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What the Chilean Miners and a Dead Scotswoman Tell Us About the Future of American Power

When a story about survival and life wipes another story about disaster and death off the news channels and front pages, it should be a cause for joy. The fate of the Chilean miners terrified, excited, and finally exhilarated billions of people like nothing else I can remember for years. It was the ultimate human-interest story, the happy ending beyond Hollywood’s most frantic dreams.

No one planned that this should eclipse the death of Linda Norgrove, the 36-year-old British—more exactly Scottish, from the beautiful Hebridean island of Lewis—aid worker. She was attached to a subcontractor of Development Alternatives Inc., in the Kunar Province of northern Afghanistan, when she was seized and held hostage on September 26, by a group presumably connected with the Taliban.

On October 8, an attempt was made to rescue her by the secretive and (or so we are told) highly trained U.S. Navy Seal Team Six, but she was killed in the course of the operation. Immediately afterwards, it was reported that she had met her death at the hands of those who held her, perhaps by one of them exploding a suicide vest. That was distressing enough, but much more disturbing was the next development.

A prime ministerial press conference at Downing Street was scheduled for last Tuesday morning, and David Cameron had plenty of other topics to discuss. But the media were kept waiting, with one delay after another, until Cameron appeared nearly an hour late, looking very grim indeed. The news he had to impart was that, in reality, Miss Norgrove had almost certainly been killed not by her captors but by her supposed rescuers. She was sheltering, away from the terrorists, and perhaps thinking that she was about to be freed, when an American grenade was detonated and killed her.

Although Cameron still felt obliged to say, not sounding as if he was very convinced, that it was "clear that the best chance of saving Linda's life was to go ahead," he added that there was a "huge number of questions, and a full inquiry would be made."

The British ambassador to Afghanistan, who happened to be back home, visited Miss Norgrove’s parents, and on the following day General David Petraeus visited Downing Street. Having paid tribute to “a courageous person with a passion to improve the lives of Afghan people, and sadly lost her life in their service,” Petraeus promised that establishing the true story of how she died was his "personal priority". 

Even if the general has managed to persuade President Obama and many other Americans that he is a military genius, not all of us yet worship at the Petraean shrine, or even particularly admire his demeanor. As he walked into Number 10, the left side of his chest weighed down by many square feet of gaudy ribbons, I thought once again of a greater American general in a greater war. When George Marshall was chief of staff of the U.S. Army from 1941 to 1945, he insisted on wearing a plain tunic with no decorations at all. Those were for the young privates and lieutenants who shed blood fighting and dying valorously for their country, Marshall believed. 

But to be fair to Petraeus, there’s no doubt that he’s dismayed, not merely by the death of Linda Norgrove, but by what appears to have been a mendacious original account of events. He explained how the truth had emerged, when high definition pictures from a helmet camera were examined, which makes it more absurd that anyone had thought this could be concealed.

Both London and Washington have tried to play down any differences over this tragic affair, although the London press hasn’t been so restrained, and an age-old undercurrent of resentment against the trigger-happy Yanks can be detected.

Truly veteran veterans here remember an earlier history of American over-enthusiasm. In his marvelous book Naples ’44, Norman Lewis described how, after the Allied landings in Italy in the fall of 1943, rather too many RAF Spitfires were shot down by nervy American anti-aircraft gunners, and the following January, before the infantry assault on Monte Cassino, a ferocious preliminary raid by bombers of the USAF dealt out condign punishment to forward units of the New Zealand Division.

But then the resentment was and is reciprocal, as we heard again at the end of the week. Cuts in state spending of a ferocity not seen in generations are being imposed on almost all departments, including the Ministry of Defence. All this is a legacy of the disastrous government of Tony Blair, who waged more wars than any prime minister in living memory, while presiding over an artificial economic boom, in reality a credit bubble, which was bound to burst, whereupon it left an unprecedentedly vast deficit.

Both Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, said they were “worried” about the scale of cuts being imposed on British armed forces, originally intended to be 10 percent across the board. Our own top brass are also worried, needless to say. General Sir Peter Wall, the chief of the General Staff, told the prime minister he couldn’t accept reductions which would hamper the Afghan operation, after which Downing Street let it be known that Cameron had intervened to mitigate the stringency of the cuts.

Even before that, William Hague, the foreign secretary, had hastened to assure Washington that the United Kingdom will remain a “first-class military power.” This is demonstrably untrue. There are no first-class powers any more except for the United States, whose military spending dwarfs that of the rest of the NATO countries combined. And since most British citizens regard the Iraq war as a horrible mistake into which we were taken on false claims, and a large majority also want our troops brought home from Afghanistan, it may be that we don’t even mind becoming a lesser power, as befits our reduced circumstances.

As to that other—but inspiring—news story, it’s trite but true to say that all nations have their malevolent and their benevolent sides. Even before we learned the truth, the death of Linda Norgrove did not look like any cause for American pride.

Meantime, 33 men were miraculously and unbelievably saved from the San Jose mine, thanks not least, as President Sebastian Pinera was quick to acknowledge, to boundless American generosity and expertise, from drilling equipment to technical advice from NASA. Maybe Americans too will come to think there’s a better way for their country to show its greatness than by waging endless wars.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!

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