What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, --
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
Anthem For Doomed Youth
Wilfred Owen is not only one of Britain's greatest war poets, his death in the final days of the first world war is surely one of the most tragic. His mother received the black-edged telegram on Armistice Day.
The thousands ordered over the top even as the generals had decided where the final front was going to rest symbolise the futility of that vast bloody adventure.
The accelerating death toll in Afghanistan ought to be producing the same sense of national grief and outrage. One simple question remains largely unasked in British political life - why? If the political Establishment stubbornly refuse to ask it, the anti-war movement must find new ways to voice the mounting hidden concern.
Why are young men and women from this country and others continuing to die, and to kill, in Afghanistan?
The tabloid fairy story we were once told is that it was all about al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. Now the pantomime villain is dead and US intelligence estimates are that there are fewer than 100 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan. So why?
Then, of course, it was all about the Taliban - a supposedly uniquely evil force with which there could be no reasoning. Now sanctions are to be lifted on Taliban leaders. Western occupation officials are in discussion with people we were told were incapable of of negotiation - that was the reason given for the speed of the onset of the war nearly a decade ago. Sanctions are being lifted on the misogynists in Afghanistan, but are imposed on the regime in Syria, which is much like the West in its policies on women's rights.
Above all, the politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have declared deadlines for withdrawal from the imbroglio. President Barack Obama is due to begin the drawdown of some of the 100,000 US troops next month.
So it is little wonder that despite the consensus between the three main parties in Britain, more and more of those who are losing loved ones in the conflict are questioning the bloody futility of it all.
For those of us who opposed this war from the beginning, it may be tempting to sit back and let it all play out, confident that our arguments are being vindicated. That's not a viable option.
First, it is morally sordid to watch the continued destruction of another country and of the lives of young people from our own, without doing what we can to force our government to bring it to an end when it has the power to do so.
Second, it is politically dangerous to think that the progressive anti-war voice will automatically gain a hearing on account of the disastrous course of the conflict itself.
In the US, for example, where public opinion has long grown weary of the conflict, the same string of casualty reports and shocking assessments of the Karzai regime, which is always supposed to be getting closer to being able to "take over," are leading to calls for more rapid withdrawal, but also to demands for an intensification of the war from what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex.
Obama - the great disappointment, and no more so according to the opinion polls than for black Americans - made the troop surge in Afghanistan the centrepiece of his paradoxical strategy for bringing the bellicose Bush years to an end. Predictably, having waded into the lake of blood thus far, sections of the US Establishment are finding it, like Macbeth, as "tedious" to draw back now than to press on deeper.
The last few weeks have seen something resembling a mutiny by US generals emanating from Afghanistan and championed by Defence Secretary Robert Gates. You have to go back to Eisenhower's era to find a time when US generals had such an openly political role in public debate. The lionisation of Petraeus and the Pentagon brass was always dangerous. Now they are deploying their political capital on Capitol Hill.
So while US opinion has moved to a more rapid drawdown of forces, Gates is leading a rearguard action to slow the process down. He is marshalling a battery of intelligence reports warning that the war in Afghanistan must extend further into Pakistan, further even than the habitual invasion of its sovereign airspace by US drones.
For the military Establishment, you see, the most tempting answer in any war is always that it can be "won" if only more soldiers are deployed, more villages razed, more billions spent. Douglas MacArthur, another celebrity general from the Truman-Eisenhower days, continued to insist to his dying day that Korea could have been "won" if only his plan to cut off the peninsula from China by dropping a "daisy chain" of atomic bombs leaving a radioactive no-man's land had been followed.
Imperial Germany's military caste stewed throughout the 1920s and 1930s, blaming a "stab in the back" from the German people for ending a war that they should have won.
So even as David Cameron talks solemnly of deadlines for withdrawal, the pressures mount for an intensification of the killing in the time that remains and the logic of that is to press ever deeper - and longer. The occupation of Iraq, you would think from the media, was over. But only last week the US lost more troops there.
So this is not a long war that can be left to peter out. In fact, it's a deepening mire from which calls are spreading for military engagement elsewhere.
In north Africa, for example, Britain is now at war. For that is what the Nato military action in Libya is. Any doubt about that ought to have been swept aside by the deployment of British and French attack helicopters and the intensification of bombing, in much the same way as Nato bombing increased and spread to softer and softer targets during the 78-day war on Serbia over a decade ago.
And the leading protagonists for that war - the shabby London-Paris axis - feels emboldened, even though it is predictably dragging on and on, with no regard even to the fake humanitarian reasons given at the United Nations all those weeks ago for what was, if you recall, meant to be a no-fly zone leading to the swift implementation of a ceasefire. Calls for a ceasefire from African, Arab and other states are now brushed aside in the interests of enforced regime change from without - something that remains illegal.
Undeterred, it is William Hague and his counterpart across the Channel, Alain Juppe, who are pressing for the most aggressive measures in yet more countries - Cote d'Ivoire, Syria ... perhaps Yemen if, as seems likely, a more nationally minded government replaces the pro-US Saleh, who is licking his wounds in the great dumping ground of dictators, Saudi Arabia.
This is what faces us if war is left unopposed. It becomes a way of life. In a country such as Britain, with its long imperial history, it so easily resuscitates the stinking jingoism and chauvinism that still permeate much popular culture.
So the gathering of the anti-war movement in Britain this weekend to discuss campaigning priorities around Afghanistan and Libya is timely.
The backdrop is an apparently odd confluence. Both wars are far from popular - unsurprising as billions go up in smoke while the country is told it must stoically endure Gideon Osborne's austerity and destruction of the welfare state. Yet public manifestations of opposition are few and far between.
To me that suggests two interrelated strands in halting what is a tremendously dangerous widening and deepening of militarism abroad, and with it the corrupting of political life and civil liberties at home.
The first is to galvanise the core of public opinion - a minority, but critical nonetheless - which has instinctively been most opposed to these adventures. Through all means, new and old, those tens of thousands of people should be equipped with the understanding that what is at stake in all these calls for military action here and there, whatever their immediate pretexts, is the central question - empire and imperialism. Are we to be a country which takes it upon itself to violate the sovereignty of others with the racist assumption that it is men in plumed hats who can sort out the natives? Or are we to finally close the book on the age of the raj? There were befuddled colonels in the Home Counties in the 1950s carping that it was a lack of military resolve that "lost India," in the way they might mislay a favoured billiards cue.
We in the anti-war movement are in a position to advance the vital work of deepening that understanding.
But a well-informed minority is not enough. It, in turn, needs to be able to find methods of convincing the majority of its case and drawing others into doing something about it.
There are many imaginative ways we can do that, for example, through preparing a campaign now to bring the troops home by Christmas, carefully and systematically winning public support through the media old, and especially new. I'm struck daily by the way in which opinion is being formed and networks developing almost wholly outside the traditional areas of public debate. But they do impact on that debate. In today's world even a small protest event can through the internet strike a chord with millions across the globe if it speaks in way that chimes with them.
Above all, I think everyone in public life needs to feel obliged to answer one way or another the question, why?
If we allow the question to go unasked, then we will wake up shocked to find that the common sense answer will have become -"because that's what we, do, isn't it?"
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