Early in the morning of 25 March, I was woken by jet planes flying low over downtown Athens and helicopters cruising the sky in formation, making the windows shake. It was Independence Day, the anniversary of the start of the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire in 1821. The army was parading in front of the parliament in Syntagma Square, watched by officials from the state, the armed forces and the church. I’d recently got back from an army camp.
At the Basingstoke Odeon the other night, in an almost empty cinema, I counted six advertisements for different kinds of booze (two brands of vodka, one sweet liqueur, one bourbon and two beers, as the John Lee Hooker song doesn't quite go), three or four car ads, a couple for war-fantasy computer games and one recruiting for the Royal Marines. I resisted the urge to get drunk, get behind the wheel and dream about killing. The army recruitment spot came immediately after one of the computer games; they weren't easy to tell apart. But the sly slogan for the second game was a sobering corrective: 'As close to war as you'll ever want to get.' The movie that followed, Jennifer's Body, has been a massive flop. This is largely because the target audience, as the ads at the Odeon would seem to bear out, has been teenage boys and young men.
Not so long ago, a variation on the 'Nigerian billionaire' spam scam started circulating. A certain Sergeant Dewayne Pittman of the US military sent out a few thousand emails asking for help transferring large sums of money out of Iraq. It seems that Sergeant Pittman has not only changed his citizenship and moved to a new theatre of war, but has been very rapidly promoted – those smuggled Iraqi millions must really have come in handy. He wrote to the LRB this morning: Hi, I am an active British soldier currently in Afghanistan. I am with the 40th Regiment Royal Artillery in Afghanistan. We hijacked a suspected helicopter painted black[...] We discovered other currencies including US dollars of about $ 16 million loaded inside the Blackhawk helicopter. We want to move this money out of this place..
In 1880, David Barbour, a member of the Indian Civil Service, published a pamphlet called Our Afghan Policy and the Occupation of Candahar. Barbour argued that the British war in Afghanistan was both morally unjustifiable and politically inexpedient. One of his more striking assessments was that 'the thorough occupation of Afghanistan, including the Provinces of Cabul, Candahar, Herat, and Afghan Turkestan by troops who could under all circumstances be depended on, would require the services of 60,000 English troops'. At the end of July this year there were approximately 64,500 Nato troops in Afghanistan.
General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, on his new strategy: At the end of the day, you’re fighting for the population, not with the population or against the population. As you fight for them, you are trying to convince them. You are in an argument with the enemy over the population, and they are listening, and they are watching what you do and what you say. They are going to decide based on who makes the most convincing argument. Are you protecting them? Can you stop them from being coerced at midnight by an armed man who shows up and threatens them? It’s a retail war.
Maybe editors should only ever be gratified, never startled, to come across a photograph of someone caught actually reading what they publish. Startled somewhat we were, however, by this image. A someone in camouflage and with an assault rifle to hand: not your average phantom subscriber. It is in fact a young officer in the British army serving in Afghanistan and he’s one of the illustrations in a newly published military memoir called The Junior Officers’ Reading Club, whose author, Patrick Hennessey, has now resigned from the army to become a lawyer. He helped start the club when he was in Iraq and then took it with him to Afghanistan.
Outside the main gate of RAF Wittering, on the A1 in Cambridgeshire, just past the funny old sign that says 'Beware: Camp Entrances', is a shiny new sign saying: 'Now Recruiting'. It's there outside RAF Scampton, on the A15 in Lincolnshire, too. And then in a lay-by on the A165 in East Yorkshire there's a big camouflage-green truck with a sign suggesting that if you'd like to drive it, you should think about joining the army. Back in London, on every other phone box (which are surely just glorified advertising billboards these days) I see there's an army recruitment ad, reminding people that doctors and engineers are needed too; it's not all about killing and being killed.