Posted by Tania Kindersley.
If you do one thing today, go to the BBC iplayer and find Broadcasting House. Forward to minute 51. There you will hear Samuel West reading the last letter of the 19 year old soldier Cyrus Thatcher (pictured). It is one of the most moving things I have ever heard. It is the modern equivalent of 'if I die think only this of me'. The young man's words are beautifully read by West, and there is also an astonishing interview with his mother, who is brave and articulate and amazingly free of bitterness, even in deep sorrow.
Follow this link to get there: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00nht59/Broadcasting_House_01_11_2009/
You can also read more about Cyrus here:
I think a great deal about the soldiers in Afghanistan. When I was young and stupid I had a one-dimensional view of the army. I thought it was made up of raw squaddies, barking sergeants and honking hoorahs. It was only when the Bosnian war started, and a few of the fighting men talked eloquently and thoughtfully about the horrors they saw there that I started to realise how profoundly wrong I was. In the last few years, two of the most interesting men I have ever met have been soldiers. One, whose name I do not remember, I met only once, at a lunch given by mutual friends. He had been a military liaison in Washington in the run-up to the Iraq war. Since American politics and the rise of the neo-cons is my specialist subject, I was so fascinated my ears practically fell off. I forgot all about the good manners my mother taught me, and talked to no one else for the entire lunch.
We discussed the unfolding disaster of the war. One of the things I could never quite understand was how the post-invasion plan went so disastrously wrong. However much you disagree with the policies of the Bush administration, and I disagree with pretty much every single one, it was not packed with drooling idiots. At State, in the Pentagon, among the military top brass, there were clever, experienced men and women. I did not understand how educated people could make such stupid decisions. I asked my army man. 'Well,' he said. 'I have a theory. Everything was done in powerpoint presentations. There is no room for nuance in powerpoint.'
The second riveting man is a disillusioned ex-soldier called Leo Docherty. To hear him talk of Afghanistan produces a potent combination of utter interest and absolute despair. He wrote a book about it called Desert of Death, which I highly recommend.
There is a good article about him here: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article634344.ece
What is tragic about this piece is that it was written in 2006. People are having the same arguments about the war now. In three years, not very much has changed, and no one, not even the brilliant President Obama, seems to know how this thing will end, or even what is being fought for. Even if, by some miracle, Afghanistan should stabilise, the terrorists and fundamentalists and militants are still running amok in the badlands of Waziristan. Currently, in those dusty hidden valleys, the Pakistani army is fighting a largely overlooked war against fierce Uzbeks and Taliban devotees. Like Afghanistan, no one is quite sure how that battle will end.
For further reading, I also recommend James Fergusson's book, A Million Bullets:
In the meantime, if anyone ever tells you that the young people of today are worth nothing, as some of the crosser newspapers like to do each day, just think of the extraordinary young person that was Cyrus Thatcher, who faced his own death with such courage, and whose overwhelming thought was that his mother should not grieve for him, but celebrate a life well lived.