The war we daren't speak about: about 157,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since 2001 (ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Born on the Fourth of July

Us Brits need to come to an honest reckoning over what happened in Afghanistan

“There is a man without any legs screaming in pain, moaning like a little baby. He is bleeding terribly from the stumps that were once his legs, thrashing his arms wildly about his chest, in a semi-conscious daze.”

Come on, Ron, I don’t need this! It’s gone past 10:30 p.m., I am trying to relax in bed, my nice long legs sticking out of my lobster motif Marks and Spencer’s pyjama shorts, and I have just started reading the first chapter of Ron Kovic’s best-selling 1976 memoir Born on the Fourth of July, on which the same named Academy Award-winning 1989 film directed by Oliver Stone and starring Tom Cruise was based.

“He keeps thrashing his arms wildly above his head and kicking his bleeding stumps toward the roof of the ambulance.”

I want to put the book down—to be honest, I want to incinerate it—it’s sending me into my default snowflake mode typically triggered by limb removal references stirring nostalgia of a hot summer in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province in 2009. But for those same reasons, I feel compelled to read on, to confront the truth, Kovic’s truth, my truth, our truth; to just be more of a man about it.

By the time I’d put the book down by the end of the second chapter, two of my fingernails had halved their lengths (the usual SOP at such moments).

The book’s title comes from the fact Kovic was born on the fourth of July and grew up as patriotic as Uncle Sam could hope for. Aged 18 he joined the United States Marine Corps and was sent to Vietnam, where during his second tour of duty in 1968, a bullet caused a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down and unable to celebrate his birthday as he once had.

Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in a scene from Born On The Fourth Of July, 1989. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

I haven’t been looking forward to this July 4th despite it offering lockdown relief. This time last year I was in America, which is where I should be, but I ended up here for the lockdown. While elements of being back have been uplifting—the countryside and wildlife, how did I not notice before (and my goodness I’d forgotten how good British staples such as Marmite, Battenburg cake and Scotch eggs are)—it has been frustrating to miss out on America and what should be my journalistic beat during such a seismic time for the country that gave me refuge after the nadir of my Afghanistan tour and I left the army under what we could call a bit of a cloud

On top of this, just before last year’s July 4th, I was dumped by my American girlfriend—her legs were perfection—hence it wasn’t much of a celebration then and the date remains loaded with fraught memories. In an attempt to steel myself for this July 4, I thought reading Kovic’s book might prove some sort of constructive gesture. Not my greatest idea. 

The morning following my finger-nail-reducing read, as I shaved and listened to Radio 4, a narrator discussed a forthcoming radio program about culpability and British politicians sending the military into battle without adequate equipment. Ah, this all sounds familiar, I thought, assuming the programme was going to be about the war in Afghanistan, where the lack of helicopters, among many things, resulted in more of the road moves and convoys that the Taliban were so good at blowing up.

Of course the program wasn’t about Afghanistan. Why talk about equipment shortages there and the political and military expediency around it, when there’s still Dunkirk and the events of 1940. I felt somewhat perturbed. The crucialness and uniqueness of Dunkirk and the Second World War notwithstanding, if we are going to discuss wars, might it be time to, instead of once again rehashing a war from 80 years ago, discuss a more recent war whose painful lessons, if we were to consider them, might help better inform our future military decisions and interventions. 

And if we are going to appropriate the US’s July 4 Independence Day for the day we come out of lockdown—am I the only one who finds this choice of date by the government a bit weird, given its prominence for Americans in commemorating their Declaration of Independence from us on July 4, 1776, and hence perhaps another example of the government’s haphazard and ham-fisted handling of the pandemic—then how about we also consider the Vietnam War in relation to our recent experience in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan was, and is, my, our, the UK’s Vietnam War

Afghanistan was, and is, my, our, the UK’s Vietnam War. The obviousness of this appears matched by the unwillingness of anyone to admit it or talk about it. And let us not forget that about 157,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since 2001, according to the Costs of War report by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs in the US. More than 43,000 of those killed have been civilians.  

Perhaps it is too much to expect protest marches over these sorts of issues but is it too much to expect these details to occasionally be on people’s lips, especially as there have been some timely reminders.

At the end of 2019, the Washington Post released a trove of documents entitled the Afghanistan Papers. They came from a project called “Lessons Learned”, commissioned by the US government’s Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which was based on interviews conducted with people with first-hand knowledge of the war, including generals, diplomats, aid workers and Afghan officials.

The Afghanistan Papers indicated that the US government and officials had been deliberately misleading about how the war was progressing (or wasn’t). The nomenclature chosen for the released documents alluded to the 1971 Pentagon Papers, which exposed the US government’s lies over the Vietnam War. But any similarities ended when it came to the public response.

“Part of the tragedy of the Afghanistan campaign is that it appeared to be a sustainable and remote undertaking, far from ordinary lives,” Patrick Porter wrote in his article about the Afghanistan Papers. “People could live with lies, in other words, because the impression grew that combat operations, however limited in their effectiveness, can affordably go on and on. Ultimately, most believed it didn’t matter. They assumed they would be spared war’s consequences.”

But we haven’t been spared, far from it, as Porter highlights, noting that two decades of war have contributed to the “coarsening of politics, the militarisation of policing, the accumulation of deficits, the increase in Islamist militancy, the over-empowerment of the presidency, and the disillusionment of those who bear war’s brunt.”

In the UK we are quick to poke fun at the US and its, admittedly, often idiosyncratic ways, but at least voices exist in its government and media that appear to be trying to face up to what happened in Afghanistan. Where is the UK’s version of the SIGAR report or our media’s analysis of it?  

When it comes to an honest reckoning, as Porter describes, “this complacency may be the most grievous untruth of all.”

All this got me to thinking about what happened on July 4 during my time in Afghanistan. Falling right bang in the middle of the tour, not surprisingly there wasn’t much to celebrate. On the day itself I can’t remember much happening beyond the usual attritional routine. But a few days before, on July 1, we got our Kovic-esque moment:

The IED exploded under the Viking’s rear cab in which Lt. Colonel Thornloe was doing overwatch from the roof. After the vehicle shuddered to a halt and the smoke cleared, the soldier riding top cover in the front cab jumped from its roof onto the rear one. He found the top half of Thornloe’s body leaning against the toolbox that ran along the roof of the rear cab. The explosion had ripped open the cab’s floor and sliced Thornloe in two—the lower half of his body was missing. 

Thornloe’s eyes followed the soldier trying to help him, but they soon rolled back, followed by blood trickling out of his mouth. He lost consciousness and a check of his pulse confirmed he was dead. At the same time a corporal entered the billowing dust and darkness within the rear cab hoping to find the soldier that had been sat inside. He saw what he thought was a hand reaching out to him. He grabbed it but it wasn’t attached to an arm. After clambering out of the vehicle, he ran to the side and knelt down to look underneath at where the explosion had torn through the bottom of the vehicle. He saw what appeared to be a mixture of flesh, mush, body armour and combat clothing. He ran to collect a body bag and then crawled under the Viking, locating a torso missing an arm and both legs. He removed a pistol that was still strapped to what had been a hip and put what remains he could find into the body bag. Meanwhile, two soldiers lifted the lifeless half-torso of Thornloe down from the roof of the cab and zipped it into another body bag.

I was at the Forward Operating Base at the time. I’ve pieced the event together from things I heard at the time and read since, primarily a passage in an astonishingly detailed and well researched 2011 book about the tour called Dead Men Risen by the journalist Toby Harden. I’ve still never managed to read the damn thing in its entirety. I can’t bring myself to do it. It sits there, taunting me from a bookcase to this day. Indirectly experiencing the death of our battalion commander—a wonderful and inspiring man—was bad enough. I wonder what those soldiers at the scene think about it now, and how they deal with it as another July rolls around.  

In embracing this July 4 date as marking the way forward for the UK out of the COVID-19 lockdown, among all the things that we should be doing differently and better, perhaps we could also include trying to come to an honest reckoning over what happened in Afghanistan.

Of course, I appreciate there is a lot else to deal with thanks to the pandemic. The national bandwidth is taken up with more pressing matters. In the spirit of taking incremental steps toward our Afghanistan/Vietnam reckoning, might I offer a poem related to a relatively simple and benign facet of expeditionary warfare, a sort of steppingstone that might lead us toward potentially considering the heavier stuff. 

The poem chimes nicely with the masturbatory element of much of what goes for online activism and virtue signalling these days

It’s about wanking. If that seems a crass choice, bear in mind there is a Kovic connection. After his paralysis, wanking went out the window—along with many of life’s essentials—as it did for those on my tour who succumbed to what doctors described as the signature Afghanistan injury after an IED strike: two legs blown off with injuries to the genitals. Furthermore, though it didn’t inform me at the time of composition, the poem seems to chime nicely with the masturbatory element of much of what goes for online activism, virtue signalling, finger pointing, and street protests these days.

Marvellous way to die

You’ll hear plenty of tallies for bombs and metal bullets

But you won’t ever know about the real chart topper

For the numbers become rather excessive with

Such eager exodus from so many loins

As soldiers maintain an interest

In what is sadly out of reach by 

Grabbing what’s closest at hand.

It doesn’t take much to start the simmer

A rare-sighted bra drying on a line or

Just the mind wandering to better times —

Then there’s not much left to do

But head to the ramshackle shitters

In the blazing sun and ignore the flies

And crack on with everyone’s favorite sin.

People talk about courageous loss of martial life

But what of these legions of milky souls spent

Some falling destitute to the sand others

More respectfully collected in tissues as

Eyes close in bliss, accompanied by a blessed sigh

—Such a marvelous way for them to die.

Happy July 4th, everyone. God Bless America and God Save the Queen.

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