Saturday, 6 October 2012

They died – for what?

Today’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ programme on the BBC quoted a British General in Afghanistan saying ‘don’t ask me if it was worth it. It wasn’t worth it.’

There seems to be a general conspiracy never to admit that we’ve sent young men and women to their deaths without purpose. The press is quick to accuse anyone who dares voice a doubt of undermining the forces themselves and denying consolation to their bereaved relatives – as though anything could be worse than the bereavement itself.

A few days ago I visited a church in Saverne, in Northern Alsace, and came across a plaque:

Age shall not wither them. But if only it had been allowed to...
Some eighty men from a single battalion died over eight years of what can hardly be dignified by the word war: it was a last ditch attempt by the French government to hang on to its colony in Algeria. The full story of the war crimes committed during that time has yet to be told. In any case the effort failed: France withdrew from Algeria, and all the atrocities were for nothing.

Fifty years on, a church celebrates their deaths ‘for France’. And yet it’s hard to see in what sense their deaths served their country. If anything, Algerian independence has done far less for Algeria – a string of authoritarian governments, a long and vicious civil war – while it helped free France from imperial illusions, allowing it to carve a new role for itself as a European nation.

Something Britain has still to learn to do.

As for the French people, they’re not sending young people out there to be maimed or killed. It was ending the war that served them, not prosecuting it.

When my wife, Danielle, was growing up at the other end of Alsace, she was close to her cousin, something of an elder brother to her. It was a blow when he was called up for military service, and a far greater one when he was sent to Algeria and she lost contact with him for the best part of two years.

But no blow was worse than when he returned, unrecognisably transformed. Introverted, bitter, quick to anger. Over the next two decades he sank deeper into alcoholism and watched his life fall apart: he became a chronic invalid; he was fired from his job, which took some doing since he was employed by his father; while his family stayed together, home life became increasingly fraught.

Finally, his frame could take it no more and his difficult life came to an end in his forties.

His name won’t appear on a plaque anywhere. These memorials are always big on the fallen, but they say far less about the ones who came back alive. Some of them are horribly maimed and needing lifetime care which they don’t all receive. Others are much less visibly injured and fall through the net of the care system. And some like Danielle
s cousin have wounds so deep inside them that they are often not even recognised.

He took his injury serving in a war which gained France nothing. Now we
re beginning to hear the people who know best say that the Afghan conflict will have proved as futile.

But men and women are coming back from it as damaged as Freddy was. The United States and Britain have a major problem of injured veterans unable to find the treatment they need or even regular employment.

It’s time to admit the truth about them. We sent them out there. It was a pointless exercise. The least we can do is look after them.

And become a lot less casual about doing it all again somewhere else.

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