war can do to young men. This was plastic tubes and monitors intruding into distorted bodies. The very real consequences of war.

For those – and I count myself amongst their number – who believe that confronting the evil that manifested itself in the skies above the north-eastern United States in September 2001 required a steadfast military presence in the modern day wild west that is Afghanistan, and a long-term – indeed generational – commitment to eradicating the Petri dish of terrorism from that region by building the architecture of a stable state and a free society for the citizens of that country, the sights and sounds of that documentary are a great challenge.

The gut reaction from watching was not voluntary, but I imagine it was nearly universal: Is it worth it? And I wouldn’t be surprised if most people, asking themselves that question, came to the conclusion that it isn’t.

Supporters of military action in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, have to confront the uncomfortable truths of what they are advocating in the opinion pages, think-tanks and government departments across the Western world.

War is not an easy option. Indeed, it should be the hardest option. It should rightly be that option of ‘last resort’ described by Saint Thomas Aquinas. War has deep and lasting consequences: for those fighting, for civilians in the line of fire, and for the families, friends and societies of those sent to fight.

Advocates of the military measures undertaken since 9/11 often find themselves trapped in a complex and uncomfortable moral labyrinth. The grief felt when confronted by the outcome of war mixes awkwardly with the belief that inaction can be as costly, if not more so, than action.

After ten years – when the memories of collapsing skyscrapers wane, whilst pictures of Afghan casualties grow larger in the public consciousness – it is important to keep in mind the reasons for the NATO mission in that country, and for the regrettable yet sometimes necessary utility of military power in modern international relations.

In Afghanistan, the culmination of decades of civil war, Soviet invasion, crippling poverty and illiteracy and the rise of radical Islamist fundamentalism combined to create the conditions for coordinated and deadly terrorist strikes on the West.

No manner of economic sanctions, travel bans or diplomatic isolation would have altered the Taliban’s calculations and led to the expulsion of al-Qaeda from Afghan territory. Their removal by military force was required, reasonable and right.

Once they had been removed, turning our backs on the Afghan people was simply not an option, nor would it have shored up our own security in the West. Without solutions to the root causes of terrorism – the lack of effective public institutions, the malign effects of the closed and repressive society established by the Taliban regime, nonexistent access to healthcare and education, almost medieval levels of subsistence economics and agriculture – the threat of radical Islamist extremism from Afghanistan will never dissipate.

Unhappily, we live in a world where problems cannot be solved by accords, aid programmes, or trade deals alone. No matter how well-intentioned, without military power we could not have stopped Gaddafi mercilessly slaughtering the residents of Benghazi, or prevented ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Nor could we continue to tackle the Taliban insurgency that grips Afghanistan.

Whilst we must beware of becoming over-dependent on armed force as a tool of international politics, we must not delude ourselves that any self-imposed disarmament will solve the threats we face. That is why we must hold ourselves to the highest standards when we do resort to going to war. Ultimately, we owe it to the men and women of our armed forces that their efforts and sacrifices are not made in vain. We have a special duty of care to them, and their families.

We must ensure that their mission is clear, their resources are ample, and their cause is just.

For me, the justness of the cause in Afghanistan is not in doubt. Unfortunately, the other two commitments have not always been met. Equipment has been slow in making its way to the frontline, and troop numbers have failed to match the levels necessary to conduct effective counter-insurgency campaigns.

In terms of the clarity of the mission, orders have often been vague, and sometimes contradictory. This uncertainty is damaging to our security, and must end.

Whilst tactics and strategy must be flexible, our commitment to building the foundations of a free society in Afghanistan must be unshakable. Nothing less can ensure our obligations to the people of Afghanistan, to those seeking security from terrorism in Europe and North America, and especially to the brave men and women of our armed forces. 

Will James is a freelance writer, and and political analyst

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