If this is another Vietnam, then I’m a therapist
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
An advanced force of 290 British military personnel has already gone into battle, with another 1,600 preparing to join them. But these are not the forces sent to fight the remnants of the al-Qaeda and Taleban in Afghanistan. These are veterans fighting the British Government in the High Court, claiming compensation for negligence which, they say, left them suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the very moment when the Government is nervously sending 1,700 troops into battle, it is being sued by a similar number of ex-servicemen and women who claim that they were never adequately warned about the horrors of war and the possible effects on their lives. This coincidence offers a snapshot of the problems of fighting a war when society seems to find it so hard to accept any risks. If, as Clausewitz suggested, war is the continuation of politics by other means, then it is inevitable that today’s wars will be weighed down with the emotional baggage of contemporary politics and culture: in particular the overbearing aversion to risk, and the permanently anxious mood of caution and uncertainty.
This cultural shift is reshaping attitudes towards past events, so that veterans of the conflicts in the South Atlantic or Northern Ireland can now sue the Government, essentially for expecting soldiers to fight and possibly die in wars. It is also influencing the conduct of the current conflict.
Announcing the decision to send troops to fight in Afghanistan, Geoff Hoon sounded less like a Minister for Defence than a defensive minister. ‘We will be asking them to risk their lives … they may suffer casualties,’ he said, as if this were a first for soldiers shipped into a war zone. A cynic might almost have thought that Mr Hoon was reading out a legal disclaimer, in case any Royal Marines should later sue the ministry for failing to warn them that they could get hurt.
Now the debate about Afghanistan has marked the return of what Americans call ‘the V word’. First General Tommy Franks made a startling gaffe when he talked of the US soldiers ‘who have lost their lives in our ongoing operations in Vietnam’. Then two former Labour Defence Ministers gave warning that British troops could get bogged down in another Vietnam.
Of course, in reality the conflict in Afghanistan bears no resemblance to Vietnam. Then, the Americans lost tens of thousands of men in a catastrophic all-out war against a popular and powerful Communist-nationalist movement. Now the Americans (and more often their Afghan allies) are fighting small groups, many of them foreigners, in a sporadic conflict where the loss of eight US soldiers can be headlined as ‘heavy casualties’.
Yet the way that Vietnam preys on the Anglo-American mind is revealing. It seems that the only wars deemed acceptable in the West today are fought according to what one US strategist has called a ‘post-heroic’ military policy, using long-distance bombs and missiles to bludgeon everything in sight, and perhaps a few special forces on the ground to mop up. Any involvement that goes beyond that computer-game scenario will immediately be seen as raising the fantastic spectre of another Vietnam.
Before sending soldiers off to battle today, many want an advance guarantee of when they will be back (preferably within a fortnight) and assurances that nothing untoward will happen to them. The horrors of war, meanwhile, we want confined to Hollywood -or to the unreal setting of a ‘reality TV’ show such as the BBC’s The Trench.
The experience of Vietnam did play an important part in the development of this mindset. It was a coalition of disillusioned anti-war activists, psychiatrists and social workers, lobbying on behalf of Vietnam veterans, who first invented the condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Previously it had been believed that war left only a minority seriously disturbed. According to the advocates of PTSD, however, it was normal for anybody to be traumatised by such an experience, unless professional counselling and care was to hand (with compensation lawyers close behind).
Today the therapeutic culture is far more deeply entrenched, and barely a week goes by without another case of PTSD being claimed by people in all walks of life. Little wonder, then, that society’s aversion to risk should influence the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. One effect on American policy has been the combination of blind aerial bombardment and lack of intelligence gathering on the ground.
Now the Royal Marines are being sent in to join a nervy war with increasingly uncertain aims. It is hard to see how exporting our culture of fear is making the world a safer place for anybody.
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