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The fog of war

In 2001, British troops marched into Afghanistan on a mission to combat al-Qaeda and topple the Tali

Out into the attack with the Royal Marines last year, we drove in dust-choked Viking armoured vehicles through the sand desert and to the crest of a ridge that overlooked the lush, irrigated valley along the Helmand River known to the soldiers as the Green Zone, their battlefield. Then, in the landscape below, people began to run. Men on motorbikes went from house to house to announce the battle. In all directions spread a panorama of terror, as women, children, boys, anyone not fighting, ran for safety. The Americans call this the "blue stream" - the indicator, almost every time, of an impending engagement.

Two days later, I was in another Viking, clutching some bit of metal in an attempt to anchor myself as it charged back to base across a poppy field. There were little grey puffs of exploding Airburst rocket-propelled grenades near us, and the crump of home-side mortars landing on the trenches from where the Taliban were firing. I looked out of the small porthole in the back, and there, in the middle of this "contact", was an old shepherd nonchalantly herding his sheep across a field, unflinching.

Two visions of the Afghan population - one of terror, one of apparent unconcern. But in both, a battlefield where the population can rarely just watch unaffected.

Seven years into Britain's fourth Afghan war (the previous battles being those of 1839-42, 1878-80 and 1919) and three years into its campaign on the Helmand River, those in command emphasise that the objective of military action is no longer focused on those Taliban firing rockets and laying bombs, but rather on people like the farmers I saw so fleetingly. General Stanley McChrystal, the US and Nato commander in Kabul, has designed this summer's offensive in Helmand, launched ahead of the 20 August presidential election, not as a counter-terrorist mission, but rather on classic counter-insurgency principles. Success would be measured, he said, by the numbers of people shielded from violence and the influence of the enemy.

The aim of this new offensive, in which British soldiers have played a major part, is that the Taliban will be cleared and the troops will stay to hold and build something for the people. Operation Panther's Claw, as the British part is known, has been costly. And at least 43 British servicemen have died since the beginning of May. But what of the cost to the Afghan people, so often forgotten? And do we have any conception of what the Afghan people, supposedly now so central to the west's thinking, make of the commanders' new slogans?

After a year spent researching a book on the Helmand conflict, twice visiting the war zone and Kabul, and interviewing more than 200 soldiers and officials who have served there, I am struck that no one has much of an idea. The lack of any real connection with, hard data on, or understanding of, the Afghan population is arguably the Achilles heel of the whole campaign. Is the population sitting on a fence, as some generals will tell you, waiting to see that Nato is in control before jumping over to support the Afghan government? Or does the rebellion, as I suspect, have deeper roots?
One thing is clear. While the cost to British forces has been great, no one has suffered more from this war than the civilians in whose fields it has been fought. They are not spectators. When Britain's combat troops arrived in April 2006, they came on a mission promising to provide security for
development projects. Instead, they entered an all-out battle with the Taliban. As the British defended themselves, using heavy weapons, the Afghan people were driven away in their thousands and turned into internal refugees. Parts of some of the principal towns of Helmand - Sangin, Musa Qala, Garmsir - were reduced to rubble. Others, such as Nawzad and Kajaki, became ghost towns.

Again and again, Whitehall warriors have repeated the big lie, talking of tipping points and endless progress. The military campaign might ebb and flow. Towns and districts have been captured and recaptured. But through it all - and despite the best efforts of so many who have tried to help and have improved the lot of people here and there - the local people have been the greatest victims of the fighting.

When you are embedded in all the excitement of this war, deep in the machinations of how to win this compound or that village, or control the province, it is easy to lose perspective on what the British are supposed to be doing there. Oddly, the purpose of this conflict often seemed irrelevant to soldiers I met. A veteran corporal just back from a tour of Afghanistan in which two good friends had been killed (following two hard tours of Iraq) had some strong views on the politics of war - much stronger and more left-wing, I have to say, than most.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were interlinked, he said, and "a massive war over power and money and oil". Although called terrorists, Britain's enemies were "fighting for the same things that we're trying to fight for". He added: "We're being terrorists, really. We're going over [to] their countries, blowing them up, and taking their oil . . . We only do things that are going to benefit our own economy and that's the only reason we're over there, I believe."

Even so, he said, the Afghan war was more justified. About politics, "there's no point massively getting all worked up . . . At the end of the day, in the army, you're just a pawn to the politicians." As with many other soldiers I interviewed, these discussions were largely a matter of passing the time, almost an intellectual pursuit, not something that really affected morale. Many of the men said they were in the army for "the craic", a term that covered all the adrenalin and honour and proving yourself that war involved. It was important that they weren't doing something bad; beyond that, for most, it did not seem that the details mattered.

Ultimately, however, the cause does matter. Whether lives have been risked wisely depends both on the nobility of that cause and on the quality of the leadership that deploys the troops. It has been hard, though, for soldiers - for anyone - to follow the detailed explanations of just why we are in Helmand. It was to combat al-Qaeda that British forces first entered Afghanistan in 2001. That was a limited commitment. Five lives were lost in the first five years. Then, in 2006, when the troop numbers rose dramatically, the British headed south to Helmand with a mission described by the then defence secretary, John Reid, as being "to support reconstruction", but which has shifted constantly. Others have spoken since of the need to support the Afghan government. Or to lift the war-torn country out of poverty. Or to fight the growth of the world opium trade that is centred in Helmand. Or, as is the official line now, to secure the country from a revival of al-Qaeda. "If we can't even get straight why we're there, how
can we get straight our strategy to win?" one UK battalion commander said to me recently.

Beyond the official aims, the Helmand war also has a secret life as a battle for the reputation of British arms, a battle in which the stakes have been raised high by what most in the US and UK military perceive as Britain's failure in Basra, Iraq. I've found that nothing touches the raw nerves of top generals like mentioning the view that - despite an occupation lasting almost as long as the Second World War - it took decisive US action last year to rescue Basra from the murderous militias to which the British had ceded power.

So far, Helmand has fared little better. Where Britain once had a reputation for successful counter-insurgencies (whether in Malaya, Oman or Northern Ireland), the sense that Americans generally lag behind has almost completely evaporated. Now it is British leadership that is most in question. As John Nagl, the counter-insurgency guru and adviser to the US commander General David Petraeus, told me: "Until you admit that you have a problem, that you are not doing everything as well as you could, it's really hard to get better. I have not seen that same spirit of public self-criticism in the British army . . . The British army, for which I have so much respect, which has such a history of success in counter-insurgency, has not done everything right in Helmand Province, did not do everything right in Basra. It needs to think hard about those lessons."

After three years of British involvement, the once-quiet province of Helmand has been transformed into the most volatile region in the country. The UK has been blamed for stirring a rebellion. And, just as in Basra, it has needed the arrival of the Americans for there to be a serious shot at winning. A confidential debriefing given by a US marine commander this spring, and revealed to me in notes made by a senior British commander, voiced a litany of concerns on the part of the Americans about the way the British have been operating. UK forces were said to patrol in formations that were too large, to spend too much time "recovering" from patrols, and to patrol too often without the Afghan police or army.

They also, the debriefing suggested, have too many bases, spend insufficient time living among the people, are not in Afghanistan long enough to learn about the people or the place, and are generally deficient in trained intelligence-gatherers. They are "cautious about the enemy and overestimate their strength", are too secretive about sharing information, have insufficient cash to dole out, and are disrupted by their system of R&R (rest and recreation). Finally - insult of insults - the British were told: "Your standards of personal hygiene and field discipline aren't good enough and you have too many non-battle injuries."

The reputation of the British is on the line in Helmand, and they clearly have a mountain to climb.

There is a strange mood as the coffins come back from Afghanistan. Media interest is high. The crowds at memorial events show that support for soldiers is also high. And yet there is a kind of collective hypocrisy that combines a concern for the welfare of the armed forces with a lack of interest in the war. Few are sold on the aims of the war, however often they are repeated. How many of us have bothered to learn even the names of the principal places where this war is being fought - in Helmand, the towns of Lashkar Gah, Garmsir, Sangin, Musa Qala?

What really gets soldiers' goat, however, is the endless speeches saying "Thank you, thank you, thank you" for their sacrifice. There is that hoary old George Orwell misquotation: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." Soldiers in the field generally wish a handful fewer people were sleeping peaceably and a few more - and particularly those who work for the peacetime-focused bureaucracies of Whitehall - were spending a bit more time wide awake, supporting them meaningfully.

On top of the toll of deaths and injuries, there is the psychological damage. As you read this, several hundred soldiers are back in Britain on mid-tour leave (their R&R). Knowing that their friends are right now facing the bullets, most wish they weren't here. They will be staring at people in the street who don't give a damn. They will be talking to so-called friends in the pub who will listen to about a minute of the truth before their eyes glaze over and they change the subject. The soldiers will hate every minute of their so-called rest and recreation. Those I know will spend their "holiday" with a can of beer in one hand and the remote in the other, flicking between the sport and the agonising headlines that flash along the bottom of Sky News.

Talking to soldiers back from Helmand for my book took me into a dark, dark place. Among the confident lines journalists like to spin is that to spill your guts to a tape recorder will somehow do you some good: "It's really like therapy. You'll feel better for getting it out of your system." For the first time in nearly 20 years of reporting, I just had to stop interviews.

I got to realise I was not a shrink. I could get someone to take me to the worst moment in their lives - to describe the horrors in their head that they themselves had yet to face - but how to get them back out again? I wasn't sure. How do you cope with chatting to your best friend and, a second later, seeing the stump of his leg leaning against a wall?

It wasn't grown men crying that bothered me. It was those with minds that began to wander, without them realising it, mid-sentence, jumping like a needle on vinyl as they conflated one horror into the next: a stirred-up soup of things that seemingly can't get any worse but then still do.

And it wasn't just combat soldiers. They at least got attention and perhaps counselling. Few would think of checking up on the storeman who broke down, blaming himself for not sending the bit of kit that might have saved a life. Or the young captains in the operations room who told me how they had to play God: to interpret the rules on which young kid who turned up at the base could get a ride to a hospital in a helicopter, and which might just be left with his family, probably to die. Or the padres who were not only the sponges for every bit of dark emotion from all around, but who helped, literally, to pick up bits of flesh and tried to put them together to create a semblance of a body to send back home.

Speaking at Chatham House in May this year, General Sir Richard Dannatt - the outgoing chief of general staff and one of the few to have the courage to speak his mind while in post - used Leon Trotsky's warning that "you may not be interested in this war, but this war is interested in you" to underline what he called the globalisation of our national security interests. In effect, interventions such as Helmand are at the core of those interests: international activism is "hardwired into our political and national DNA", he said.

The weakness with such arguments, over which so many in power now labour, is not the assumption that global issues affect British security, but the implication that the way we have intervened in places such as Basra and Helmand has matched the British military official slogan of being a "force for good".

Whether you like these wars or not, Dannatt was right to emphasise the consequences of them to us all. If not the cost of billions of pounds diverted, or the cost in blood, or the cost for years to come of so many young men going through such trauma, then consider the strategic cost to national interests if such a grand adventure turns out again to be a grand failure.

Stephen Grey is the author of "Operation Snakebite: the Explosive True Story of an Afghan Desert Siege" (Viking, £16.99).

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.