Tuesday, 10 November 2009

One mother's son

As Beowulf knew, there are few creatures more dangerous than an angry, grieving mother. Jacqui Janes, unsatisfied that the prime minister - a busy man, presumably - took the time to speak to her personally to apologise for the bad handwriting and spelling mistake(?s) that spoiled his letter of condolence, harangued him for several minutes and recorded her complaints for The Sun, so that now the whole country is talking once more of his ineptitude. And his insensitivity. Which is surely unfair. Gordon Brown, after all, knows what it is to lose a child. It is, moreover, obvious from his demenour every week at PMQs that the casualties in the Afghanistan war weigh heavily on him. On the recording dubiously delivered to the public by The Sun, and even more so at a press conference this morning, he sounded genuinely crushed. And I've no doubt it was genuine. He is - this is one of his major deficiencies as a politician - a terrible actor.

Given the difficulty the PM has writing anything, it says much about him that he is makes the effort. But of course this story isn't really about Brown's handwriting, or his spelling - or even his eyesight. For Mrs Janes, the misspelling of her son's name provided a focus for her anguished grief. What she is actually upset about is that her son is dead - and, as her words made clear, she is convinced that his death, like that of other under-equipped servicemen, was avoidable. It was painful to listen to her graphic account of her son's injuries; it must have been worse for Brown. Her words certainly form a stark contrast with the respectful restraint visible once more today at Wootton Bassett.

Whether or not more could be done to prevent deaths like Jamie Janes' is an important debate - far more important than the letter that provoked it. But the problem of equipment shortages (which the government claims to be addressing) is less the consequence of incompetence or callousness at the MoD than of the brute fact that British armed forces are overstretched. They're underfunded because the burden they are having to carry in Afghanistan is disproportionate either to the size of Britain's military or to the threat facing us as a country. More money could be spent on equipment, but it would have to come from somewhere and the future, given the state of the public finances, is one of cuts not expansion.

The Sun claims to support the war to the hilt, and wants more money spent on it, but by drawing attention to the failures it hastens the day when it becomes unsustainable. The obvious solution would be to have fewer troops in Afghanistan, better supported and more adequately equipped - but that, of course, would imply a scaling down of the operation, which at the present moment is politically almost impossible. The rhetoric of politicians including Brown has all been of digging in, doing what it takes, prevailing, ensuring success - all of which implies more manpower and therefore more casualties. That rhetoric may change, and change quickly, if the Obama administration comes round to Joe Biden's view that the Afghanistan mission should be reduced in scope and concentrated severely on counter-terrorism. For the moment, though, it looks certain that there will be more angry mothers like Mrs Janes.

The Sun's use of her grief was exploitative; she is a pawn in its campaign against Labour, and the affairs gives a glimpse of just how dirty the paper intends to play the election, having thrown in its lot with the Conservatives. David Cameron should be pleased that he will be free to fight his campaign from the moral high ground, safe in the knowledge that someone else will sling the mud on his behalf. Yet without her real, raw and understandable fury the Sun would have no story. If Mrs Janes is exploited, she is also complicit in her exploitation. She wanted Brown to suffer embarrassment and worse, and it is that desire that impelled her, not the manipulation of Murdoch's journalists. Attacking the prime minister, reasonably or not, is a way of channelling her grief. She is entitled to her anger, and the Sun, equally, is entitled to offer her a platform.

For Gordon Brown, and for the whole campaign in Afghanistan, this is ominous. Mrs Janes provides further evidence that the days when politicians could expect families stoically and without question to accept the sacrifice their loved ones are over. The distraught mother, girlfriend or wife can be a potent political force. Increasingly, their stories come to frame the debate. It's difficult for a rational assessment - in which casualties may indeed be a "price worth paying" - to withstand their emotional appeal. Public support for the war is plummeting as people see no end in sight and find the various rationales offered for it unconvincing. Yet there's still a political (and, to a great extent, media) consensus in favour of the operation. At least formally. One consequence of this is that small incidents, which provide scope for comment and emotion, come to stand as proxy for deep-seated unease and for debates that are not properly had.

I think that explains the lopsidedness of the Janes Letter Affair, starkly revealed at this morning's press conference where Brown faced question after question about the letter but very few about the conduct of the war. The letter was badly scrawled, and the story, when it emerged, was badly handled. But then the entire war has been badly handled. Somehow it is easier to call the prime minister personally to account for a single letter than for the death even of one serviceman, let along 230. Gordon Brown is indisputably responsible for his own handwriting, less obviously so for the war. That itself, of course, is symptomatic of the problem, not just with the war, but with the entire political process.

As I said at the beginning, Mrs Janes is upset because her son is dead. But the thought that his death was pointless because the war is doomed is too great to bear, so her anguish fixes on the belief that the prime minister has insulted her son's memory by rushing out an illegible letter. But what of the rest of us - why are we voyeuristically enjoying a mother's pain? Because of the embarrassment it causes Brown? Partly. Also - to quote Stalin - because one death is a tragedy, whereas a million deaths (or even 230) is a statistic. But mainly, I think, because the larger question of whether this is a war worth fighting is too complex, too imponderable. The more I learn about the situation in Afghanistan the more convinced I become that no-one - certainly no-one in Britain or the United States - truly understands what is going on there. Those who claim to are either deluded or lying.

Our governments, and our military, are blundering about in a country they do not and cannot fathom. That in is itself, I would argue, reason enough for getting out as soon as is feasible. In the meantime, discussion is diverted towards trivial things. This is only to be expected. It's much easier, after all, to speculate about the reasons why Gordon Brown's letter failed to meet the most exacting standards than to try to explain how we got into this mess, and how - without the loss of too many more mothers' sons - we can get out of it.