26 Mar 2006

Heroes of the War on Terror

Stormless Norman Kember is getting a lot of stick in the British press for not thanking his army rescuers fulsomely enough. It must be a bit awkward for a pacifist to be rescued by the SAS or whatever – the organisation he worked with did make it clear that they did not want any violence to be used to rescue them. I guess it’s like when your kids bring you breakfast in bed, and for the sake of the kitchen and your taste buds you wish they hadn’t bothered, but it would be churlish to say so.
Last I heard he didn’t want to say anything as he wasn’t sure if he had been rational or foolish. I don’t want to pre-empt him, but this seems a pretty sensible question to ask oneself in the circumstances. Philosophically it’s difficult, because if I’m not rational, then my judgement is not to be trusted, so once the possibility is raised the question cannot be answered alone. Two psychologists meet on the street: ‘Hi! Your fine, how am I?’
For sure though it is more rational than thinking that freedom can be imposed, or that violence leads to peace. It could be that Norman has been playing ‘aren’t I a good Christian?’ the ego is a tricksy beast, but it could be he is that rarity amongst Christians, a follower of Jesus, cross and all. I’ll give him the benefit of my doubt, because he’s a better man than I… And that reminds me of one of the hotel guests…

After the older guests had settled down for the night, including his parents who were quite frail, he came back down to the bar. I had just come on duty for the night, and someone happened to mention that he had been drinking quite a lot that evening. He had what one might call a repressed stammer; he didn’t repeat syllables, but he seemed to pause open mouthed as if he was stuck on one every now and then. Apart from this he was quite coherent, but he had a haunted look, with deep-set eyes that seemed to look at me from a great distance, or deep under-water. He was younger than me, about forty-ish.
He had been in the US, which he was very scathing about, but had had to come back to look after his parents. He seemed a bit resentful about this. We talked politics and family and sex and religion, and all the while he was steadily drinking vodka and lemonade – doubles. He’d been all over the place, something to do with mobile phone masts; base stations he called them.
He was on his way from Kabul to – I forget where – with an armed escort of Afghans, when they were attacked, and one of the escort had his head blown off right in front of him. A shell had gone right through the vehicle and fortunately exploded some way off, having taken the guy’s head with it. The escort took off into the desert chasing the attackers, leaving him and his companions unsure whether to turn back or carry on to the next town. They decided to go back to Kabul where they reported the death to the local military commander, who was not very interested. ‘Well,’ he said ‘if it had been a European, we’d have had to have an investigation and make a report, but as it’s only an Afghan, you might as well have carried on really.’
He was on his fifth double vodka by now, on top of what he’d had earlier. He was starting to get unsteady and probably wouldn’t remember the conversation next morning. ‘That must be hard to live with.’ I said. ‘It could so easily have been you, and that would have been important; but it was him, and it didn’t matter much.’ There was a long pause. He nodded, and then I said, ‘So now you’re doing your best to blow your own head off with this’ pointing to the glass, ‘to show that’s not important either.’ But I sensed that he was too far-gone now, and not long after, he staggered off to bed. The next night he had gone to his room early- with a bottle. I didn’t see him again – just another statistic in the war on terror, or not even that because North Wales is a long way from the front line, for the moment at least.

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