Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Eric Waugh: Why Afghan front line is now on our front pages

Eric Waugh
Eric Waugh

The homecoming of the flag-draped coffins of the young soldiers killed in Afghanistan means heart-rending tragedy for their families.

But the Prime Minister, in his holiday retreat in the Lake District, must feel their wounds almost as if they were his own. Politically, each one sounds a dirge, marking out his diminishing days in office before he must face a general election, probably due next May.

His trouble is he knows this is a war he cannot win. His trouble is he knows his people know it also. David Cameron will discover that truth very soon, should he be so unfortunate as to succeed to the premiership next summer.

Of course, British forces are in Helmand on the strength of a UN mandate. The UK is weighing in and bearing more than its fair share of the burden, largely because only the Canadians and the Dutch among the rest are doing very much to back the Americans.

The French, Germans and Italians, in keeping with the usual fiddle-de-dee which masquerades as the EU's foreign policy, are doing very little.

All of which is bad news for Brown. He knows the patience of the electorate is running out. His only salvation can be that he may have left office when the decision to withdraw has to be taken. In the meantime, it is |important we digest just why this far-off war is so politically loaded at home.

The answer lies in these lines you read. Newspapers, radio and television these days are free to report a war, blow by blow, in a manner they never have been before. Indeed, there is a theory that any government in future will find it exceedingly difficult to win a war where war correspondents and television crews have free access to the theatre of battle.

Vietnam was the first colour television war; and the red blood of wounded young Americans was possibly the decisive factor in rendering the US stance in Vietnam unsustainable for Richard Nixon in 1973. The British took note and, in 1982, controlled all media access to the war in the Falklands with an iron hand.

I was working in the United States during most of it and watched nightly as the American networks reproduced the dispatches of those few British correspondents licensed to observe near the battlefield. No Americans were allowed at all. Iraq and Afghanistan are different.

The fact is no such media control is now feasible, whether tactically (because of the advent of the satellite purveying instant pictures), or politically — because the people insist on knowing what is being done in their name.

At present, a row over armoured cars and helicopters for the Army in Helmand has taken wing, until it is now open season for the media, backed damagingly by assorted retired generals, to attack the Ministry of Defence as not being up to the job.

This sort of infighting is not new. It always goes on. The difference is that in the past it happened under cover. In the Second World War there were the most ghastly blunders. In some cases highly selective facts were reported, usually well after the event. In others, all was hushed up.

A few weeks before D-Day in 1944, American GIs were busy off Slapton Sands, on the Devon coast between Dartmouth and Salcombe, practising at night, in full combat gear, how to approach the cliffs in the invasion barges they would be using in Normandy. Two German E-boats, prowling in the darkness, spotted them, raked the barges with gunfire and more than 700 men died. But censorship was total. Even the local villagers learned nothing. After the war it was hushed up by those who were ashamed of it.

Churchill's six hefty volumes of war memoirs or the diaries of his secretary, John Colville, or the two volumes of the Prime Minister's right-hand man, Alanbrooke, contain not a line on this cock-up.

Earlier, in December 1941, Churchill was keen to send the new battleship, Prince of Wales, and the battle-cruiser, Repulse, to Singapore, along with the new aircraft carrier, Indomitable, to warn off the Japanese.

At the last moment the Indomitable, with her Hurricanes, ran aground during her trials in the Caribbean. Churchill, rashly, sent the battleships on alone. Both were sunk by Japanese torpedo planes off Malaya; 840 sailors drowned and, a few weeks later, Singapore surrendered with the capture of 100,000 British, Australian and Indian troops. The fact of the losses could not be concealed, but the people were told nothing of the policy decisions which led to them.

But now, US soldiers in Iraq tell TV reporters: “I've done fightin' — I want to go home.” Or “We're in this war because a lot of politicians can't admit they were wrong.” The voters do not like it. In the media age, that is what |will fix the date of withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Why Afghan front line has now been shifted onto our front pages

Access all areas — unrestricted reporting from Afghanistan creates problems for Gordon Brown (left)

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