THE SPINE JULY 18, 2010
In the British weekend papers which I am reading because I find myself in Spain--the Costa Brava is still a summer outpost of the U.K.--the top story is still Lord Mandelson's tell-most-all book The Third Man, a haunting film title from another war in another time. But there begins in the second pages the argument over whether we have (already) lost in Afghanistan or not.
In the Independent on Sunday, a headline prepares the reader for the end: "Unlike Iraq, dressing retreat up as success will be difficult." Patrick Cockburn, the author of the piece who is almost genetically anti-American (his father was Claud, a Stalinist evoked by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia; one of his brothers is Alexander, uncertified but reliably nuts, hating the U.S. but becoming a citizen nearing 70) characterizes President Obama's Afghan policy as a fraud: "break the momentum of the Taliban advance, inflict serious damage on them in the areas of their strongest support in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and then negotiate." With Iraq, Cockburn taunts, "it was enough that US voters got the impression they had won." What a shoddy effort at self-delusion.
There's a different article in Saturday's Times by Matthew Parris. It is perhaps more elegy than analysis. "Like Hirohito, we need the words for defeat," it says ever so plaintively. And it goes on: "There's been no decisive moment in Afghanistan, but buried truths are showing. Soon we must face them." For Parris and, as he argues, for the British the moment came when the casualties reached a certain tangible number:
The first 299 deaths were the rubble beneath the surface. The 300th, and then the running amok of an Afghan soldier, are intrinsically small stones, breaking the conscious surface of buried memory.
"A switch has been thrown. The half-full glass is now half-empty." As I write the number of Britain's dead has risen to 322.
And here, however odd they may seem, are Hirohito's words accepting Allied terms of surrender. First stiff: "the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage." Was the emperor in a trance? Perhaps.
The thought of those officers and men...who died at their posts of duty or those who met with untimely death and all their bereaved families, pains our heart day and night. The welfare of the wounded and the war sufferers...are the objects of our profound solicitude. However, it is according to the dictate of time and fate that we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.
The New Republic will next week publish a symposium (in the next hard cover issue and day by day on the web) on Afghanistan. I chose not to participate because I am not really an expert and I don't have the feeling for the ground where blood is being shed. When the fighting ends--if it ever does!--it will not be with words such as the emperor's. Maybe General Petraeus and his troops will carve out some areas of respite where ordinary life will take root. I fear not and I fear that the greatest victims of a withdrawal by Allied forces and the collateral weakening of their Afghan comrades will be the women and the children of this wretched place where Islam defeats all of the kinder instincts of humanity. The terrain is coarse and the men who patrol it and control it are coarser still.
And so what about this international conference with 70 countries in attendance? The presence of Ban Ki-Moon alone certifies its fraudulence, his fraudulence and the fraudulence of the United Nations itself where words are manipulated to cover up failure and cynicism about failure. But this is his job. Let him live with jet-lag the rest of his life.
Frankly, I have nothing kinder to say about or for Mrs. Clinton. She travels the world dispensing empty words. May her toast to her daughter and son-in-law at least be modest.