Investment In Blood

Issue section: 
(383)

Frank Ledwidge is not a left wing anti-imperialist. Indeed in his new book he actually laments that the RAF did not play a larger role in the recent bombing of Libya. Apparently, the Danes carried out more raids than the British! Nevertheless, he has written two of the most devastating indictments of British involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his earlier Losing Small Wars and now his new Investment In Blood.

Ledwidge admits that he had always "thought we were the good guys", but in Afghanistan he found that there were many Afghans who did not see the British in this way at all. They saw the British as foreign occupiers, supporting a wholly corrupt government and laying waste to the country with overwhelming fire power. One British officer told him that soldiers often found themselves fighting the Afghan equivalent of the "neighbourhood watch", ordinary people defending their homes.

"This misbegotten war", as he calls it, has been a bloody disaster for the Afghan people but also for the British Army which suffered a humiliating defeat in Helmand. The British had to be rescued by the Americans. And Helmand today is considerably less "stable" than when the British first arrived. As one Afghan minister put it, the Afghan Army was expected to be able to hold Helmand when the Americans pulled out for "as long as it took them to pack up"!

What Ledwidge is primarily concerned with here, however, is the cost of the war. So far the war has cost the British government, at a conservative estimate, 27.1 billion (pounds GB). This works out at an average figure of 15 million (pounds GB) a day or, as he puts it, the war has cost every day "enough to run 15 average primary schools for an entire year". By the time the war is over and factoring in the cost of looking after the wounded, many of whom will require medical treatment for the rest of their lives, he estimates a final cost of more than 40 billion pounds (GB)!

Ledwidge describes one routine "contact" when a British patrol came under small arms fire in May 2009. They responded with something like 1,000 pounds (GB) of small arms fire themselves, fired a 70,000 pounds (GB) Javelin missile and called in a Harrier airstrike (keeping the plane in the air costs 8,000 pounds (GB) an hour and the laser-guided bomb it dropped cost 77,000 pounds). The "contact" cost in munitions and fuel, at least, 164,000 pounds (GB). The report on the "contact" stated that there had been no British or Taliban casualties but that eight "civilians KIA [killed in action]" had taken place, with no mention of their age or gender.

This has nothing to do with keeping the British people safe, he insists. Indeed, "every senior officer knows a major reason for the UK's presence... is the 'special relationship'". The war has been fought in order to maintain good relations with the US, something that everyone knows, but few are prepared to admit for it might upset the relatives of the dead and injured. This is why Britain's second-largest embassy in the world (the largest is in Washington DC) is in Kabul, a snip at 35 million pounds (GB) a year.

What of the British wounded, those men and women who have suffered life-changing injuries, missing limbs, blinded, brain damaged? Far from looking after these victims of the war, the MOD is solely concerned with saving money. There are, he writes, "few limits to the ministry's ruthlessness" in trying to cheat soldiers out of their entitlements. And, of course, once their medical treatment is over they will be left dependent on charity and the tender mercies of ATOS. This comes as no surprise at all.

The politicians responsible for the war have, of course, gone on to enrich themselves, and many of them now reside in the House of Lords.

Investment In Blood by Frank Ledwidge, Yale University Press, £18.99 pounds (GB)

Available at Bookmarks, the Socialist bookshop.