Operation Snakebite by Stephen Grey

April 12, 2009

Operation SnakebiteThere are plenty of opportunities in this world to die prematurely in your line of work. But only one – soldiering – that requires politicians or the public to give that death meaning.

It’s a lousy bargain. Particularly when you’re fighting minor wars on the fringes of popular concern.

Not that soldiers seem to need it. Most find their own reasons. But some of the staff officers, civil servants, and ministers who send them to places where they might be killed or injured find it comforting that – in the event of death or serious injury – they can avoid discussion of how, why and to what end, by calling the victims ‘heroes’.

Even the people who write about soldiers feel obliged to use the same language. And Stephen Grey, in his excellent book on the battle for Musa Qala in AfghanistanOperation Snakebite – is no exception. (Disclosure: Stephen is an old friend.)

Journalists are unlikely to find themselves accused of heroism. But in case you wondered what lingering benefits journalism might still offer in today’s world, you might want to set Stephen’s book alongside the UK Ministry of Defence’s press release about the same operation, or the Wikipedia article on the battle (for which journalism provides the structure).

Of course, bearing witness to war doesn’t necessarily require you to make sense either of your decision to be there or of the things you see. Reporting is rarely enough to offer context, and the biggest service Stephen performs is one only a book can provide – reflection.

He reflects on his under-reporting of civilian casualties. On the diplomatic and political manoeuvring that underpinned the battle. And on the factors that cause the industrial accidents of war. Lousy kit. Co-ordination cock-ups. And it’s the complexity that make this such a good and satisfying read.

History, of course – even in this early draft – is written by those empowered to write it. An appendix records the names of all the soldiers dead in the course of the operation. The order of battle does not allow for a list of dead Afghans, and for all the complexity of reporting on display, this is not the story of people who, in their own country, drive down a road filled with armed and nervous men and are killed.

But if you want to know why, at that moment, everyone is there – Stephen’s book is a great start.

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