An armoured vehicle and its crew manage to find a rare bit of colour amid the desert in Helmand Province, 2009
Artillery Row

Squaring the Afghan Peace Deal

Afghanistan is a general disaster which touches everyone and was enabled by everyone

“Quick! March!” barked out the sergeant major. Wearing my smartest service dress, the gleaming polished brown leather of my stable belt diagonally across my chest and around my waist, I set off across the whole three meters through the doorway into the brigadier’s office. 

It’s not every day a sergeant major marches in a much more senior captain to be disciplined. Beforehand, the sergeant major tried to be friendly as he briefed me on how my reprimand from the brigadier would proceed. I was being punished for an article I had published in the Independent newspaper—“the first ever unauthorised dispatch from an officer on the frontline,” the paper claimed—while I was deployed with the Welsh Guards Battle Group in Helmand Province during a very hot and hellish Afghanistan tour in 2009.

After a few quick strides, the sergeant major brought me to a halt in front of the brigadier’s desk. I stood at attention, arms locked straight at my sides, chin up, eyes straight ahead. The brigadier, whom I had never met before, looked rather uncomfortable about the whole matter. But, like the sergeant major, he addressed me in a relatively friendly manner, for which I was most grateful. He then picked up the charge sheet on his desk and began to read. 

Members of a Fire Support Team in Helmand Province, 2009.

“You breached the Service Test and your actions constitute serious misconduct. You were aware of the policy guidance on media contact in force at the time and knew that you were not allowed to submit an article to a national newspaper without prior approval from your chain of command. You deliberately disregarded that direction. Your actions undermined your chain of command and risked damaging the moral and operational effectiveness of Task Force Helmand at a difficult time. They also caused additional distress to the families of the 1 Welsh Guards Battlegroup and may have weakened public confidence in the operation, while giving encouragement to the enemy.”

The suggestion that I’d given encouragement to the enemy rankled. In the article I had been critical of the war effort and suggested that a negotiated peace deal with the Taliban was the only way out of the quagmire. But I doubted the Taliban even knew about the article or were using it in some sort of propaganda program. They knew they had us on the back foot without my article. I wasn’t going to argue though. There was no question about whether I had breeched the service test, a sort of military litmus test that judges any sort of personal action by questioning whether your action or behaviour has badly affected the operational effectiveness of your unit.

British soldiers getting ready before a convoy move in Helmand Province, 2009.

In the following years, the publication of that article and the dereliction of my duty it represented became the source of great shame and guilt for me (as well as professional embarrassment now that I am meant to be a journalist and writer: there is some pretty sloppy writing in there). I also increasingly felt an idiot that got played by the paper’s defence correspondent who no doubt couldn’t believe her luck at such a scoop. All that came on top of further guilt and shame related to my participation in the cataclysms that Iraq and Afghanistan had become. Imagine a towering multi-decked club sandwich, the sort you might find in some sort of American food eating competition, comprised of multiple layers of guilt and shame. I’ve been taking a bite out of it most days for the last 10 years (you’d have thought you’d eventually get full; apparently not). 

Far less diagnosed than PTSD is moral injury, sometimes described as a “wound to the soul.”

Hence I’ve been following recent events to do with Afghanistan, namely the US peace deal brokered with the Taliban at the end of February, which it is hoped will spur continued dialogue and negotiations between the opposing sides, finally put an end to the 19-year war (as well as about 40 years of continuous fighting for the Afghans). To have the argument I made in the article about negotiations “validated”, suddenly, after all this time, is something I am going to need sort through. I don’t think it means I was right to write the article. But it certainly makes me ponder on what all the generals, policy experts and politicians have been doing in the intervening period while I’ve been chomping away at my guilt-and-shame club sandwich, many other veterans have been killing themselves, and death and mayhem have reigned supreme across Afghanistan (as it has in Iraq). 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.  

Afghanistan had already come back into focus for me through the release of a trove of documents by the Washington Post at the end of 2019 entitled the Afghanistan Papers. They came from a project called “Lessons Learned”, commissioned by the 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. Everything indicated that the US government deliberately misled the population about how the war was progressing—or wasn’t—replete with misleading and dishonest claims that senior officials knew were false. Hence the nomenclature chosen of “Afghanistan Papers”, alluding to the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the lies by the government over the Vietnam War. 

Having also served in Iraq, I can’t consider Afghanistan without also reflecting on the dreadful fallout from the ripple effects of Iraq’s disintegration that are still being felt in countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen and more. The Syrian war alone has left about 400,000 dead and displaced millions after eight years. I know feeling guilty doesn’t really achieve much. But there does seem quite a bit to be guilty about if you participated in the war efforts of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

That veterans can return from war with invisible wounds that need healing is so widely known as to almost be a cliché. This may be part of the reason more attention isn’t given to the realm of wounds beyond Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the most publicly known. Far less diagnosed and understood is moral injury, sometimes described as a “wound to the soul.” This invisible wound most often occurs when a person commits, fails to prevent or witnesses an act that is anathema to their moral beliefs. Such a breach of a person’s personal ethical code can inflict lasting behavioural, emotional and psychological damage, burdening an individual with acute guilt and shame that both distorts their self-identity and provokes reflexive distrust of others. Guilt has been identified as the crucial factor that distinguishes a moral injury, even as other symptoms—anxiety and despair, flashbacks, social isolation and suicidal thoughts—overlap with PTSD. On top of this, research in America has identified how for many veterans the pride in once wearing their uniform collides with a feeling at futility about what their service achieved—with the ongoing turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan further repudiation of the war efforts—and a belief that military leaders failed or deceived them and their fallen comrades. The resulting sense of violation can further fuel the lingering crisis of the conscience and spirit—deepening the moral injury. 

British soldiers seeking some respite from the heat in what shade they can construct in Helmand Province, 2009.

The US appears to be well ahead of the UK on moral injury, as it seems to be on all veterans’ issues (as well as being ahead in having a proper reckoning over Afghanistan—where is the UK’s report?). Of course, it has to be, really, given the size of its military and the corresponding fallout for its human capital. Between 2005 and 2017, a staggering 78,875 veterans took their own lives, according to the US’s Veterans Affairs. When I was at journalism graduate school in Austin, Texas, I was looking for a new apartment to move into. I found a nice little duplex bungalow and was given a tour. In reply to my inquiries, the estate agent told me the former occupant was a Vietnam veteran in his seventies who had killed himself. The UK is far less active in studying and tackling veteran-related issues. The figures for UK veteran suicides are not known, though there is growing recognition of the scale of the problem. In 2019, General Lord Richard Dannatt, the former head of the army, spoke out to highlight how little is known about the number of veterans committing suicide and that not enough is being done to prevent it.  

Ensconced in graduate school between 2010 and 2012 after leaving the army, there was plenty to distract me from Iraq and Afghanistan. I was surrounded by a campus of 50,000 students (more than half the size of the British Army), and all that went with it, such as how most of the female students seemed to wear tiny shorts exhibiting wondrous legs, which was a welcome change to the legs getting blown off our guys each day in Afghanistan. 

But Iraq and Afghanistan still had a way of reasserting themselves in myriad ways, the simplest being the news. I began to notice how I would over-react to minor slights, accompanied by a feeling of simmering volatility. Previously I’d never been one to lose my temper or even get in a punchy frame of mind. I shared my concerns in emails with a good friend from my regiment who participated in my 2004 Iraq tour and who told me he was having similar experiences. He referred to it as “The Rage.” My friend suggested an eclectic list of post-military rage suppressers. Micro-dosing with MDMA, otherwise known as the drug ecstasy, once every six months, “just to take the edge off.” Regularly reading good 19th-century literature, learning to cook tasty organic food, regular sex in a stable relationship—“contributes greatly to the winding down process”—as well as prayer and the New Testament.” I can vouch that most of those really do help. And yet.

British soldiers at a patrol base on top of a building roof used to provide good fields of fire toward the surrounding area where the Taliban are. Helmand Province, 2009.

Afghanistan is a general disaster which touches everyone and was enabled by everyone. “The general public is also complicit,” Patrick Porter writes in an article about the Afghanistan Papers, describing the general apathy of people over Afghanistan compared to the civic resistance to Vietnam. As America approaches a crucial national election, it is stunning to hear people saying they won’t vote if their candidate isn’t running, or that there’s no point as “the whole system is bust”. It’s that sort of attitude and blinkered mindset that has played a large part in enabling Afghanistan to drag on, as Porter explains.

In much the same way that civilians have a habit of disregarding or becoming complacent about those who guard the walls within which they live, when it comes to who should bear the guilt and responsibility for Afghanistan, both the civilian populations in the US and UK continue to look away or at their Instagram accounts, or are too busy Tweeting virtue-signalling progressive platitudes to notice, leaving veterans to continue carrying the burden of responsibility. Someone has to do it. 

 

All pictures are by James Jeffrey unless otherwise stated

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover