Few can understand the fear when their child goes to war

Illustration by Andre da Loba for The National
Illustration by Andre da Loba for The National

Fear, hope, dread, pride. Only a parent who watches their child leave for war can know the torment of competing emotions that accompanies the realisation that yesterday’s helpless babe in arms is now completely and utterly beyond your ability to protect them.

In February 2003, I wrote an article for The Times of London, expressing my anguish that my son, all too recently a chuckling, blond-haired baby, was on his way to an uncertain future in the Gulf with the UK’s Royal Marines.

My 21-year status as a father had just been demoted by the military to that of an “NOK” – the next of kin to whom any bad news would be conveyed.

“With war in Iraq seemingly inevitable,” I wrote, “NOKs all over Britain are saying prayers … to strike the deal: ‘Don’t let it be him’.”

The following month, the war came and late one dark night soon after we heard news on the BBC of the first death in my boy’s small, tight-knit specialist unit. We waited long, agonising hours until dawn to learn that it wasn’t him – an indescribable relief quickly tempered by the knowledge that grief had found its black-winged way to another door.

My son survived the war. So many other sons and parents – in the UK, America, Poland, Australia and, of course, Iraq – were not so lucky.

All of this came back to me last week with the news that another three Emirati soldiers had died serving their country as part of the Saudi-led campaign to drive out the Houthi rebels in Yemen and restore the internationally recognised government of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.

My heart went out to their families, and to those of the three Emirati soldiers who had already lost their lives as part of the UAE’s commitment to Operation Restoring Hope.

It would, of course, be both futile and impertinent for an outsider to offer any trite words of consolation. But beneath the cold ashes of personal grief there is surely a broader, historic consolation to be found for this young nation as a whole.

To say the UAE has come far in the 43 years since it was founded is to understate the astonishing progress it has made. And, as it has developed the necessary social, commercial, economic and educational foundations to build a future free of its initial reliance on oil, so it has increasingly stepped up to play its part as a member of the global community of nations.

But there is one rite of passage without which no nation can truly say it has come of age – the moment when it asks its sons and daughters to lay their lives on the line to defend its beliefs and principles, and they respond by doing so willingly.

In this 100th anniversary year of one of the most brutal campaigns of the First World War, there is a parallel to the UAE experience to be found in the sacrifice of the Australians and New Zealanders who died at Gallipoli.

Of course, the numbers of deaths endured are at opposite ends of a spectrum, but for each parent who loses a child one is the only number that has any significance.

When the young men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps went ashore at what became known thereafter as Anzac Cove on April 25, 1915, the two countries were just 13 and seven years old. It was the first time they had called on their citizens to go to war and by January 1916, when the allies finally abandoned their bloody, eight-month attempt to force a passage through the Dardanelles, over 10,000 of them had lost their lives.

In the century since, hundreds of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders have travelled in pilgrimage to the spot where, as many continue to see it, their countries came of age.

In the words of the Australian government, the sacrifices of the Gallipoli campaign “left us all a powerful legacy. The creation of what became known as the ‘Anzac legend’ became an important part of the identity of both nations, shaping the ways they viewed both their past and their future”.

Blood sacrifice in the cause of nationhood is, of course, nothing new in Arabia. The Arab Revolt of the First World War, led by Sherif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca with the aim of throwing off the yoke of Ottoman imperialism and establishing a pan-Arabian state, claimed the lives of unknown numbers of nameless tribesmen who rallied to the banner of freedom and self-determination.

When peace came, the Arabs’ cause was betrayed by their wartime allies, the French and British, but in having contributed to the fall of the Ottomans their sacrifice was not in vain. The power vacuum left behind in central Arabia led to the rise of the House of Saud and, after a series of bloody clashes with extremist opposition – and the loss of many more lives sacrificed in the name of nationhood – to the foundation in 1932 of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

But before the First World War, and after, life for many in the Arab world was a harsh existence, against which the prospect of an armed struggle for betterment must have seemed the lesser of two evils. Life in the modern UAE, however, is anything but harsh – and yet still its sons and daughters have responded to the call to national service “in the spirit of belonging to this great land”, in the words of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

To suggest that the UAE has come of age through the sacrifice of its sons is neither to glorify war, nor to seek to minimise the suffering of bereaved families by stitching into the tapestry of the national narrative the names of their dead in golden thread.

Rather, it is to recognise that the social contract between the leadership and the people of the UAE operates both ways – and that any country for which its children are prepared to put themselves in harm’s way is blessed indeed.

Rudyard Kipling, the English poet whose work stoked British national pride through the heyday of empire, and who lost his own son, Jack, at the Battle of Loos 100 years ago next month, put it this way: “Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful’, and sitting in the shade.”

No matter how beautiful the UAE’s garden grows, in years to come the nation will always remember six men. Hazim Obaid Al Ali, Saif Youssef Ahmed Al Falasi, Abdul Aziz Sarhan Saleh Al Kaabi, Juma Jawhar Juma Al Hammadi, Khalid Mohammed Abdullah Al Shehhi and Fahim Saeed Ahmed Al Habsi all chose not to sit in the shade.

Jonathan Gornall is a freelance journalist in the UK

Published: August 15, 2015 04:00 AM


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