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

Getty
Show Hide image

Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496