Earlier this week, on the 26th of October, the Union Flag was lowered at Camp Bastion. The next day the last of the British troops left Helmand Province. Over the coming days and weeks many newspaper articles, television documentaries, and pub conversations will assess the overall value of the British military campaign in Afghanistan. “What did we achieve?” “Was it worth the cost?” “Will our efforts have a positive result on the country next year, in 5 years, in 20 years?”
The British Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, has said that some mistakes were made in our 13 years in Afghanistan but that many good achievements have been made also.
The stories of tragedy, heroism, dismay, and hope have been coming to us for over a decade and soon it will be the job of historians to disseminate all of what we know and present the case for the success or failure of the overall mission.
This won’t be an easy task but it is driven forward by a strong collective sense of a nation seeking to know the truth of a situation for many so far removed from their day to day lives, yet so frequently punctuating their evenings through news broadcasts.
It’s because conflict is so costly that we won’t accept cheap answers. When lives are on the line suddenly quick-fire soundbite-replies to the big questions don’t cut it. When casualties of war mount up there grows a vested concern that truth not be listed among the number lost.
It is right to probe, to strain, to strive for the truth in these situations. With knowledge comes understanding and we hope wisdom for the future.
War has a way of framing questions rather bluntly. It also reveals how casual we can become with the search for truth in other, less immediately affected areas of our life.
Conflicts are violent and immediate and the questions we ask surrounding them are marked in the same way. Yet our own lives also have huge questions that perhaps don’t strike us with the same urgency. What we live for, what rules we live by, what hope we look to – these massive questions that religions seek to answer are treated rather shallowly.
They’re not so ‘in our face’ but surely they are of equal value to the questions that we ask of conflicts? Perhaps even more so?
Yet instead of investigating, searching, and seeking to discover the truth for these big questions so often we are satisfied merely to find what works for us and leave the bloke next to us to find his own way too. We wouldn’t want to interfere too much in his life and we certainly wouldn’t want to invite too much attention from him!
In our pseudo-civil attempts to restrict any meddling in our private affairs we end up demoting truth from her true authoritative position. If all we want is something that works for us then we answer the largest questions of life with simple pragmatism, disconnected from what may be true. Or another way of thinking about it is that unhappy with the prospect of having to bend our lives to a superior truth, we decide to make ourselves the sole arbiter of what’s true for us.
Can you imagine if we treated the Afghanistan conflict in the same way? If in the House of Commons instead of debate and counter-point, each Member were granted their own viewpoint regardless of its correspondence to the reality of the situation? This nation would deride the self-serving views of our politicians swiftly and trust would be destroyed.
Questions surrounding the things most valuable to us deserve the best answers. The struggle with the biggest questions of life is a noble quest and to shortcut the search by setting aside truth for personal preference risks a betrayal of the truth and an act of personal deception.