Over and Over Again: As at Gallipoli so in Afghanistan

Critics may charge that following this course would meet the definition of insanity—which, as that old adage has it, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

So write Kosh Sadat and retired US Army General Stan McChrystal about America’s persisting strategy of train & assist and limited engagement in Afghanistan. For them, there are no better alternatives.

America’s longest war drags on

Perhaps this almost inevitable status quo – unchanged by the small additional deployment of troops authorised by President Trump – is why Afghanistan fails to ignite passions in the same way as it used to amongst Western publics?

Indeed the same could almost be said of the civil war in Syria, which no longer dominates the headlines as in years past. When President Bashar al-Assad seemed on the verge of defeat, or when he turned the tables and subjected his countrymen to savage military reprisals, or when the Islamic State overran vast swathes of the battered nation…then you couldn’t pick up a newspaper without seeing the word ‘Syria’ on the front page.

Now, with Assad pretty much back in control, the rebels subdued if not eradicated, and IS on the run from a motley coalition of Syrian, Iranian and Russian troops – perversely backed by American air power – the same air of inevitability as with Afghanistan has set in. Whereas America’s longest war looks set to continue in perpetuity, Syria almost certainly looks set to be rebuilt in Assad’s image, whatever Western leaders may desire.

The Assad regime’s destruction of Aleppo drew worldwide attention only a couple of years ago. Now the city is firmly back in his grasp

This selective war fatigue, for lack of a better term, is not unique. Citizens, and the journalists who thrive off their reaction, need to be shocked to allow events to remain at the forefronts of their minds. Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency has therefore contributed to ‘bigger issues’ being increasingly overlooked.

Car bombings in Baghdad or drone strikes in Syria just doesn’t register with people in the same way that a mass shooting or a lorry ramming into civilians on home soil does.

Even global war cannot alter this fickle public temperament, the extremities of the time forming unfathomable perceptions about what constitutes a noteworthy event.

Take the First World War and, as an example, the comparison between British public reaction to happenings on the Western Front and during the Dardanelles Campaign.

On the charge during the Battle of Verdun

For the British, the Turks were not the real enemy; that dishonour belonged to the Germans and the tragedy of the Western Front consumed everyone back at home.

Even General Charles Monro, who had replaced Ian Hamilton has commander of the Allied forces at Gallipoli in October 1915, had no time for this Levantine Front. He wanted to kill Germans in France and Belgium and he wanted his soldiers to have the opportunity to do likewise.

Similar parallels can be drawn with today, with the likes of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda now viewed as little more than a distant menace rather than the fear-inspiring terrorists of post-9/11. IS and the ‘lone wolf’ or ‘deranged gunman’ have taken their place in the public consciousness.

Al-Qaeda was seared into the public consciousness by inspiring images such as this

Like Sadat and McChrystal’s assessment of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Allied tactics during WWI involved doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This was as true of the Dardanelles Campaign as it was of the Western Front, with trench warfare, and the incessant shelling that accompanied it, favoured over more adventurous strategies.

There were calls for Naval action in Turkey and, of course, this was how the campaign had begun, with the Royal Navy very narrowly failing to force through the Ottoman defences and minefields to gain a run on Constantinople. Pleas for a repeat performance were rejected by Monro; he wanted to kill Germans and he wanted the peninsula evacuated. End of.

An Allied shanty town at Gallipoli: the endless waiting, the lack of progress and the public detachment have erased the campaign from many memories

Whereas the Dardanelles received relatively little press coverage or public attention back in Britain, however, the Western Front was a never-ending topic for conversation and commiseration. Equally monotonous as Gallipoli may the tactics have been, yet the casualties and the carnage were simply monstrous. What’s more, they were visible.

Soldiers returning wounded or on leave from the French and Belgian battlefields told their stories with an uncompromising forthrightness. Those injured fighting the Turks were usually evacuated to the Greek islands under British military control. Nobody back home saw them.

Soldiers wounded on the Western Front engage in a spot of croquet

Today the number of American casualties in Afghanistan is minimal, whilst the British have as good as left. As with Gallipoli in the Winter of 1915/16 they left defeated, whatever spin the Government tried to put on the 2014 withdrawal.

Helmand province, a territory that claimed scores of British lives at the height of public awareness in the late 2000s, is now back under Taliban control. Death and humiliation; perhaps that is why memories fade so fast.

As the number of American troops in Afghanistan has significantly declined, so have casualties and, simultaneously, public attention

The British and their Allies won the war against the Ottomans in the end and the Dardanelles Campaign almost single-handedly created an ANZAC identity. Yet how many British schoolchildren could tell you anything about Gallipoli? Of Suvla Bay? Of Winston Churchill’s pivotal role? Of Mustafa Kemal and the beginning of a Turkish legend?

Suvla Bay just before the evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula

Probably too few…the Western Front, on the other hand, lives on, commemorated and venerated a century later in as forceful a manner as it was reported on at the time.

America’s involvement in its longest war will end, as Britain’s understated hand in Afghanistan already has. How it will be remembered remains to be seen, though one doubts it will trouble the annals in the same way as Vietnam, as Verdun and Ypres or Normandy, maybe even as Iraq.

It is a pity because for so many the commitment hasn’t died and never will. There is a cause to fight for, be it with drones, small arms or simply compromise. Stated in the most basic of terms, the war in Afghanistan can be won but the need for political capital and will is wanting. With a disinterested public, that will remain the case.

And so we drift, as at Gallipoli, waiting for a new Front to fight on, to capture the public’s attention, to spur the politicians into action, to do something new…before it all slowly fades away into dust.

ISIS Takes Palmyra: another ancient city stands on the brink

The capture of the ancient settlement of Palmyra in Syria by ISIS terrorists has understandably led to great concern that yet another of the Middle East’s precious archaeological sites is about to succumb to destruction. Everywhere ISIS has gone, historic monuments and heritage sites have been ransacked and destroyed as the group continues its barbaric attempts to destroy history.

It is unknown whether Palmyra's historic ruins have been damaged yet by ISIS
It is unknown whether Palmyra’s historic ruins have been damaged yet by ISIS Source: CNN

A biblical city with an almost unrivalled history, Palmyra has played host to numerous civilizations. It was part of the Roman Empire until a short-lived revolt under Queen Zenobia in the 3rd century led to a Palymrene state. It was reestablished as an important regional city under both Christian and Muslim rulers, including the Byzantines, the Ummayads and the Mamluks until finally coming under Ottoman influence.

Until the recent civil war, excavations at Palmyra were ongoing and regularly uncovered a variety of objects hailing from its multitude of rulers, in addition to thousands of tessera from the Roman era. Its location at the base of a triangle between the cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs gave it strategic and mercantile importance. Today, its location puts it in the heart of a merciless battlezone that is likely to cause its final destruction.

Palmyra has never failed to impress its visitors. In the late 17th century, a British traveller made the following remarks:

We had the prospect of such magnificent ruins, that if it be lawful to frame a conjecture of the original beauty of that place by what is still remaining, I question whether any city in the world could have challenged precedence of this in its glory. (Edmund Halley, Philosophical Transactions: Lowthorp’s Abridgment Vol III)

In 1751, another visitor was similarly overawed:

The greatest quantity of ruins we had ever seen, all of white marble, and beyond them, towards the Euphrates, a flat waste, as far as the eye could reach, without any object which showed either life or motion. It is scarcely possible to imagine any thing more striking than this view: so great a number of Corinthian pillars, mixed with so little wall or solid building, afforded a most romantic variety of prospect. (Robert Wood, Ruins of Palmyra, 1753)

Robert Wood's 18th century depiction of a temple at Palmyra Source: University of Washington Libraries
Robert Wood’s 18th century depiction of a temple at Palmyra
Source: University of Washington Libraries

Despite changing hands on numerous occasions and witnessing some significant damage, Palmyra was never razed from the map. It appears as if its striking ruins and tangible heritage prevented its conquerors from carrying out such a grisly task. Unfortunately, ISIS is unlikely to prove so acquiescent. Whilst the human toll of the current conflict in the Middle East is undoubtedly more serious, the destruction of history – in a place where it began – is truly saddening and a testament to the forces of evil now operating there.

Francois Volney claimed that ‘the effect of such a sight’ as Palmyra ‘is not to be communicated’, although he tried his best:

The reader must represent to himself a range of erect columns, occupying an extent of more than twenty-six hundred yards, and concealing a multitude of other edifices behind them. In this space we sometimes find a palace of which nothing remains but the courts and walls; sometimes a temple, whose peristyle is half thrown down; and now a portico, a gallery, or triumphal arch. Here stand groups of columns, whose symmetry is destroyed by the fall of many of them; there we see them ranged in rows of such length, that similar to rows of trees, they deceive the sight, and assume the appearance of continued walls. If from this striking scene we cast our eyes upon the ground, another almost as varied, presents itself; on all sides we behold nothing but subverted shafts, some entire, others shattered to pieces, or dislocated in their joints; and on which side soever we look, the earth is strewed with vast stones half buried, with broken entablatures, damaged capitals, mutilated frizes, disfigured reliefs, effaced sculptures, violated tombs, and altars defiled by dust. (Volney, Travels in Syria, 1788)

The Temple of Bel
The Temple of Bel

Amidst the chaotic remains of Palmyra, one never knew what they might find. Sadly, now, we may never know.