Mark Townsend is crime and defence correspondent for the Observer and co-author of Fifty Ways to F**k the Planet.

Thin official lies fill thick war memoirs

It is the detail of war that reaffirms its simple truth. One hot Sunday morning an Afghan family arrived at the gates of a remote British army outpost in Helmand province. The father, his face creased with grief, cradled the battered bodies of his two surviving daughters. Another three lay dead beneath the rubble of their home flattened 20 minutes before by an errant US bomb. The father fell to his knees and screamed at the sky.

The incident went unrecorded by the authorities. In London no government statement was issued, nor was there any mention of a military investigation. It was as if nothing ever happened; even while it was happening, it wasn't happening. And it was far from being the war's first case of innocent fatality. Ask those British soldiers charged with mopping up the blood and they would agree the conflict's first casualty had been notched way before their boots touched Helmand. For anyone who has witnessed the horror of war accepts that truth has died. It is a necessary transaction. Wars could never be sustained if the electorate knew the smell of dead kids or watched a wide-eyed teenager from East Anglia attempting to push his innards back inside him.

When a government orders its people to fight it is sending sentient beings to kill and be killed. And ministers know enough to know they should avoid us dwelling on such obvious truths. So it is that wars get sold on the back of lofty ideals. Afghanistan on battling drugs, terror and "evil". The defence secretary got rather excited and claimed that a single bullet may never need be fired in anger. Several million rounds later and one could do worse than examine the parliamentary debates, the pre-deployment briefings crafted to sidestep the unswerving inevitability of death. No shattered minds and broken bodies, no indication that one-legged boys would hobble around market towns for the rest of their days.

Scan the words of those who make war and it is impossible to foresee that a US bomber could drop a 500-pound bomb on the wrong home. But that, of course, is the point. The media moan about military censorship and news management, refer to it as the fog of war. Your parents called it propaganda; the Ministry of Defence deems it the official line. There is a vast gulf between their truth and the reality, but one must accept that obfuscation of facts is a prerequisite of fighting.

When I landed in Helmand during the ferocious fighting of last summer, the official line was all about progress. Reconstruction was apace, schools and health centres were sprouting up all over. Tactically, the Taliban were on the run. Sure, things were not easy, but that was the nature of progress.

The disconnect between what Whitehall was spinning back home and events on the ground quickly unravelled. Senior officers admitted they were stuck in a quagmire of violence for decades. Callow, hollow-eyed teenagers described a frenzied, unrelenting battlefield. Entire regions would be cleared only for the enemy to creep back again. The progress of back home belonged to another place. No one there talked of half-strength platoons, choking heat
and the dreaded "D'n'V", a debilitating bout of diarrhoea and vomiting that flattened the fittest.

In London bars, those who fought in Helmand talk of war and defeat and friends whose legs disappeared in an instant after a rocket whooshed through their thigh. They recall the morning they carried dying children and the girlfriend they lost because they were too busy fighting and she grew afraid they would never return. Sometimes their eyes become glassy and they stare into the distance. They have seen the fleeting detail of war and they want to know why no one else understands.

Soldiers are very different to the people who pack them off to fight. They never favour the abstract words of glory, honour, heroism and patriotism to smother the screams or soften the cycle of killing. They see through the thin lies built by grand war memorials and fabled war stories with their narratives of courage and comradeship. They pick holes in the official line that runs heavy through the thick, self-aggrandizing memoirs written by those who make but have never seen wars. Soldiers know that war, eventually, becomes necrophilia.

True, soldiers swap stories about women and drink, but their most earnest discussions are reserved for examining what war means to those back home. They rarely fight "for Queen and country". Instead, they serve to honour their friends, self-pride, the respect of their mother. Colchester. The girl next door. Troops know that to kill people in the name of war you need spadefuls of goodwill. A triumphant campaign must have the unswerving backing of the public and this is a dynamic that dictates war reporters should withhold facts that might comfort the enemy. The sour, unqualified horrors of conflict become unpalatable in the name of morale. The unofficial official edict is that reporters must avoid writing anything bad so as not to upset the troops. It is complete tripe of course; the soldier's themselves already know it is bad.

Perhaps it is naïve to assume that all dead can be treated with the same dose of sympathy. Instead, the official line dictates that there is a hierarchy of victims. At the bottom are the enemy, then the innocents, and afforded the most regret and coverage are the soldiers fighting the good fight. This means that the success or failure of any conflict is ultimately quantified in the number of used body bags. So far 120 British service personnel have been killed in Afghanistan, but what of the hundreds of others? Tellingly, nobody in this age of ultra-communications seems to know how many innocent people – or how many Taliban troops – have died because of the war. There is no way of knowing who is winning.

Of course propaganda exists on both sides and the Taliban are superbly skilled at PR, spinning daily yarns of collateral damage and sensational tales of torture and rape by foreign troops via the internet. Mobile phone footage showing the crumpled bodies of dozens of Afghan civilians killed during a coalition air-strike recently did the rounds. British press officers were furious; there is nothing quite as damaging as the truth.

The cost of war has, by and large, been avoided. Not the enormous finances needed to fund battle, but the price paid by society for the veterans in prison, the suicides, failed marriages and broken homes. But perhaps the cost of war is best captured in the small crumpled envelope of $600 handed by a British officer that Sunday morning to the grieving father: compensation for the destruction of a family home and a hat trick of dead daughters. The father took the money, turned to hold his wife and wandered off into the shimmering heat. Somewhere, who knows where, they would wait to hear whether their other two children would pull through.

The anguish of the vanquished will come later, long after the war, when two daughters unfold the suffering they endured as children and tell what it was like to lose their sisters, their home, their security and their father through suicide. For now the truth in Helmand is largely silenced.



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