Friday, September 10, 2010

Norway and the great war for civilisation

It was in Oslo's Gardermoen Airport that I picked up a copy of Robert Fisk's monumental book, The Great War for Civilisation: the conquest of the Middle East. And the location was, perhaps, fitting. For the thirty years of reporting compressed into 1,286 pages go some way towards explaining the presence of so many young men and women in camouflage in the departures halls at Gardermoen. As anonymous voices announced flight updates, echoing through the cavernous entryway, most of the soldiers, sitting alone, looked wrapped up in their thoughts, oblivious to the smart clip of travellers all around them. And well they might be, for wherever their next flight might take them, their ultimate destination is assured. It was written, if not on the flight billboard, then in the newspapers, on television, and in the strain that showed on their faces.

For all the world seems to be at war in Afghanistan today. And if it isn't, it should be, was the insinuation of British Parliamentarians, whingeing about how other countries needed to pull their weight, when they debated the war that's been going on for almost nine years for the very first time on Thursday, and voted 310-14 in favour of Britain's participation in that war (meaning that just over half of the MPs didn't bother to show up to vote).

But it's not just the presence of so many soldiers in the airport which makes Norway feel more like a country at war than the United States. The day's papers frequently include headlines on the conflict, and they often project a forcefulness far too impassioned to be countenanced in the U.S., even by the Gray Lady, probably the most consistent, if often absurdly cautious print questioner of our military endeavours abroad.

But the Norwegian government (and the same is true in Sweden and Denmark) persists in the fiction that their soldiers, so pensive and lonely in Gardermoen, are in Afghanistan as part of a peace-keeping, nation-building project. Scandinavian governments and citizens, then, might have been surprised to hear the British Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, say in a 21 May interview (and reaffirm in Parliament on Thursday) that 'We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened'. So much for unity of purpose. So much for altruism.

And the U.S., of course, is there because the egos of our generals won't permit us to suffer another defeat like Vietnam (and look how we've suffered at their hands since!), because our gutless president allowed himself to be manoeuvred into ramping up a war that is almost certainly making us less safe and engendering more ill-feeling towards the U.S. around the world, and because the growing extremist wing in the Republican Party is committed to a war between civilisations in the name of national security. In his West Point speech, praised by many sycophantic commentators as a model of clarity, Obama announced that the U.S. was in Afghanistan to achieve a set of goals 'narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies'. Nope, nothing about democracy, the rights of women, equality or education there either. Even, Obama maintained in his speech, where U.S. efforts would concentrate on building civil society (how do you build someone else's civil society?), this would be in the service of national and global security.

I suggest that Jens Stoltenberg and his counterparts in Sweden and Denmark get on the phone with Washington and London to clarify ISAF goals. And if they discover anything illuminating, they might share it with the rest of us. Scandinavian and other countries contributing to the ISAF forces should be thinking very critically about whether the secretive expansion of the war into Pakistan, with the truly frightening implications therein, is compatible with a commitment to a peacekeeping mission. And whether, if they are genuinely interested in fostering a better future for Afghanistan, in leaving the country better than they found it (the primary argument used against those calling for a withdrawal), they should be signed up to a mission that bribes local warlords into keeping order, nurturing the next generation of Mullah Omars, Saddam Husseins and Osama bin Ladens, ensuring the continuation of what Dexter Filkins called the 'forever war'.

On my flight home from Oslo, a man across the aisle commented on the size of Fisk's book, and asked what it was. On hearing that it was a history of sorts, penned by a journalist, he asked whether Fisk proposes any solutions. I was only just beginning the book at that point, but I said that I didn't think it was that kind of book. The man shook his head and sighed, averring that it didn't seem like there could be a solution to the Middle East. 'It's such a mess there. But', he went on, 'I think we need to stay there, because our being there seems to be the only thing that brings any stability'. I gently disagreed, proposing that perhaps there needed to be more than one 'solution' to the Middle East, that the countries and peoples and their histories aren't all the same. And that much of the existing chaos is the product of a hundred years of intervention by the U.S., Britain, France and Russia.

Robert Fisk's book was published in 2005, and so does not account for developments over the last five years. But it remains instructive, particularly as far as understanding why people think and remember the way they do. Take Iran, for example. Americans remember September 11, the hostage crisis of 1979, the Lockerbie bombing, and so on. So is it so strange that Iranians should remember our collusion with Britain to overthrow their democratically-elected government in 1953? Or the fact that, whilst proclaiming our neutrality, we armed Iraq, condoned Saddam Hussein's use of poisoned gas against Iranian armies (after Saddam attacked their country), before laundering arms to Iran to free hostages and fund death-squads in Central America? Or the whitewash that ensued after the USS Vicennes shot down an Iranian civilian airbus in 1988, killing all aboard? Is it not understandable, given our capacity for turning on our former 'friends' (witness the fate of Saddam Hussein, to whose incredible brutality we turned a blind eye for years before overthrowing him), that Iranians would have a profound distrust of our motives? In a sense, this is what Fisk is asking throughout the book...that we understand that there are very real reasons for current conflicts, and that they are inspired by grievances from the very recent past.

We should remember too, that to understand is not to excuse. Fisk does not write sympathetically of the Iranian regime's theocratic base or its brutal practises. He is every bit as excoriating when describing its excesses as when attacking Saddam Hussein for gassing the Kurds or the U.S. for its double-standards. His strength is that he writes as someone who is convinced by the most soul-rending of experiences that no 'side' has a monopoly on brutality, and that the people with the least control over events are inevitably those who suffer the most. In his preface, Fisk finds himself agreeing with Israeli journalist Amira Hass, that the 'best definition of journalism [... is] to challenge authority--all authority--especially so when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die' (xxiii). He questions whether or not a journalist can achieve such an end. But his powerful book is a testament to one man's life-long attempt to do just that.

Only a few days before I was sitting in Gardermoen, I was on the bus from Oslo to Goteborg. I awake from my nap to see my neighbour loading pictures from his i-phone onto his facebook account. I averted my eyes, feeling intrusive, but then realised what they had been pictures of, and looked back to confirm that they were snapshots of him and his comrades-in-arms, in training camps and on bases in Afghanistan. In some they looked exultant, in others, frankly petrified, and often exhausted. Here was someone, most likely younger by several years than I, trying to communicate something of his experiences of a war three thousand miles away to people at home. But those people at home, whether in Norway, Sweden, Britain or the United States, should be trying to understand not only what the experiences of a towheaded twenty-year-old in a war zone must do to him, but why he is there, and whether the sacrifice for which he is asked to prepare himself can possibly be worthwhile.


  1. After I finished reading your post I was thinking that it would be great if there were a "like" button, such as there is on facebook, to simply express that I agree with and enjoyed your post. Then again simply clicking on such button would not convey all that. I also hoped for it because I have nothing else to add :D
    However, I do wonder how altruistic their nation building and peace keeping missing is... I really know nothing about the interest, if there are any, of the scandinavian countries in Afghanistan (you might be better informed than I). I just can't help but wonder if there are alternative motives.

  2. Thanks Gilmer. I don't really know about other potential interests. Both Norway and Denmark are NATO countries, and Sweden is a NATO partner, so there is a lot of pressure on them from that quarter. They also have a fairly long-standing commitment to taking part in peace-keeping operations (Sweden, I believe, is in the process of overhauling its military to reorient it towards this kind of thing). But there could very well be other factors.

  3. I can help you put a facebook like button on your blog. In fact, I think you should publish your blogposts on facebook using twitter (yes I know it's quite roundabout, but the internet works in mysterious ways :))

    This is very fine writing and needs a wider readership. I'm willing to put in the legwork to make that happen