The Afghanistan war started over ten years ago. We’ve seen maps and graphics on the news, but without Googling it, can you name the capital? What languages do they speak? Which countries border Afghanistan? Could you name three other nations that were part of the coalition with the US and the UK? There were over fifty involved at one time or another.
The Vietnam War lasted around twice as long but was over before I was born, so all I know about it comes from films. The First Gulf War started when I began high school at eleven, then the Bosnian War from ’92 for the rest of my school years until ’95. I only cared about the first Gulf War because white boys taunted us with pictures of RAF Tornados on the cover of The Sun. There were no Iraqis at my school, but it made us brown folk pick a side. So we taunted the white boys when John Peters and John Nichol were shot down and paraded by the Bastards of Baghdad. None of us really cared, but we pretended we did.
I wouldn’t have cared too much about the Bosnian War but refugees moved into my area and told me what had happened. They became friends and we played cricket together. We thought these white-faced Muslims looked funny but they prayed the same in mosque. In 1995, over eight thousand Muslim men and boys were slaughtered and the Muslim community screamed for those RAF Tornados to fly over Bosnia’s skies and bomb the Serbs.
All the while from before the Falklands up until just before I went to high school was the Soviet war in Afghanistan. I didn’t care for that aside from young Muslim men on my street volunteering and flying out for the fight. A young man called Nasir went. We never saw him again. They said he’d been killed trying to blow up a train full of Russian soldiers. These were the days of the American-backed Mujahideen. That was the only thing that made me think or care about the Soviet war. Nasir lived on my street. I care when some of them are my friends, but do you really care if they’re not?
Also just before the Falklands War in 1980 and for eight years the Iraqis and Iranians fought each other, killing half a million soldiers. That slipped me by, too. Half a million people dead. I didn’t know any of those two populations. None of it registered.
And then there was Congo, Eritrea, Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, and others. I had to Google those. The wars in Africa are still raging. But none of that really registers, does it? They’re always fighting in Africa, aren’t they? You only find out about these when you see dreadlocked white kids with banners outside foreign embassies shouting into megaphones. Maybe they have African friends.
But you’re told to care about the War on Terror thousands of miles away. When it was only a few miles away on 9/11 and 7/7, it was easier to care and be angry and scared.
Many cared about the Iraq War of 2003 and marched in the streets against it. I cared about that war only because I was in it. I cared about the soldiers who dug and shared trenches with me in the desert as we moved through Kuwait up to the border. I cared when we were bombed by possible chemical weapons and we shook each other awake to put on our gas masks. Often we’d sleep in our chemical suits; it was easier and they made the nights warmer. I cared about the Iraqi soldiers who surrendered and threw their weapons on the ground, followed by raised hands and “Mister, Mister” and pleading turned to smiles as I held out my hand.
I feel for the soldier who is now sent to a war which is ending. Obama says it’s nearly over. “How do you expect me to care, then?” this young soldier must think.
Twitter, Facebook, computer games, films, books, magazines, and the Internet are full of war. The images, words, and voices bring it closer but it’s still not real. The Vietnam vets cry that you don’t understand because you weren’t there, man! I suppose it’s hard to care if you weren’t.
In a few years when our war is over and others are still raging, how much will people care about the veteran in the wheelchair? Or the one on the street with a cup for coins? Everybody has roles they’re supposed to fulfill during a war. Politicians are supposed to lead the military with honor, the military is supposed to win the war, and the civilians are supposed to stay glued to the news.
When you hear, “A soldier was killed in Afghanistan today,” do you reach for the dial? Do you keep listening? Or do you tune away? If you have friends or family out there, I guess you stay tuned. If you’ve served you stay tuned but if you don’t know anybody over there, I guess you just get on with your life. It’s the intimacy that makes you care. It’s easier to care if it’s happening next to you. If it’s happening to you, your family, your friends or your neighbors, then you care. If it’s not, you probably don’t.
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