Margaret Warner: Dispatch from Britain

BY Margaret Warner  December 5, 2009 at 8:29 PM EST

The small village west of London my crew and I visited today was bustling with Saturday shoppers doing errands for Christmas, and for their daily lives. The Salvation Army Santas were ringing their bells, and greens and lights festooned the windows of every small shop.

Charity-collecting Santas. Image Credit: Sarah Clune

I’ve come to Europe to assess how the public and its leaders feel about the Afghan war — and about President Obama’s request that NATO members and other Europeans increase their number of troops there. We’re beginning in Britain, which has more forces in Afghanistan than any country but the US.

Wootten Bassett, population 11,000, seemed a good place to begin our inquiry. The town has been around since the 7th century, so its people and their ancestors have seen wars come and go. But the current war in Afghanistan has a special resonance. That’s because Wootten Bassett lies on the road over which the bodies of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan are transported from a nearby RAF base to a coroner’s hospital in Oxford.

We spoke with some of the residents about the impromptu gatherings they hold whenever these mournful motorcades pass through. The church bells ring, and the townspeople come out of their shops to stand in silent tribute as the hearses roll by. Wootten Bassett has become famous throughout Britain for this. But what really struck me about today was the emotional punch of the war itself.

Judith Wells, buying medical supplies for her elderly mother, told us, “I say a silent prayer” whenever an RAF plane flies over her house, just in case it carries one of the fallen. Tom Blundell, a grizzled 67-year-old former RAF member and British Airways manager, seemed ambivalent. “We’ve spent all these years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hindsight tells us maybe we were wrong,” he says. “Every foreign power who’s tried to control that part of the world — well, only Ghenghis Kahn succeeded. I can’t see any Western country doing anything about it. I’ve traveled there, and the people are just different. They have a different attitude toward life, a different society, a different attitude about their religion. I just can’t see anything working there for us.”

Tom Blundell. Image Credit: Sarah Clune

Blundell is also chairman of Wootten Basset’s branch of the British (foreign) Legion — akin to the American Legion in the U.S. But he says he doesn’t know enough to pronounce judgment on President Obama’s call for more troops. Yet he does support his own Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s decision to send an additional 500 British forces to join those already fighting and dying in Helmand province. “Our military there probably needs more soldiers. You can’t do a big job with a small implement,” he said. “It’s like gardening. You can’t get the job done planting two heads of lettuce and not tending to it.” Franciszek “Zak” Zatyka — who despite his Polish name, is a very British fellow indeed — and his friend, a local bank manager who asked not to be named, were sitting in a pub with the bank manager’s children, having a pint before they went on with their errands. “I’ve lived in those parts — Cyprus, Aden (Yemen),” said Zak, a former merchant marineman, “and if you want my honest opinion, love, we should just let ‘em get on with it, let the Taliban get on with it. When we see our boys getting blown up, when we see the cost, when we see these bodies coming through every week or every month, let ‘em get on with it and kill each other if they want.” But after Zak left, the bank manager shook his head. “We’ve got to take the Taliban on,” he said, “or else we’ll be fighting them here.” Most poignant perhaps was the comment of another older British Legionnaire, a former member of an RAF parachute regiment, who carries memories of World War II. He proudly showed me a photo of one of his compatriots holding a U.S. regiment’s ceremonial flag. “We’ll never forget what the Americans did for us,” he said. He paused, and grimaced ruefully. “And we’re in it together again.”