Like a scratched record, the lines play over and over in my head. They’re from a poem called I Go Back to May 1937, that begins with the poet Sharon Olds looking at her parents, young and innocent, standing together in the sunlight, about to graduate from college, about to get married: ‘I want to go up to them and say Stop,/don’t do it she’s the wrong woman,/he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things/you cannot imagine you would ever do…’
It’s the warning ‘Stop,/don’t do it’ that’s stuck in my head. Stop before the damage is done. The poet knows the story that is about to unfold, but she can’t rewrite the history of their unhappiness.
The words follow me all day long like a noisy Greek chorus lodged in my head. I hear it as I read the paper over my first cup of coffee and as I listen to the World Service late into the night. What triggers the constant refrain is not a black-and-white photograph, but the news, day after day, news that ends with the sombre mantra ‘their family has been informed’. Like the poet who longs to rewrite the story, I want to cry out: ‘Stop/don’t do it. Don’t tell us this war makes our streets safer. Don’t tell us “we are doing a lot of good over there”. Don’t send more troops.’
Why this obsession when I’m miles from a country I know only from A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and eight years of war as seen in newspapers and on television? A war that doesn’t deprive me of meat or sugar, doesn’t threaten my draft-age son, a war that requires no sacrifice here on a farm in Suffolk. I believe it’s because I feel like I’ve lived through this war before.
They say you can’t compare wars, but this war looks painfully familiar. The terrain: thousands of miles away, an impenetrable landscape. The old enemy was Communism; today, it’s Islamic terrorism, but it’s always a battlefield for a larger ideological war. There’s even a corrupt and undemocratic government kept in power by Western money.
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And now the eternal question would President Kennedy have led America into the abyss of Vietnam? is being re-examined. Lost in the web of time is the fact that, despite the intense pressure of the generals who pushed the President to fight the insurgency in South Vietnam, to intervene on a massive scale, there were supposedly no combat troops in Vietnam during Kennedy’s presidency.
But by 1963, there were 16,000 military advisors on the ground, 20 times as many as in 1961. Their job? To train the Vietnamese soldiers, a job that didn’t explain why some were being killed in combat. Kennedy maintained that the ‘war in Vietnam could only be won so long as it was their war. If it were ever converted into a white man’s war, we would lose as the French lost a decade earlier.’ He was never persuaded that sending in ground troops to fight would prevent the fall of ‘dominoes’, only that it would exact a terrible price in blood, a prophecy that came true.
The US has already increased its troop presence in Afghanistan by 40,000 since the beginning of last year. The result? A stronger insurgency and more casualties. How will 40,000 more troops be any different? Will 7,000 more from Britain make the 9,000 there safer? But we should ask better questions. How long do the troops stay? When do we win? What do we win?
In a dining room in Cambridgeshire, generations of family portraits gaze down at us. We talk about the five British soldiers killed that morning. My neighbour tells me that his godson in the Scots Guards is off to Afghanistan in two weeks. ‘The deaths are terrible. But the injuries legs and genitals blown off those are the tragedies that we aren’t seeing.’ ‘Stop,/don’t do it’ plays like Nimrod in my head.
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