As a little boy growing up behind the Iron Curtain in the last days of communism, I remember vividly the pictures on my parents’ television screen of coffins coming back from Afghanistan.
My child’s mind couldn’t have begun to imagine that one day I would be visiting Afghanistan myself, as a Russian and the owner of a British newspaper. And that it would have become a land from which the bodies of British men and women, not Russian, would be returning.
It is a difficult time for these two nations as headlines speak with ever greater excitement about a new Cold War, or even about the potential for some sort of Third World War.
Much of that talk is hyperbole. But gung-ho commentators should be careful what they wish for: any worsening conflict between East and West would benefit no one.
As recent UK and US exploits abroad have proven, world policing comes at a heavy cost. And those who suffer the worst are the ones required to do the fighting.
In the past few years I have visited Afghanistan twice, spending time not only with the British military in Helmand but also with Afghan people. What was clear was that a breakdown of trust had occurred between all that conflict’s myriad participants which was making any steps towards peace impossible to take. As always, the people suffering most were those caught in the midst of the violence. Many were civilians enduring the horror of life in a war zone. But, among the victims were the ordinary soldiers, too.
I know well the scepticism and weariness with which so many in the UK view its recent conflicts. But soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way, who risk their lives on instruction to preserve our way of life, have a right to live out the rest of their own lives with dignity.
It is why I am so delighted that my papers this year are raising funds to achieve just that through the campaign for homeless veterans that we are running with our partner charities, ABF The Soldiers’ Charity and Veterans Aid. Every penny raised will go to those who served their country but now find themselves in a position where they need us to help serve them.
Watching the British coffins being driven through Royal Wootton Bassett in recent years as a result of this latest Afghan war reminded me of half-forgotten images of my Soviet childhood.
Whatever anyone might think of the Soviet Union, we were brought up to absolutely unconditionally respect veterans. I remember they would all come out on parade on 9 May, Victory Day. They would wear their medals and parade through Red Square, to cheers from the crowds. The Soviet Union never scrimped in its care for its millions of heroes from the Great Patriotic War, as it was called. Here in my new home, Britain, I strongly believe we have an obligation to care similarly for those who fought for us too.
This year marked the centenary of the First World War. At moments of commemoration, I find a single line of Wilfred Owen’s reverberates in my head. “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” he asked, as he surveyed the horror of the trenches.
It is a line that in recent weeks has become ever more resonant as I travelled around the country to meet veterans of Britain’s armed forces who have fallen on hard times. These are people who once offered to give their country the service it required, and must now find themselves wondering: “Was it for this?”
My hope is that our appeal will go some way to answering that question for them. Please join us in helping show them this Christmas why their personal sacrifices – whether in the Second World War or in any the conflicts that have come after – were worth it after all.
Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of The Independent and Evening Standard newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @mrevgenylebedev
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