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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