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

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

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 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game