Last night I was invited to the Durham Union Society to debate against the motion ‘The Afghan War is to be regretted’. As you might expect I lost heavily by about 99 to 1–no surprise since personally the Afghan War fills me with regret. That said, it is always a good exercise to argue against one’s own views and I did my best to construct a positive case for the war. KOW readers may find it interesting. Here it is:
5 October 2012, David Betz speaking against the motion.
I am delighted to have been invited to speak at this debate here at the Durham Union Society. It’s a privilege and an honour though, frankly, I have to admit to a little trepidation. Before writing up my notes for this speech I was moved to offer a small prayer to St Jude—the patron of lost causes, for any who may not recall—for inspiration because on first hearing tonight’s motion I had to ask, ‘Gosh! Why me?’ A few years ago now I published a paper on Afghanistan and British strategy in which I argued that operations there had become:
…like the crazy aunt living in the attic, a familial embarrassment that nobody wants to talk about. The government lacks the will to escalate the situation in the hopes of achieving some sort of victory (however defined…), or to bear the diplomatic impact of cutting its losses and running. As a result, the Army is committed just enough to lose.
Presenting the paper subsequently at an event in Washington just after Obama’s announcement of the ‘Afghan Surge’ I suggested to an American of senior military officers that ultimately they would count themselves lucky if they managed to withdraw from the place with as much dignity and honour intact as the Soviet Army mustered when it finally left over twenty years ago. You may be surprised, then, how vehemently I reject the motion that the Afghan war is to be ‘regretted’. On reflection, I find that I deplore this thesis because it is:
a) banal and un-illuminating;
b) strategically myopic; and,
c) immoral and indefensible.
Let me explain.
First, we must interrogate the word ‘regret’, which is typically defined as a ‘sorry, disappointed, or distressed’ feeling about something that is remembered with ‘sorrow’ and in a ‘spirit of mourning’. It’s a banal word when used in a serious and dispassionate analysis of war, which is what we as scholars and as students of war must strive for. Pathos is fine for novelists and filmmakers. It is entirely fitting in monuments like those on the inner walls of buildings such as the very grand one that neighbours this chamber and in Remembrance Day speeches; but it is not a help here and now for the purposes of the subject under discussion. To say that this war is to be regretted tells us nothing much at all. After the Battle of Waterloo, the ultimate and one of the bloodiest engagements in the seventeen years of the Napoleonic wars, the victorious Duke of Wellington wrote these words in a letter:
My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.
In other words, all wars are to be regretted, even the just ones waged in defence against conquerors and tyrants and rapacious plunderers like Bonaparte. To say that the Afghan War is to be regretted has no meaning on its own—without a relative clause, a benchmark against which to compare its merits and otherwise. I am going to come back to this point of the inadequacy of the word regret and its essential and off-putting moral dodginess later. Meanwhile, I want to speak a little about the case for the war.
Now the first thing is to admit that, by and large, particularly in Britain, politicians have signally failed to make the case compellingly and thus one is compelled to construct one from fragments and first principles. I’ll say no more about the inadequacies of strategic thinking and vision, of moral fibre, and of the ability to lead through inspiring speech of our politicians, which I believe are self-evident. More important it is to point out that it is hard to make a case for a singular ‘THE Afghan War’ because actually there are three different wars that need to be disaggregated.
First, there was the war that immediately followed the September 11, 2001 attacks that was aimed at the uprooting and destruction of Al Qaeda and, once they had made plain their alliance, also to punish the Taliban regime for sheltering Osama bin Laden and providing succour to him and his followers. Second, subsequently, from 2002 onwards, there was the ‘war’ to stabilise Afghanistan—to help its new government to achieve for its people a fraction of the decencies of civilised and modern life (such as security of the person, health, education, and a modicum of material well-being) that practically the entire world enjoyed in greater measure than did they. Then there was the war that most people now consider THE war when we talk of Afghanistan—that being the war to defeat the Taliban insurgency that having licked its wounds and found its strength with the aid and abetment of Pakistan re-emerged on the scene circa 2006.
It is, I submit, perfectly plausible to defend each of these wars, though admittedly with diminishing zeal in each iteration. Does anyone think that actions short of war would have sufficed to remove Al Qaeda from its haven in Afghanistan? Does anyone think that with nearly 3,000 people murdered on 911 in an unprovoked attack on unarmed civilians in the middle of the major metropolitan financial and political centres of the world’s largest power that a military response was unjust? There were a few, to be sure, even in America. Noam Chomsky springs to mind. But the collective response of American society to such views, with the full support of its treaty allies, as expressed eloquently by the then President of the United States (perfectly rightly, though I paraphrase) was ‘form a short line and kiss my ass.’ And once that was done, who thinks it was wrong to stay and attempt to put right a society that had been deranged by over three decades of war (some of which was fought by us and before that by our proxies)? As it happens, I think, and argued at the time, that we ought better to have erected a large black iron spike that would last for centuries (with or without a mountain of skulls) on which were scratched the words ‘we were here, don’t make us come back’ but I must admit that strong moral arguments based upon appeals to our better nature for more positive inducements to good behaviour found rather more public favour. Finally, when it became obvious that peaceful efforts to develop Afghanistan had been foiled by the efforts of the resurgent Taliban, the argument was made (rather forcefully and eloquently by Barack Obama in his first election campaign) that it was right to defeat them.
It is perfectly reasonable to deplore the inadequacy of the ‘Afghan Surge’, as I do (and, for that matter, to criticise the tepid efforts of the omni-shambolic ISAF before that), but not to regret them if you thought the war worthy in the first place. Indeed, there is a good and worthy long term and ‘strategic’ case to be made for the war. Personally, it fills me with foreboding because I think that as a policy it would require wars of generations length and a level of societal mobilisation that would make the most avid believer in ‘clash of civilisations’ to balk for a minute if it were taken truly seriously; but it is a coherent argument and perfectly moral. Malcolm Potts in his terrific book Sex and War eloquently makes it (though his view of its implications are different than mine). It goes like this:
a) Belligerency is a natural aspect of human biology; but,
b) It can be attenuated by culture, civilisation, education and the like, which rest in turn upon economic development; but,
c) Economic development can only be sustained when a country has control of its population growth (otherwise growth in wealth is counterbalanced by growth in numbers); but,
d) Population growth is only reliably achieved by female education and empowerment.
It’s not difficult to apply such reasoning to Afghanistan; implicitly it is what lies behind the rhetoric about fighting for the right of little girls to go to school without having acid thrown in their faces or young women to exert authority over their own bodies against the wishes of their husbands, fathers and brothers without having their noses cut off or their necks severed. If you think that Afghanistan is a reservoir of backwardness that generates insecurity now with 30 million people then just wait until 2050 when there are 80 million people living there in the same ways with fewer resources.
In short, in the long view there is a good case for the Afghan War. If you despair that in all likelihood things will get worse for those girls and women and not better, that Afghanistan will slide back into a clash between warlordism on one side and religious dogmatism on another with the lumpen mass of the people miserable in the middle, and you fear that this is possibly a harbinger of a larger human future, then I am right there with you. Regret does not begin to cover the feeling that provokes. Here’s the thing: To truly regret something, as opposed to just feeling bad about it, you have to believe that another course of action would have led to a better outcome. Somewhere along the way the road forked and you went left but should have gone right. It’s an oversimplification, of course, because in real life the decision chains have hundreds and thousands of links; but in principle the point is valid—the line from the film the Matrix when the character ‘Cypher’ betrays the crew of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar to the machines says ‘why oh why did I not take the blue pill?’—now that is an expression of crystalline regret because you can boil it down to a moment of choice.
I should begin moving in the direction of a conclusion. So let me do so by just asking again some questions, which I hope, will lead you too to a moment of crystalline resolution:
Does this house think any response to 911 short of war was possible—and better than the course actually taken?
Does this house believe it would have been better in 2002 to leave the country—just made of it an object lesson in our power to wreak destruction from afar with practically no prospect of a reply in kind? That could have been done. Quite easily, in fact. When in the 19th century Hillaire Belloc composed the ditty ‘thank God we have the maxim gun and they have not’ to describe the relationship between the imperial powers and the unfortunate objects of their military enterprise he had seen nothing. Now we’ve got robotic sharks with laser beam eyes—nearly. The gap between the capability of the West to cause pain and destroy wealth and those who have set themselves against globalisation, which they perceive as a Western project, is no lesser and probably greater than it ever has been. Lord Byron, echoing Tacitus’ history of Roman conquering, wrote in Bride of Abydos:
Mark where his carnage and his conquests cease!
He makes a solitude and calls it—peace.
Would it not be fair to say to this house should it answer ‘yes’ to either of the above questions, is it not simply that you regret losing?
If that is the case then I urge this house to be wary, for such a regret merely causes you to give up and grieve and that is harmful to all. Such a regret indulges self-pity and ego-centrism and serves to fuel resentment of all against all. Regretting the Afghan War offers up a history that is fixated on grievance and highlights only those events that reinforce the sense of injustice and bruised pride. It also feeds corrosive narratives that are already evident amongst some who have served: of Afghan ingratitude for the sacrifices made on their behalf, and of politicians having ‘stabbed-in-the-back’ those whom they sent to war but failed to support, not to mention those who are eager to remind that history tells us that when ‘push comes to shove’ god is usually on the side with the biggest battalions and that we should act accordingly. By consolatory regret you will achieve the marginalisation of your own viewpoint and obscure the lessons that progress needs. Better it is by far to empathise and to seek to understand and not to bury one’s gaze from that which is unpleasant but real.
Samuel Beckett summed it up pithily, I think: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ But Marcus Aurelius, last and some would say greatest of the five Roman ‘good emperors’, probably captured the gist of it first when he said that it is hard to have either an appropriate sense of humility or justice when you are consumed with regret.
Was the war worthy?
Taking risks is no easy thing but when we come to the end of it all do we regret that we tried? That we tried to make a difference? Do not think either that those who’ve lost eyes and limbs and genitals in this war, or the loved ones of those whose lives were lost, are comforted by your regret. The words ‘we meant well’ said from the heart are apposite; but said with the ironic detachment too typical of our age they are a twist of the knife. To stand up as fallible human beings with just one life for what one thinks is right and noble and should not be a regret. It is craven remorse that shames and disgraces. Sometimes, maybe, it comes down to Soren Kierkegaard’s awful realisation about life and fate: ‘do it or do not do it, you will regret both.’
The motion before today is meaningless, it is strategically myopic, and ultimately it is morally wrong. Do not support it.