Investment in Blood by Frank Ledwidge: A devastating indictment of the utter, unanswerable folly of Afghanistan

Frank Ledwidge, once a “justice adviser” in Britain’s para-colonial administration in Helmand, has produced a devastating indictment of Britain’s military intervention in southern Afghanistan. If those of us complicit in the error were ever brought to jus

Investment in Blood: the True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War
Frank Ledwidge
Yale University Press, 304pp, £18.99

Frank Ledwidge was a “justice adviser” in Britain’s para-colonial administration in Helmand. As well as spending 15 years as a naval reserve officer, he once practised as a barrister – and it shows. In a closely argued book, he produces a devastating indictment of the utter, unanswerable folly of Britain’s military intervention in southern Afghanistan. If those of us complicit in the error were ever brought to justice, this would be the case for our prosecution.

Ledwidge begins by putting the campaign in Helmand in context, before describing British casualties in terms of those killed and those whose bodies or minds have been broken in the fighting. More of our soldiers have died in Afghanistan than in any other counter-insurgency campaign overseas since the Boer war. Ledwidge exhibits sympathy for our casualties, while reminding us that they were all volunteers, doing a job most loved.

The same cannot be said of the unnumbered Afghan civilians caught up in the conflict. As Ledwidge points out, Britain makes no serious effort to count, let alone identify, the thousands of Pashtun people killed, maimed or displaced by the fighting.

The second part of the book looks at what the campaign will continue to cost the British taxpayer, even after the last C-17 lifts off from Camp Bastion. In 2010, the Treasury representative on the Whitehall committee overseeing the war said that it was costing “getting on for £6bn a year”. Looking at the military costs (some £31.1bn), the future care of veterans (£3.8bn) and the money Britain is spending on civilian development in Afghanistan (a relatively puny £2.1bn), Ledwidge calculates a campaign cost by 2020 of some £40bn – enough to run 1,000 primary schools for 40 years or to recruit 1,000 nurses and pay for their entire careers. By contrast, he reckons that the Taliban’s war in Helmand has cost it £16m – truly asymmetric warfare.

These are merely the softening-up salvos before Ledwidge delivers his most crushing political ordnance by asking what this vast expenditure of British blood and treasure will have achieved. At his forensic best, he tears through the tissue of wishful thinking, wilful deception and worse that politicians, generals, diplomats and civil servants have used to justify the war to a sceptical but surprisingly complaisant British public. Ledwidge argues that – as at least one former head of MI5 has said and as the horrific attack in Woolwich suggested – we are, if anything, less secure as a result of making war without good cause on Muslims in distant Asian countries. Like many Afghans, he wonders how successful we will be in leaving behind a better country than the one we entered in 2001. He asks if Britain has been right – unlike France, Canada or the Netherlands – to go along so meekly with a US military-heavy “strategy” that few serious policymakers in Whitehall or in Washington privately believed could work. And he points out that the British army’s success in using the Afghan war to secure scarce resources has been the Royal Navy’s – and the national interest’s – loss.

This book is a masterpiece in miniature. Had the canvas been larger, I would have liked to have read more about the shaky pillars on which our plan for securing Afghanistan after we leave is supposed to rest: the Afghan army, police and their auxiliaries. I would have saluted their courage, while questioning the capacity and commitment of forces supposed, improbably, to continue countering an insurgency that has succeeded so far this year in initiating 47 per cent more attacks than last year. And I would have said more about how our armed forces have been enthusiastic dupes in the whole exercise: not surprisingly, professional soldiers have preferred a small war to serious boredom on Salisbury Plain.

All of us responsible for the west’s eye wateringly expensive exercise in military futility should read this book before we dare again to mouth – or tweet – the sentiment behind what Wilfred Owen called “the old lie”: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Ledwidge offers no help for heroes; no one would want to inflict this book on the grieving widows or fatherless children of those sent to Helmand to die without good reason.

Nearly 250 years ago, Edmund Burke warned the Commons against repressing the American insurgency by force: “The use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again; and a nation is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered . . . An armament is not a victory.” His words, like Ledwidge’s book, remind us how hard man finds it to resist the siren song of military adventurism; and how high the bill can be for such colossal strategic error.

Sherard Cowper-Coles served as Britain’s Afghan envoy between 2007 and 2010

An Afghan policeman stands guard at the site of suicide attack near Kabul military airport last week. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories