Afghanistan: the war that film forgot


François Truffaut denied the very possibility of an antiwar film. Put telegenic actors in uniform and you are halfway to tacit glamorisation. Well-lit explosions do the rest. Jarhead, in which soldiers watch an almost erotic screening of Apocalypse Now, makes the point in meta style.

Perhaps it was the great auteur’s rule that put the industry off in at least one contemporary instance. Relative to its duration, the war in Afghanistan might be the most under-dramatised since the dawn of the moving picture. Not just Korea and Vietnam but each venture into the Gulf received more or better Hollywood treatment. We are poorer for the omission. No recent event better teaches the subversive thought that despair is sometimes justified.

There was no plausible response to 9/11 that kept the Taliban and its deadliest guests in place. At the same time, the prospect of securing a land that had confounded two empires was fanciful. What you are left with is the most eminent case in my lifetime of a perfect problem: one to which there is no good answer. It could not be left alone and it could not not be left alone.

The most eminent case, but not the only. Here is one nearer to home. The plight of deindustrialised towns from Ohio to Yorkshire is, besides the direct victims, a threat to liberal democracy. Yet there is no large speculation of which I am more sure than this: in most cases, nothing will work. Governments must try, as have five or six successive UK ones. The occasional Pittsburgh will raise hopes. But the majority of places that emerged for one extractive or manufacturing purpose will struggle to outlive it. Inaction and successful action are more or less equally far-fetched.

If “hope” has limits, if some crises are intractable, it is easier to break the news to victims (better placed than most to be realistic) than their would-be saviours. I have spent long enough on the journalistic trail of the governing classes to sense that voters misread them. It is not malice or arrogance that defines that world so much as naivete. There is less disdain for the masses than overconfidence in what policy can do for them against mulish, foot-dragging reality. Tony Blair, a naïf who is still taken for a Machiavel, is the most Utopian case in point.

It is something that marks their inner lives, which comprise too much zeitgeist nonfiction about rebooting the west or whatever and not enough Naipaul, Chesterton and Waugh. The timelessness of social problems, the perverse consequences of change, the role of futility in human affairs: it is possible to be sublimely educated and screened from these verities. The summer reading lists that do the rounds at this time of year are themselves unreadable.

My own trade is complicit. Unsigned editorials give newspapers an essential cohesion and identity. They often pique the officials of sovereign states into writing in. They are stimulating to author. But they also work on the premise that all problems have answers: that Angela Merkel, say, must “do” such and such. Having seen the sausage being made in two newspapers of world fame, I know that no editorial that throws its hands up at the insolubility of an issue would run. Yet there are times when no editorial would be truer. Immigration from desperate, fast-growing countries to smaller, legitimately change-averse rich ones is the next in line. We will try very hard to suggest that something can be done.

This, in the end, is what the big screen’s relative neglect of the Afghan war comes down to. The modern incapacity for despair. Most wars connote glory (the second world war) or folly (Iraq), either of which is a guide to future action. This one was not a teachable moment so much as an extended riddle. It was right to go in and it was hopeless to go in. We have to leave and it is rash to leave. As didactic a medium as film was always going to be at a loss with such ambiguity. The rest of us are in for much more of it.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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