From war zone to smug comfort zone

WHEN it comes to evil regimes, the Taliban in Afghanistan stands front and centre.

IF you were a sensitive, bookish adolescent in the 1970s, navigating your passage to adulthood through the maelstrom of the times with the aid of such compasses and sextants as were available, you are almost certain to bear to this day the moral imprint of that era’s most popular and acclaimed TV program, the high-minded (if somewhat smug) Korean War army-hospital sitcom M*A*S*H.

Very likely M*A*S*H did more than any other single influence to shape the moral universe of an entire generation of high-minded (if also somewhat smug) young professionals, all of them staunchly and sincerely committed to the service of humanity in general, even as they tend to be rather dismissive of the intellectual capacities of their actual flesh-and-blood fellow humans.

The special appeal of M*A*S*H for its devotees was its sweet-and-sour combination of contrasting but complementary moral flavours: on the one hand, that piquant savour of cynicism and world-weariness characteristic of the highly educated young; on the other that sickly-sweet odour of semi-demi-pacifism, of the type that has coloured liberal-professional reactions to military conflict ever since.

On the one hand the idealistic-but-cynical young doctors of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital are appalled by the carnage and the human waste; on the other they stand outside the moral universe of the ordinary soldiers, who have walk-on parts only as the contents of stretchers or the mute occupants of body-bags.

And so M*A*S*H acolytes are enabled to relive time and again this same personal epiphany: all wars are essentially the same; all are equally futile and childish; and all serve chiefly as painted backdrops to our own personal passion play, out of which we refine and ennoble our personalities.

Lately it’s become fashionable to decry the absence of what is called a serious debate about our military involvement in Afghanistan. And so the Greens’ call for a thorough parliamentary debate on the matter has been met in a tone of rather pious sententiousness. And yet, in truth, it’s hard to know what a serious debate about Afghanistan in this country would look like, given that most Australians wearied of hearing about the elemental facts of Afghan life many years ago — and given that most public opponents of the war seem to have little serious to say on the matter, beyond articulating, for the thousandth time, the central tenets of the political philosophy of M*A*S*H.

I have no doubt that Andrew Wilkie was perfectly sincere when he shed bitter tears in the house over the soldiers lost in what the ABC’s Chris Masters recently titled “The Careful War” in Afghanistan’s devastated Miribad Valley. And yet over the past few months Wilkie seems to have rehearsed almost every single possible interpretation of the conflict, only to return every time to the same familiar excuse that we would be better off letting the locals sort it out for themselves.

While it is perfectly reasonable for a former soldier to tend his sympathies for fallen comrades, we have to doubt whether serving members of 6RAR actually approve of the idea that their friends have died for nothing, and that the mission for which they gave their lives is best left incomplete.

This week we are to be treated to the Senate’s version of the same debate, which is unlikely to be more edifying. Already Bob Brown has recalled his own rather M*A*S*H-like experiences of the 1960s, when, as a young doctor putting draftees through their medical examinations, he took it upon himself to decide whether they should go, or else be exempted, by the simple expedient of asking them how they felt about it.

The senator also shared his childhood memories from Oberon in central NSW, where he recalled among the wartime generation “a universal feeling that war was a bad thing”; again, as if all wars were the same, and as if the horror of war in general can be made an excuse for averting our eyes from all other horrors.

It seems we are fated to live in a theatre of endless historical similitude, in which every foreign conflict is really Vietnam all over again, and calls for unfolding the same old faded banners and airing the same old moth-eaten sentiments. Until the accession of Barack Obama to the US presidency, Iraq was the new Vietnam, and whole forests were consumed in an effort to present it as the era’s new “bright shining lie”.

Now that Iraq has abruptly disappeared from view, Afghanistan has taken its place, and we are treated to endless implicit parallels between Hamid Karzai and Nguyen van Thieu, endless searches for the new My Lai, or for images as awful as that napalm-doused child, endless efforts to present Wikileaks as the new Pentagon Papers, as if we were trapped on a dizzy historical roundabout that never stops.

It would be hard to imagine a simpler or more self-evidently good cause than Afghanistan. There is scarcely another country on earth where human dignity has been so deliberately and disgracefully trampled upon, or where the progress of one-half of humankind, probably the most signal advance of the past two centuries, has been more casually routed.

As Human Rights Watch has painstakingly documented, in the Pakistani border regions where the Taliban has revived its authority, girls are once again being turned away from schools, and women are being confined to their own homes in perpetuity. Even now, as Time magazine reported, young Afghan women are being mutilated for defying the despotic authority of their families.

When the UAE’s Al Aan TV network recently produced video evidence that the Taliban in the Pakistani border region of Orakzai are once more stoning women to death for infringing obscure religious laws, it occasioned barely a ripple of interest in the sophisticated West while educated women across the region were swept up into a storm of commentary and protest.

In truth our Afghan problem is more or less the opposite of what the M*A*S*H brigade pretends. The difficulty is not how to extricate ourselves from a policy debacle on ostensibly pragmatic grounds; a position which also turns out, conveniently, to provide the occasion for a series of arcane rituals of moral self-cleansing.

Rather, the problem is to re-engage a weary and jaded public with what the conflict is really about: a primal contest between universal human values and an atavistic medievalism, where the latter is too often winning out over the former because, encased in our cocoon of high-minded complacency, and habituated to experiencing the world as a theatre for our private moral dramas, we no longer really care.

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