When people criticise President Barack Obama for failing to commit American troops in conflicts in the Middle East, they often forget that the President was giving effect to the wishes of the people of the United States at the time. They had had enough of American death and destruction overseas with no apparent purpose or benefit. And even if Americans had not learned the lesson that you do not go into a war unless you have a good plan for getting out of it, their president had. You need to have an ‘off’ button. The US is still looking for one in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the meantime, the world generally is worse off; a whole new threat became manifest; as a result, Syria is a disgrace to humanity; and no one has the faintest idea how to even start trying to fix the mess – humanitarian and strategic – in Iraq or Afghanistan. And we don’t look to have heard anything like an apology from those leaders in the western world that are responsible for bringing all this destruction and misery. Nor do we even look like learning from the mistakes – of a kind that have been repeated so often in history.
All this is made wrenchingly clear in the book The Fighters by C J Chivers published this year by Simon and Schuster. Chivers is a New York Times correspondent who has served in the army in the Middle East.
This book traces the history of six American servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their story is told in immense detail and in a manner that commands, among other things, trust. It is therefore a very hard, wearing book to read – like revisiting the scene of a horrible war crime. The detail compels conviction – as it did for Michael Herr in Dispatches and Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front. Those books are classics that have helped to shape our horror of war. In my view, the book The Fighters is of that ilk.
Before looking at some of this wonderful book, can we reflect on two elementary lessons from the history of the world?
First, when the Persians invaded Greece, when Spain invaded Holland, when England invaded America, when Napoleon invaded Spain and then Russia, and when America invaded Vietnam, all the invaders soon came to the same conclusion. They were on the losing side – militarily and morally – from the start. I will look at some of the reasons for this obvious fact, but let me now mention the second lesson.
When both royalists and republicans (or, perhaps, democrats) each for their own reasons wanted France to go to war on Austria, Maximilien Robespierre, seen by many as the Father of Modern Terrorism, swam bravely, intelligently, and vigorously against the tide. He said this to the feverish Jacobins Club.
Our generals are to be missionaries of the Constitution; our camps are to be schools of public law; and the satellites of foreign princes, far from putting obstacles in the way of this plan, will fly to meet us, not to repel us by force, but to sit at our feet. No one likes an armed missionary, and no more extravagant idea has ever sprang from the head of a politician than to suppose that one people has only to enter another’s territory with arms in its hands to make the latter adopt its laws and its Constitution.
Napoleon would spread the bones of five million dead over Europe to affirm that simple truth. It is – word for word – the error relied on by George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard when they decided to go to war on Iraq, and it should be engraved on their headstones. Was a man or woman ever born who, while being bayoneted or raped by an invading soldier, stopped to ask that soldier what ideological mission had driven him to commit this crime against humanity?
To go back to the first point, I sought elsewhere to list the problems facing the British when they took on the American colonists on their own soil.
Although the Americans like to see themselves as having been the underdogs, they won the War of Independence, as they call it, and it is not hard to isolate some of the reasons why their position was eventually so much stronger than that of the English. You can apply the following criteria to the American War of Independence – or to the Vietnam War, the Russian war in Afghanistan, the second Iraq war, or the present military operations in Afghanistan. The phrases ‘home team’ and ‘away team’ are used for convenience and not to detract from the significance of the wars, or the valour shown and losses taken by those who actually fought them and are fighting the present one.
- The away team is the biggest in the world, or as the case may be, the only empire in the world, or the second biggest.
- The away team is a regular professional army while the home team consists of amateur irregulars.
- The professional soldiers in the away team have no advantage over the amateurs in the other team because they have not been trained for this kind of war and people who fight for the cause are more reliable than those who do it for money.
- People defending their own soil are far more motivated than those who cross the world to try to bring them into line.
- The away team has massive resources and advantages in population and war matériel (such as the navy) and technology, but the home team has local knowledge.
- The home team can move more quickly, avoid pitched battles, and use guerrilla tactics, which are sometimes referred to as terrorism, and which, as we saw, the British objected to as not being fair play.
- The away team has problems with morale and supplies that just get worse as time goes on.
- The away team finds that winning requires more than just winning battles – they may beat the army of the other side, but they will not beat the country, which has widespread support among its people (even if the people are otherwise split).
- The away team has a hopeless dilemma – it has to hit hard to win, but every time it hits hard it loses more hearts and minds.
- The home team finds it is easy to generate heroes and leaders; the away team finds it is easy to sack losers.
- The home team out-breeds the others – the result is just a matter of time.
12 The war becomes one of exhaustion and attrition, which in turn exaggerates the above advantage of the home team.
- Because of its felt superiority, its actual ignorance, and its sustained frustration, the away team resorts to atrocious behaviour that it would never be guilty of in a normal war, or against an enemy of its own kind.
In short, the American colonists felt that they were fighting on the moral high ground, a position that they have never surrendered. Appalling crimes were committed on both sides, especially in the civil war in the south between the Patriots and Loyalists. There were, Churchill said, ‘atrocities such as we have known in our day in Ireland.’
The family of Dustin Kirby, later called ‘Doc’, lived in Powder Springs, Georgia. They were ‘unflinchingly patriotic and unshakably Christian’ – and God bless them for both. After the attack on the twin towers, young Kirby wanted to fight for his country. He joined the navy. His mum told him he would be safe there. To get more action, Dusty tried out for the Marines. Sailors wanting to go the Marines were first put through medical training – well, at least they would not go into battle not knowing the worst. The Doc became what Americans call a corpsman – a medic, whose job it was to be what we call ‘the first responder’ to badly wounded Marines. You might think it would be hard to get a more brutal, dangerous and testing job.
In Iraq, Doc attended a Marine who had been shot in the back while talking to a little boy – who most probably had been used as a decoy. Then in a substantial engagement, Doc had to look after a Marine named Smith who had been shot clean through the head. Doc tended Smith whose brains were dripping over Doc. By a combination of valour, grit and luck, Doc got Smith to a medical helicopter. There was at least a chance that radical surgery might save Smith’s life. But what kind of life? Doc fretted over this.
Some weeks later Petty Officer Kirby was asked to take a phone call at his base. The father of Smith was on the line from the Naval Hospital at Bethesda.
The voice on the other end was breaking. Bob Smith was talking through tears. He pushed on. ‘My son would not be alive if not for you,’ Smith said. ‘As long as I am breathing, you will have a father in Ohio.’
Later it would be Doc’s turn. He got shot full in the face. By a similar combination of valour, grit and luck, they kept him going until surgery saved his life. Then there was surgery after surgery. Doc was sent home. This was the return of a hero to the U S from the war in Iraq.
It had been almost four years since Bush left office and nearly seven since Kirby had been shot. Time had been kinder to the former commander in chief than to the corpsman. Kirby had endured more than two dozen surgeries. His jaw had been rebuilt with a bone graft, screws and plates. The work had not set him right. His bottom teeth did not align with those on top, and a section of his mouth was a food trap that he often had to clear with his index finger when he ate. He was in constant pain and self-conscious about his appearance. He had gained fifty pounds. He was medically retired, unemployed, divorced, and disfigured. He was also on probation in the state of Georgia for a reckless driving conviction. Years of drinking had left their mark.
The family was invited to the home of the former president. By this time, Doc had tried to kill himself while driving a car. Gail Kirby, Doc’s mum, was determined to let Mr Bush know of the agony that she had endured as a mother.
She stared at the president, and held his gaze. He looked back. She plunged on.
‘Now picture that baby [the grandchild of Mr Bush] being out in a car seat and put in the middle of a highway, with hundreds of cars that are zooming past him all day long.
You know in your heart that that baby will be safe as long as no cars swerve even just a little bit. You pray every minute of every day that those cars stay away from that yellow line….But to make it harder, we will put you in an office with a TV that is playing the footage of those cars driving past your baby every minute of every day, for weeks on end.’……
Gail did not care. Her son had been shot. She had not come here for ceremony, or to be denied her agency or right to speak.
Bush’s demeanour was gentle. He leaned forward.
‘That’s quite an analogy’, he said.
‘I am sorry,’ he said. ‘I am responsible, I know. I sent him there.’
That is only a part of one of the seven stories in this book. The only other story I will mention is Commander Layne McDowell. He flew an F/A-18 Super Hornet from a carrier on bombing missions over Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. He got his wish. He never dropped a bomb over Afghanistan.
I can’t bear the thought of injuring anyone who doesn’t deserve it, especially if a child were injured during an attack. I think back to the house I accidentally bombed in Kosovo and wonder who was in it…I hope no one. But I don’t want that kind of haunting anymore. I’m glad it is over. I hope my days of flying in combat are over.
I mean no disrespect to the Commander when I say that the first sentence may beg the question. Which Afghans ‘deserved to die’ because Osama got lucky with the twin towers? The ‘enemy’ of the Americans in Afghanistan is throughout the book referred to as the Taliban. Most of them probably were. But were not all of them also probably Afghans responding to a foreign, and infidel, invasion in exactly the manner that Robespierre had predicted? Why don’t we see the Afghans as fighting their own war of independence against invading foreigners?
The question raises two other truths identified by the author. ‘The battlefield did not care about reputations, appearances or wishes.’ And, the ‘Taliban could fight as it pleased, but the Americans were bound by rules.’
Earlier, I referred to two other classic books on war. I hope I have said enough to show why I think this book belongs in that group.
Three other books on war occurred to me throughout. You get the same relentless but arbitrary bloodletting that you get in the Iliad. And you get the same aimlessness. You also get brought back to earth by the effect on the families. The spirit of the plea of Priam to Achilles underlies so much of this book – so little has changed in the intervening millennia.
Then there was the comment of John Keegan in The Face of Battle about studies undertaken in the U S about behaviour in combat. They found a truth long known to football coaches, and hammered home in the book of Mr Chivers.
Foremost among them was the revelation that ordinary soldiers do not think of themselves, in life and death situations, as subordinate members of whatever formal military organisation it is to which authority has assigned them, but as equals within a very tiny group – perhaps no more than six or seven men.
What is the relevance of Catch 22? When looking at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, how do you avoid the notion of madness wherever you look? There is something timeless and universal about soldiers saying ‘We’re here because we’re here.’ Doubtless, the Achaean warriors said the same as they paced between their boats and the walls of Troy; and just as Australian diggers said so thousands of years later just across the water at Gallipoli.
May I then come back to the analogy of the redoubtable Gail Kirby? It would have made Dostoyevsky weep. Doc’s mum did Powder Springs, Georgia proud, and she did all of us parents and grandparents proud. Could we not ask the Almighty to grant us a universal law that before any politician sends any of our children or grandchildren off to war, they must read through that analogy in public and in full, and then with their hands on their heart say that they personally will accept full responsibility for every baby that gets run over as a result of their decision?
Finally, may I say that that anecdote has caused me to think better of Mr Bush? He actually said that he was sorry. That made Doc’s mum think that Mr Bush was ‘not like so many people. He respects us.’ That’s what saying sorry does for you. ‘Sorry’ is not a word that I have heard from any of the others who were also responsible for sending all those men to die in those God forsaken holes in the earth – and all for nothing.