Conservative MPs Johnny Mercer and Tom Tugendhat set Twitter alight with applause yesterday, after speaking in the House of Commons debate on Afghanistan. As women in Kabul were being forced into burqas, children were trying to escape on overcrowded planes, and shots were being fired on protesters in Jalalabad, these MPs were tearing up over the real victims: British veterans of the war.
For ex-soldiers Mercer and Tugendhat, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is a betrayal of their own hard work. These MPs tended to focus less on the conflict than on the ‘civilising’ aspect of the mission. Tugendhat, for instance, recounted his joy at opening a girls’ school. Mercer suggested that Afghan youngsters would be grateful for the brief window of non-Taliban rule – when Western armies patrolled the streets instead. ‘For a period of time… they would have experienced the freedom and privileges we enjoy here and no one will ever take that away from them’, Mercer said. I’m sure there are many teenage Afghans dreaming of better times – like back in 2006, when the sounds of British tanks filled the streets of Musa Qala.
But now that this ‘nation-building’ project has started to fall apart, Tugendhat’s main worry seems to be the effect this could have on veterans like himself. ‘This last week has seen me struggle through anger, grief and rage’, he said. It ‘has torn open some of those wounds, has left them raw and left us all hurting’.
Tugendhat slammed the government for not having the ‘patience’ to keep troops in Afghanistan for longer. Responding to those who recognised reality – that the West’s nation-building efforts had failed spectacularly – Tugendhat invoked his own form of army identity politics. ‘Those who have never fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have’, he warned.
There is nothing surprising about politicians or ex-army officers trying to shape the narrative of Britain’s involvement in a war overseas. But the idea that we should shy away from criticising the war effort to protect the feelings of the soldiers who served in it reveals the narcissism of the interventionist mindset. Mercer spoke about the inspiration veterans drew from their ‘forefathers’, who fought ‘in the same amphitheatre’ in centuries past. ‘And you can be forever proud of what you did when the nation called’, he added. His description of Afghanistan as an ‘amphitheatre’ is revealing. But we shouldn’t all have to applaud at the end of the show.