The funeral of 111-year-old Harry Patch in Somerset on 6 August provided one of those moments that the British love: pomp, patriotism, ceremony, nostalgia, national mourning and thousands of Union Jacks at half-mast.
Media coverage on radio, television and in newspapers gave a thunderous farewell to "The Last Tommy", for Mr Patch was the final British survivor of the trench slaughter of World War I.
But the deafening noise of choirs, brass bands, bagpipes, fly-pasts, gun salutes and speeches by politicians, generals and prelates served only to obliterate the voice of Patch himself, and he is worth listening to.
This is Harry Patch on war: "War is organised murder and nothing else … It was not worth it. It was not worth one life, let alone all the millions."
He also said: "I met someone from the German side and we both shared the same opinion: we fought, we finished and we were friends. It wasn’t worth it."
On the battlefield near Ypres in 1917 a Cornish soldier who was horribly wounded pleaded to be shot to end his misery. Harry, who saw him die before he could pull the trigger, recalled: "I was with him for the last 60 seconds of his life. He gasped one word — Mother. That one word has run through my brain for 88 years. I will never forget it. I think it is the most sacred word in the English language. It wasn’t a cry of distress or pain; it was one of surprise and joy."
The interviewer recalled: "Harry said that from the way the lad said it, he knew his mother was there waiting for him." (Perhaps some of Harry’s quotations could be read out to Australian troops ordered to Afghanistan or relayed to those returning home. But on second thoughts, I don’t think the Ministry of Defence or the RSL would allow it.)
In Britain, the Government’s war adventure in Afghanistan is under increasing public criticism, and this is reflected in the opinion polls. According to the ComRes poll published in the Independent, a majority of the British public now believes that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and that troops should be pulled out immediately.
The poll found that more than half of the adult population (52 per cent) want troops withdrawn now while 43 per cent don’t. Asked if they thought the war was unwinnable, 58 per cent said "yes" and only 31 per cent disagreed. Anti-war feeling is even higher among women who have swung from overall support for the war to outright antipathy.
One factor driving public opinion is the rising death and injury toll from Helmand province where British troops are stationed.
Under enormous pressure from soldiers and their families, figures have just been released showing that there have been 2650 casualties among UK personnel in Afghanistan since 2001, including 196 deaths. In July alone, 22 soldiers were killed and 57 seriously wounded in action, while five were killed in the first week of August.
A recent Harris Poll has found that one in 20 people has had a friend or family member killed or injured in Afghanistan and just 13 per cent agreed with Prime Minister Brown’s risible assessment that the military operation is showing "signs of success".
Public support is being sapped by the mission’s lack of credibility on the political, military or moral grounds. The moth-eaten justification for the war — "we are wiping them out in Afghanistan so they don’t attack us at home" — has been undermined by the lack of any evidence of any terror operations by Afghanistan groups in the UK.
Meanwhile, the Government has been unable to present the pre-conditions that are fundamental to waging a foreign war: a clear statement of war aims, a rough time frame for the length of the commitment, an affordable budget, a casualty tolerance level and an exit strategy.
What’s contributing to the evaporation of public support are the bizarre and contradictory messages from the Government. At the end of July, Brown declared the latest UK-led "hold and build" battle in Helmand Valley, known as Operation Panther’s Claw, had been brought to a successful conclusion.
But simultaneously the deputy chief of the Defence staff, Lieutenant-General Simon Mayall, said the current war was "not against the Taliban", while the eternally youthful Foreign Secretary David Miliband said it was time to start talking to the Taliban who, we now learn, come in "three tiers" — good Taliban, bad Taliban and moderate Taliban.
How curious. Less than two years ago two Western diplomats were summarily deported by the Karzai Government for engaging in informal contacts with Taliban leaders, yet now the same Taliban is being sought for talks by the British Foreign Secretary and the US President Barack Obama. The shifting sands of Afghan politics are perilous for both conventional and flat-earth thinkers.
To add to the public’s anger and confusion, General Sir David Richards, the incoming head of the British Army, said on 8 August that the British military commitment to Afghanistan could last another 40 years. It’s the kind of idiocy which will fuel anti-war sentiment.
Unkind UK researchers have now produced figures showing the cost of the war — $25 billion since 2002 — and the number of Afghan civilians killed — an estimated 30,000. They then calculated that the money could have built 23 new hospitals and trained 60,000 new teachers and 77,000 new nurses.
With the UK economy slipping inexorably into basket case territory, the argument for talking in place of fighting is becoming unstoppable. Sadly, before the parties reach the negotiating table more British, American, Australian and other NATO soldiers will be killed — as well as hundreds more of the people of Afghanistan, including militia fighters, Taliban (good, bad and indifferent), young people, old people and villagers who have never heard of the World Trade Centre.
This callous indifference to soldiers’ lives of prolonging a flawed conflict was highlighted by Senator John Kerry in 1971 when, as a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, he condemned the Nixon-Kissinger administration for perpetuating the war. "Each day, to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam, someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say we have made a mistake. How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
But don’t mention such things around the Sydney and Canberra "think tanks", or in earshot of the self-interested warmongers who write columns for News Ltd and Fairfax. These people are making a very nice living out of war and Islamophobia, and they’ll be hoping they can help drag the conflict out long enough to pay off their mortgages and put their kids through expensive private schools.
Harry Patch had experienced the horror and futility of war, and knew better than desk-warriors like these. As he once put it: "At the end, the peace was settled round a table, so why the hell couldn’t they do that at the start without losing millions of men?"
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