Air­borne war­riors left high and dry

Tim John­ston

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Oac­cess to the di­aries they wrote while they were in the field. But there is no ev­i­dence that he spent time with them on the front line, or even vis­ited the towns he is writ­ing about. Ul­ti­mately he can­not hide that he is just as much a stranger to the ac­tion he de­scribes as we are, and the re­sult is a story slightly out of fo­cus: a re­pro­duc­tion of a re­pro­duc­tion.

3 Para reads like a mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion re­port, com­plete with baf­fling acronyms, padded out with in­ter­views and di­aries: a book writ­ten for spe­cial­ists and those who know the par­tic­i­pants, more than for a gen­eral read­er­ship.

The fo­cus is too tight to give a clear pic­ture of what was hap­pen­ing in the over­all war, and too loose for us to be­come emo­tion­ally in­volved with the char­ac­ters he de­scribes.

There are some ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries and com­pelling char­ac­ters, but Bishop fails to make the most of them.

Cor­po­ral Bryan Budd won a post­hu­mous Vic­to­ria Cross for charg­ing, guns blaz­ing, into a group of Tal­iban fight­ers in or­der to take some of the pres­sure off his unit, which had NCE upon a time, war re­port­ing could be summed up as get in fast, get the story fast, get out fast. All too of­ten to­day it is get in fast, get the story fast, get out fast, write a book fast.

The re­sult has been a rash of writ­ing in which a pass­ing ac­quain­tance with the sit­u­a­tion on the ground and a bit of sec­ondary re­search has been ruth­lessly lever­aged into top­i­cal books that ap­pear in stores in time for the Christ­mas or Fa­ther’s Day rush.

Pa­trick Bishop’s 3 Para falls into this cat­e­gory. A re­porter for Lon­don’s The Daily Tele­graph, he paid a brief visit to the south of Afghanistan in mid- 2006, just as the third bat­tal­ion of the Para­chute Reg­i­ment was leav­ing af­ter a six- month de­ploy­ment in the dusty towns and vil­lages of Hel­mand prov­ince.

Since then, he has spo­ken at length to the mem­bers of 3 Para, and in many cases had un­ex­pect­edly come un­der at­tack. It could be a defin­ing mo­ment for the book, but we are first in­tro­duced to him 10 pages be­fore he dies, and he dis­ap­pears from the nar­ra­tive two pages af­ter the ac­tion.

The book is cen­tred on a se­ries of bases that the para­troop­ers were de­fend­ing as part of the broader cam­paign to pro­vide cen­tres of se­cu­rity that would then, in the­ory, ex­pand out into the coun­try­side. In re­al­ity they be­came sit­ting tar­gets for Afghan at­tacks.

This is the scrappy ad hoc fact of the so­called war on ter­ror. With­out a clearly de­fined en­emy, there can be no clearly de­fined vic­tory, and one of the points that Bishop makes is that for the sol­diers pinned down in their bunkers, there seems to be no way of mea­sur­ing progress and no end in sight. But Bishop does not make use of his pre­rog­a­tive as au­thor to clar­ify the fog of war and to place ac­tions within their po­lit­i­cal and so­cial con­text.

There is lit­tle dis­cus­sion of the trou­bling moral di­men­sion of the in­ter­ven­tion in Afghanistan. Al­though it started out much more morally clear- cut than the Iraq con­flict — Afghanistan was, af­ter all, where Osama bin Laden plot­ted the 9/ 11 at­tacks — it has meta­mor­phosed into some­thing much more am­bigu­ous.

Part of the prob­lem in 3 Para is the oned­i­men­sional por­trayal of Afghans. There is a resid­ual recog­ni­tion of the Tal­iban’s brav­ery and will­ing­ness to at­tack bet­ter equipped and de­fended al­lied troops, but they are shad­owy fig­ures. The Afghan al­lies are por­trayed as con­niv­ing and un­trust­wor­thy, bit play­ers in the tragedy of their own coun­try. Yet through­out the book Bishop talks about intelligence tipoffs, im­ply­ing that there must have been Afghans do­ing ef­fec­tive work on be­half of the coali­tion troops.

Since the time of Alexan­der the Great, Afghanistan has been play­ing the role of neme­sis to the hubris of im­pe­rial am­bi­tion, and it has thrown up some of the great tales of brav­ery: William Bry­don stag­ger­ing into Jalal­abad with a bro­ken sword and fa­tally wounded horse, al­most the last sur­vivor of a con­voy of 16,000 that had set out from Kabul a week ear­lier; the Afghan hero Malalai us­ing her veil as a bat­tle stan­dard to en­cour­age the Afghan forces to de­feat the Bri­tish at Mai­wand in 1880; the mu­ja­hed­din us­ing 150- year old ri­fles to try to shoot down Soviet he­li­copter gun­ships.

Bishop’s book, de­spite the brav­ery of the men on the ground, is un­likely to be the ve­hi­cle that will el­e­vate 3 Para into those ranks. Tim John­ston has re­ported ex­ten­sively from Cen­tral and South­east Asia.

In search of an elu­sive vic­tory: Bri­tish Chi­nook he­li­copter re­turn­ing to Ba­gram

Mak­ing a meal of it: Bri­tish troops re­lax

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