“The soldiers who are killed and wounded today are not victims – they are not the conscript ex-civilians of the First World War. They are professionals, willingly trained in the business of killing, and (by and large) well paid and well treated while they are soldiers … Servicemen are under no illusions as to the risks they sign up to … In looking so closely at the human costs of this war, the key point that must be borne in mind is not ‘How terrible! Those poor soldiers …’ Rather it must be a realistic and firm realisation: ‘We sent them, now we must take care of the consequences.’
Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War by Frank Ledwidge
The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan by Jack Fairweather.
Battlesbury Hill is an Iron Age hill fort popular with local walkers. It sits on the boundary of the Army's Imber firing range made infamous for the Government’s reneging on a promise to return the village of Imber back to its inhabitants after requisitioning during WW2. Like so many military promises this one remains unfulfilled. Access to Imber village, at the heart of the firing ranges now used for training in 'urban' warfare, is allowed three or four times a year. During those days visitors stroll up and down its bleak street of derelict windowless houses and intimidating warning sign which no one takes any notice of.
We do not know anything of significance about the life and times of Battlesbury Hill fort but chances are that life then, as now, was not all sweetness and love and that the fort was built in response to aggressive neighbours or to proclaim dominance over them.
The sight of a bench after the hot walk up the hill and its promise of a brief rest is quickly dashed. The bench, the only one on the hill, made its appearance shortly after the troops returned from Afghanistan and is in fact a shrine that one is reluctant to sit on. Candles and faded photographs in plastic covers are all that remain of what must have been a bigger display before weather and time did what they do.
This is a memorial to six British soldiers who died in Afghanistan in 2012 when out on patrol in Helmand province, when their 'Warrior' vehicle triggered a huge mine. The explosion ignited its ammunition designed to protect the soldiers and killed everyone inside. All but one of these soldiers, a father of two children, were aged between 19 and 21. The bench overlooks rows of British Army mine-proof vehicles, a million pounds a piece, now back from Afghanistan waiting to be repainted in tasteful army green before being dispersed around the country, hopefully to fade out of existence.
In many ways the bench offers an ideal spot from which to contemplate the futility not only of Britain’s adventure in Afghanistan but the folly of the military way.
In December 2013 David Cameron announced that the troops could come home because their mission had been accomplished. ‘The prime minister’s declaration of victory amounted to an instruction to the British public to forget about Afghanistan,’ writes Jack Fairweather in his history of the war. The instruction was, it seems, hardly needed. The fall of Musa Qala in 2013, ‘once the focus of the British military’s anxiety about their standing in the world, barely registered in the national consciousness, and a desperate battle over Sangin in 2013 … attracted little attention’.
The bench memorial is unremarkable. Similar home-made memorials can be seen around the country, testament to mostly unexpected deaths though the death of the soldiers remembered here should not have been altogether unexpected. The consequences of the Afghan war are everywhere - two children without a father here, parents without young sons there. Then there are the Afghans. Neither the British nor Nato in general kept count of Afghan casualties. Nevertheless it is estimated that the British troops alone were responsible for the deaths of at least five hundred Afghan civilians and the injury of thousands more. Tens of thousands lost their homes. Even the dead cannot seem to rest as funerals are attacked by drones. The theatrical arrival of coffins from Afghanistan has ceased and while Help for Heroes are rattling tins everywhere there was no rattling of tins on Armed Forces Day for the injured and disposed Afghanis by our heroic soldiers. An Afghan civilian seeking compensation from the British Army for losing his sight as a result of 'military operations' might expect £4500. A British soldier suffering the same injury would be entitled to £570,000.
It would be inappropriate to intrude too much on people’s grieving process and their physical manifestations but we should feel free to note the wholly irrational thinking of the war makers. 'Fortune favours the brave' carved into the bench is of course the motto of the Yorkshire regiment and numberless other military formations around the world. It's not clear who Fortune favoured here or what is brave about sitting in an armoured vehicle.
Meanwhile the truly brave back in parliament, ostensibly because British tourists were killed in Tunisia, but probably as a bid for further milliary funds and to pretend Britain is a world military power, want to bomb Syria where the US, Saudis and other have been bombing for weeks to no discernible effect on the course of the conflict while despairing of finding new targets to bomb.