There’s more to war than moral dilemmas

A new play on Afghanistan exposes the ideological nature of our apparently neutral ways of seeing the world.

Patrick Marmion

Topics Culture

Does anyone really know what allied troops are doing in Afghanistan? After 9/11 they were supposed to be rooting out al-Qaeda – closing down training camps and keeping the streets of Britain safe. Then came the ‘homegrown’ London bombings of July 2005 and talk switched to the moral imperative of delivering Afghanistan from murderous warlords running mediaeval fiefdoms. This latter argument, however, has always been consistently discredited by the reality of rendition and Guantanamo Bay. Meanwhile, even shadier explanations include the poverty-stricken country’s ‘strategic importance’ and its role in heroin production.

No one explanation is decisively persuasive and many people seem resigned to accepting an aggregate of circumstantial reasons for the war in Afghanistan. The originality of JT Rogers’ new play at the National Theatre – Blood and Gifts – is to reassess the whole situation by looking at it through the prism of the Soviet occupation during the 1980s. Back then it was a war with the USSR, which was seeking to install a puppet government in Kabul. From a Western point of view, even towards the end of the Cold War, Afghan warlords were considered heroic freedom fighters who brought down the Red Army.

Naturally, Rogers asserts that there was more to it than that. His play takes up the story of fictional CIA operative James Warnock, who wings into Islamabad in 1981, ostensibly to do business with the Pakistanis. Actually he’s there to strike a covert deal with an Afghan warlord so that the US can fight its Cold War against the advance of totalitarian communism by proxy. Everyone knows what the Americans are up to, but officially it’s all denied. That is how, in Rogers’ story, Warnock is able to befriend a Russian spy in Islamabad, while bribing the Pakistani army and pumping a British intelligence officer for information.

Warnock’s relationship with the warlord is central to the play, as he serves as the stand-in for Washington’s relationship with the whole of Afghanistan. At first they hope to defeat the Russians with outmoded, bolt-loading rifles. But soon the Americans issue high-velocity sniper rifles and eventually the cutting-edge stinger missiles, which were critical in bringing down Russian helicopters and ending the war.

To draw you into this sprawling landscape, Rogers ensures the relationships between the characters get increasingly personal as they wrestle with family problems back home. Warnock is struggling to have babies with a wife he seldom sees; the Russian diplomat has a teenage daughter running out of control; the British diplomat has unplanned twins; and the warlord is trying to sire sons with a wife who keeps popping out ‘worthless’ daughters. All of this is treated in the play as subplot, but it’s of crucial significance. There are no principal women in the story and only one female speaking part: an amusingly robotic aide to a right-wing US senator.

The point of this is moot, because in the play women always seem to be elsewhere. It could be argued that this puts them in the clichéd position of representing the warm, maternal principle of home with the war-weary men longing to return there. However, Rogers is not out to make a simplistic observation about war being a male preoccupation, or suggesting that if women were involved in politics then such things wouldn’t happen. Mrs Thatcher sank that idea along with the Belgrano around the same time that these Afghan events were taking place. Rather, the interesting thing about this ‘man’s world’ is that it suggests that the business of international diplomacy is hermetically sealed.

Thought of in this way, the occupation of Afghanistan by the Russians in the 1980s and by American and British-led allied forces today becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a kind of political tautology. This is effectively the explanation used by Warnock himself when he proudly announces to the wary Afghan warlord: ‘We are here to do what is right.’ And if this seems like an implausibly flimsy reason for running a war, it’s worth recalling Tony Blair’s default position on both Afghanistan and Iraq. Blair’s last line of defence was always that ‘it was the right thing to do’. It was his way of turning a political decision into a subjective moral dilemma and putting it beyond debate.

This is one reason why the somewhat clichéd, Le Carré-like formulas deployed by Rogers in his play actually make a strange kind of sense. Leading the cast is Lloyd Owen as the earnest Warnock, naively trying to save the world. Segued behind him are a boozy Brit who can’t help shooting his mouth off, a self-righteous and corrupt Pakistani officer, and a melancholy Russian diplomat. When it comes to the Afghans, however, Rogers is careful not to bring down jihad on the National Theatre and avoids the mad mullah stereotype. Instead, he has the hard-bitten Afghans lapping up 10CC and ‘Olivia John Newton’ (sic).

In short, they are all figures from what must be described as a new version of ‘The Great Game’. Only this Great Game is analogous to board games like Risk or perhaps Cluedo. So, in Howard Davies’ tidily acted production of Rogers’ play, instead of Mr Green polishing off Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory with the lead piping, we find the Americans polishing off the Russians in Afghanistan with a stinger missile system. And all these seamlessly shifting positions are mirrored by the sliding panels and shifting platforms of Ultz’s slick design. History and politics are thus forced into pre-arranged positions.

Nor need this analysis be considered especially defeatist. On the contrary, it suggests what may be needed in order to end the war in Afghanistan: a wholesale change in mindset. We must stop thinking in the clichés of received wisdom. The challenge is to recognise the ideological nature of our apparently neutral ways of seeing the world. Such perceptions can be tough to shake off, but they are also the basis of much of this play’s humour. At one point the Afghans are described as ‘charming, cultured and utterly untrustworthy – like the French without the food’. Later the CIA chief demands to know how a teetotal diplomat is going to handle a cock-measuring session with the KGB.

We all like to imagine ourselves being above such crude stereotypes, but Rogers also injects the managerial vocabulary of today’s political apparatchiks. There are all sorts of references to being ‘a team player’ and ‘lessons learned’. Such expressions may have been used in the 1980s but they are much more widespread today and relate to the contemporary political obsession with business jargon and ‘process management’. If we are serious about breaking the deadlock in Afghanistan, cross-examining the unconscious presuppositions of our language might be as good a place to start as any.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent. Blood and Gifts is playing at the National Theatre until November. Click here for more information.

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Topics Culture


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