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Britain’s Guardians of Afghanistan

Photographer: Sgt Russ Nolan RLC © Crown Copyright 2012

Only on rare occasions will you find a (recent) historical narrative that so upsets the political and foreign affairs establishment that it results in a government-sponsored purge of all available copies. Dead Men Risenby Toby Harnden is just such work, whose introduction into the United Kingdom so antagonized the Ministry of Defence that they bought up and destroyed the entire first publishing run.

In Dead Men Risen, the author, a Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Sunday Times of London, reminds us of the historical context of the Afghanistan conflict, placing it squarely within the long history of engagement between the region and Great Britain. Tracing the involvement of the Welsh Guards, a regiment with a century-old history in the British army, Harnden reveals the daily operations of the unit as they undertake the immense task of patrolling Afghanistan’s restive Helmand Province in the twilight of the conflict.

Harnden does a good job of exploring the historic roles played by the UK, not only as a military force, but also as administrator, investor, builder, and friend. As Americans we have often neglected these distinct, but equally important requisites of being a world power. Harnden thus reminds us that it was the great wartime leader President Dwight D. Eisenhower who first pushed for building infrastructure in Afghanistan in the 1950s, bringing massive dams and homes with electricity to the region. And in fact, these roles are the key to “winning the peace.”

Granted unprecedented and extensive access to the unit, Harnden brings the reader not just into the history of the unit’s operations but also into its barracks, where we experience the exhilarations and concerns of men plucked from the Welsh Valleys and sent to southern Afghanistan. He does this by drawing intimately from officers’ records and soldiers’ personal journals. The result is a level of detail that is persistently engrossing and on the whole staggering: that strange mix of excitement and horror that can only exist in war, emanating from every ordeal and triumph that the Guardsmen brave.

While the immediacy of his writing illustrates the harsher realities of (specifically) the British legacy in the Afghanistan conflict, what truly stands out throughout the book is the Harnden’s constant and profound respect for the Welsh Guardsmen. The names, wives, lives, hobbies, and flaws—these character sketches are ultimately borne out as real people sent to war and not simply “boots on the ground.” Harnden, in fact, shows it all: the pain and familial strain of leaving dependents behind to depart on tour, the human and professional gratification of connecting with a council of local Afghan elders, and the haunting, brothers-in-arms feeling of relieving the post of a fallen comrade.

Though the Guard’s story is indicative of the larger NATO involvement in Afghanistan, it is also approachable, allowing us to see a soldier’s perspective on the war across a months-long deployment. By decorating these names with the faces and personalities of true-life British patriots, Harnden forces us to truly grapple with the legacy that U.S.-British involvement in Afghanistan has left (and will certainly continue to leave): The Welsh Guard was frequently under-equipped, under-manned, and over-stretched during its deployment in Afghanistan. This abhorrent reality remains—whether as a result of apathetic politicians or antiquated brass unfamiliar with 21st-century irregular warfare.

As the Afghan conflict fades from current news, we are thusly reminded that the obligation doesn’t end with active combat, and that the legacy remains to be preserved and enshrined by future generations. The goal then is not withdrawal from an occupied territory, but commitment to understanding and remembering the sacrifices and courage—the legacy and lessons—of those who have admirably served. In that, Dead Men Risen triumphs.

Daniel Patrick Gabriel served in Afghanistan as a CIA officer during 2006-2007.

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