The historical reality of the present

Christina Lamb’s 2020 book ‘Our Bodies Their Battlefield’ is grim but compelling. Ultimately, I had to put it down, lacking the courage to continue reading. Afterwards, nursing my own cowardice, I thought of Lamb. The woman who had the strength to face the detailed accounts of violence sustained by women in the course of conflict. How she lived with the images imprinted on her mind’s eye. How afterwards she slept or lay awake at night, knowing the stories of women and young girls deliberately degraded, tortured, and slain. How she cohabits day by day with the ugly truths she has witnessed in the course of her work around the world. Lamb knows at first-hand what happens when the savage impulses of our species become untethered from the normal rules of humanity. It must take real guts to be a chronicler of war. Not just physically but emotionally. 

What is happening now in Afghanistan is particular to this moment. But it is also both universal and timeless. The Iliad, Homer’s epic about the final days of the Trojan War, is over 3,000 years old and tells of events yet centuries earlier. Battle scenes are described in livid detail. The desecration of Hector’s corpse by Achilles, who, not satisfied with killing his opponent drags his body through the dust. His vengeance is boundless. He wants Hector’s body unburied, to be eaten by crows, by dogs. Left to un-rest in eternity. Pat Barker’s brilliant new book The Women of Troy describes the lives of women caught up in the war and its aftermath. It tells of how Argive men slaughter Trojan men in the name of honour over a kidnapped woman – Helen – and then fight with each other over those they take as sex slaves, the spoils of that same war. She breathes life into tragic events from the Bronze Age, and in so doing, gives her reader a lens through which to see the present.

As the new rulers of Afghanistan go about their business of developing a government, whatever that proves to be, we are reminded once again that violence is a poor substitute for real power, real leadership, true moral authority. It is not for us to determine how the Afghan people organise their society, but if we ourselves want to be considered powerful – beyond the struggles of war – we must lead by example. At the very least ensuring that through the moral authority of our social norms, our laws, and their enforcement, we give keep our own children and women safe from the threat of violence, in the home and as they go about their daily lives. We failed dismally this week as an innocent little girl was amongst those gunned down in Plymouth. A tragedy in its truest sense. The Trojan War lasted a decade, the war in Afghanistan almost two. As our presence there comes to a close, let us pray that our leaders have even a fraction of the courage of Christina Lamb in facing the daily reality of violence against women.

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