Toby Harnden, Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Real Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan, Quercus, London, 2011, xxviii + pp.512, Notes, Bibliography, Maps, Index, ISBN 978 1 84916 421 4
But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
© Frank Ellis 2011
Dead Men Risen covers the tour of duty of the Welsh Guards in Afghanistan between April – October 2009. In the introduction Harnden points out that his manuscript was subjected to pre-publication review by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Though parts of the book are blacked out, it is clear that a major consideration for the MoD was the prevention of any leakage into the public domain whatsoever of information pertaining to operational security, and, above all, to the electronic counter measures adopted by the British Army to neutralise Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). No author can complain about that.
In any case, the MoD censors inflict no damage on the book. Dead Men Risen is clearly written and the author pulls no punches about human weakness, fear, psychological collapse, life and death in the Welsh Guards. The book also abounds in inspirational examples of pure courage and leadership and that priceless staple of any good regiment: humour. Interwoven with the personalities and characters of the Welsh Guards are detailed accounts of the many distinct and specific phases of counter-insurgency operations in Helmand: mine clearing, often very slow because of the need to use prodders to detect IEDs with low or no metal content; patrolling; the use of air power; the devastating effect of British snipers; and the dangers of resupply convoys. It was during one such convoy that the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe MBE, was killed when his vehicle, travelling along the edge of the Shamalan Canal, detonated an IED.
The truly shocking revelations of Dead Men Risen are not to be found in the seemingly endless lists of casualties, killed and wounded, and families shattered forever but in the fact that the men and officers of the Welsh Guards - and the same must be true of other regiments as well - have been sent to fight a campaign without sufficient amounts of the proper equipment (the lack of helicopter support is obscene). This is the ‘real story’ and the blame rests squarely with the malevolent, greasy and mendacious do-goodery of Blair, his successors, and senior military officers who grossly, even grotesquely, underestimated the difficulties of any such campaign. Harnden provides other examples of poor and sloppy planning: a naval commander giving a briefing about language requirements was not even aware that the main language in Helmand was Pashto not Dari; and the detailed planning documents for Operation Panther’s Claw contained no proper terrain analysis of the road alongside the Shamalan Canal.
Far worse, in my opinion, since it exerts a paralysing effect on command and control, is the intellectual and moral confusion that informs the British effort. This has undoubtedly led to large numbers of British soldiers being killed, wounded and maimed for no obviously good cause. For example, central to the propaganda that justifies the British mission in Afghanistan is the assertion that the security of what is nominally still the United Kingdom depends on the presence of British troops. This assertion is endlessly made without clear evidence to support it. The absence of any convincing arguments for the presence of British troops in Afghanistan is compelling evidence against the need for their presence. One obvious response to this deception – so obvious in fact that it has been missed - is to point out that British troops in Afghanistan are part of a NATO deployment not an exclusively British one. Canadian, Danish, Australian, Estonian, German and American troops are not fighting and dying in Afghanistan in order to prevent Islamic terrorists - militants in BBC-speak - from murdering the white indigenous population in the United Kingdom.
In the first instance, security in the United Kingdom mandates the following measures: an immediate end to all Muslim immigration; the hunting down, rounding up and deportation of all illegal immigrants; strict entry and exit controls involving racial and cultural profiling; the closing down of mosques with any involvement in terrorism; those persons found to have had any involvement with terrorism are to be stripped of their British passports and deported. None of these measures requires risking British lives in Afghanistan. Nor are worries over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, Iran’s nuclear ambitions or oil good reasons for our being in Afghanistan. If Cameron thinks they are, spell it out and make the case. Men who are being sent to risk their lives are entitled to know the truth. Taxpayers would like to know the truth as well.
Dead Men Risen provides clear evidence that the same kind of dangerously sentimental and intellectually incoherent assumptions underpinning multiculturalism in the West are being applied to Afghanistan. Major Rob Gallimore who was responsible for training the Afghan National Army (ANA) found himself agonizing over the fate of some Taliban IED layers caught by soldiers of the ANA with whom he was working. All the evidence is that the captured Taliban were subjected to Afghan justice by their captors (three were summarily executed). In Britain and in the USA it is a staple of multicultural propaganda that cultural and racial diversity are strengths; that no one culture is ‘better’ than another. Yet here we have a Welsh Guards officer agonizing about the attitudes and practice of ANA justice. One cannot claim, as Western multiculturalists do, that Western notions of the rule of law enjoy no special status; that they merely represent one way of seeing and dispensing justice and then assert that the execution of Taliban terrorist insurgents by members of the ANA is not right. If, as xenophiles claim, no one culture or view of the world is better than another, fine, let us demonstrate our commitment to diversity in justice by supporting ANA/Taliban standards of justice. If we are too squeamish to fire the control shot then our ANA colleagues can do the necessary and dirty work on our behalf and we can wash our hands with rainbow-coloured soap and look the other way.
A wilful refusal to face up to the profoundly different nature of the social structure is also evident. Fundamental to Pashtuns is Pashtunwali (the way of the Pashtun): renegades must be offered safety and protection; hospitality must be offered at all times; and an affront must be avenged. Even among tribal opponents and enemies the code is honoured. How can a people such as the Pashtuns whose primary loyalty is to other Pashtuns ever be expected to support abstract notions of liberal democracy and the rule of law imposed by outsiders? Western-style elections might as well be from Mars. Worse still, as Harnden notes: ‘In 1980, the American anthropologist Richard Scott identified 25 different tribal groups in Nad-e Ali district alone. This made it all but impossible for Soviet and later British and American troops to understand the local dynamics’ (DMR, p.34).
The outcome of the presidential elections in 2009, totally undermined by corruption, was another brutal reminder of the cultural and psychological divide separating Afghanistan from its NATO occupiers. That 3,400 voted in the Welsh Guards Battle Group Area out of a total of 50,000 eligible to vote can only be seen as a victory for Taliban intimidation. It is all well and good claiming a victory because the polling stations remained open but if those eligible to vote did not vote out of fear of Taliban retribution this is a victory for the Taliban not NATO. Peter Galbraith, a UN representative in Afghanistan, realised that the corrupt election was a disaster, ‘a foreseeable train wreck’ (DMR, p.448) and a massive propaganda victory for the Taliban.
Much of the confusion of British policy, often with deadly consequences for its practitioners, arises from what purports to be new insights into waging counter insurgency, so-called ‘courageous restraint’ (or as I would rename it ‘negligent incomprehensible restraint’). Even the Commanding Officer of the Welsh Guards seems to have succumbed. To quote Harnden: ‘Thorneloe had told his company commanders that “killing 20 Taliban cannot bring us victory but killing one local national can bring us defeat” ’(DMR, p.204). I admire Lieutenant Colonel Thorneloe but I am compelled to disagree with him since I regard his assertion as deeply flawed. Killing 20 Taliban who are attacking a patrol base will assuredly not bring victory in Afghanistan but it would be a highly desirable outcome for the NATO soldiers under attack. High concentrations of NATO troops armed with all kinds of weaponry and supported by fast air and gunships mean that the death of local nationals is guaranteed at some stage. If killing one local national can bring defeat, a rather strange claim in any case, and one that lacks any empirical support, then the logical outcome is to cease all military operations and not use any weapons at all in order to avert this possibility. Moreover, the failure to use NATO technology to kill the Taliban for fear of bringing about this supposed catastrophic outcome will not pass unnoticed by the Taliban. It will embolden them. Fear of killing local nationals – note the implicit Western assumption that all life is precious an assumption demonstrably rejected by the Taliban – can only exert a paralyzing effect on the conduct of military operations.
In fact it is also a clear psychological victory for the Taliban who, having perceived NATO’s aversion to risking civilian casualties (for whatever reasons), have successfully exploited it for military ends. Compelling your enemy (NATO) not to use his superior weapons because you know that he thinks all life is precious and is worried by adverse propaganda is an astonishing victory, a brilliant example of insurgent judo. In the calculus of counter-insurgency killing one has to reckon with civilian deaths. They are unavoidable; they may even be necessary as a demonstration of ruthlessness. In every counterinsurgency campaign, despite the propaganda for domestic audiences there is an acceptable range of killing. These killing parameters cannot be determined in Western capitals but are determined by the specific circumstances of each insurgency. Those waging a counterinsurgency cannot be bound by limitations on killing set by the squeamishness of politicians and domestic audiences. Publicly they must state and disseminate doctrines such as ‘hearts and mind’ or ‘courageous restraint’ in order to propitiate politicians and human rights’ activists but hiding behind the doctrine they must pursue the extermination of the enemy, his accomplices, those who provide him with succour, with all necessary measures. Displays of one’s commitment to the rights of man might well earn the plaudits of the Guardian but they will earn the contempt of your Taliban enemy who has been bred to respect ruthlessness. Pity is the real enemy: so stamp on the viper when you cannot be seen.
At the heart of every infantryman’s training is the will to kill. Weakening the will to kill by appeals to ‘courageous restraint’ puts our soldiers’ lives at risk: it blunts their healthy desire to kill people, the enemy. Lance-Sergeant Peek exemplifies the will to kill and regrets that he never had the chance to stick a bayonet in some Taliban insurgent: ‘You have to be willing to put that bayonet in a place where it’s not going to be pretty for him’ (DMR, p.151). Good for you. How does a platoon commander explain to his men that the battalion’s snipers were not permitted to kill the Taliban IED team after an IED has ripped the legs off from two young men clearing a road? The sole conclusion that can be drawn from this reluctance to kill the enemy is that our soldiers’ lives do not matter; that in the grand scheme they are expendable. Harnden has picked this up as well: ‘The guardsmen had begun to fear they were viewed as expendable IED fodder’ (DMR, p.219).
The thoughts of the American commander, General McChrystal, confirm the doctrine’s essential incoherence and reckless disregard for the lives of NATO soldiers:
‘Charlie [acting Lieutenant Colonel Antelme, appointed after Thorneloe’s death FE] got it absolutely right with courageous restraint,’ McChrystal says. ‘You don’t need to be secured away from the people. You need to be secured by the people so that, as you win their support, it’s in their interests to secure you, to report IEDs. But it does take courageous restraint, it takes them understanding that you’re willing to take some risk to not put them at risk’ […] ‘If we respond with overwhelming fire to limited small arms fire from a compound we do protect ourselves but we destroy their livelihood and potentially the people. When we run around in armoured vehicles or personal armour we often send an unintended message that we’re more important than the people’ (DMR, pp.417-418).
A population - the people - that oscillates between support for the Taliban and support for NATO cannot be trusted. You surely need to be secured from the people or at least insulated from them such that the lives of your men are not exposed to needless risk (local nationals who engage in intelligence gathering activities while pretending friendship and cooperation pose a serious threat). Responsibility for security cannot rely on a fickle people who are clearly subject to Taliban intimidation: responsibility for security rests first and foremost with NATO commanders. Judgements about what constitutes ‘overwhelming fire’ and ‘limited small arms fire from a compound’ cannot be made at a distance; they have to be made on the ground. Surely NATO troops are more important than the people. Why should any soldier expect his commander to put the interests of ‘the people’ before him? It may well be that McChrystal’s incoherent doctrine is simply a propaganda ploy designed for domestic audiences in the West, yet it is not an inspiring message for some 19-year old Welsh Guardsman.
I salute the Welsh Guards and especially Lieutenant Colonel Thorneloe, an officer who embodied physical and moral courage. His decision to place himself in a position of great danger so as to inspire his soldiers was a truly magnificent example of leadership. This was a man above other men. I would have followed him anywhere. Dead Men Risen also reminds us that war is the widow maker, the cruel beast that works with indefatigable and dark purpose. Any woman who marries a soldier must reckon with the possibility that her husband will not come home. Even so, that knock on the door is a terrible blow; almost a second killing. When a good man dies, his soul is cleansed by the tears of a good woman. She has waited, now she is broken-hearted and alone, she must soldier on. So spare a thought for the women keeping home and hearth together, the mothers, the wives and the girl friends: God bless them.