11/22/2009 04:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Letter From London

It is amazing how a presidential junket and the meanderings of a silly little woman with pretensions to the White House can bump a war off the front pages or as the lead stories of broadcast news. President Obama, for instance, was attempting to show the better side of our country to Japan, Indonesia and China. But in Tokyo, he also observed the traditional protocol of bowing to the Emperor of Japan. That prompted the rightwing nuts in America's cable land to go ga-ga as if it was the important news of the day. Then suddenly, the fate of our heroic Marines in Afghanistan vanished from the news as Sarah Palin mouthed off to Oprah Winfrey and a bundle of other cable TV shows. Even the conventional network newscasts could not resist the temptation of giving her free air time to answer patsy questions. Palin's publisher offered America more than a million copies of a ghost-written memoir that was bound to end up on the remainder shelves within days. Indeed it was, for $4.95 each after one week of sales.

C'mon America. Can we not get real? Can "we," I mean Republicans as well as Democrats, conservatives as well as liberals, seriously entertain the notion of Sarah Palin as the GOP's presidential nominee or, heaven forbid, even the occupant of the White House? Is there truly a segment of society so ideologically warped to believe it? Hopefully, we are passed that.

But several weeks ago, returning to the Mother Country after an absence of many years, it was re-assuring to be back in Britain, confronted by a fresh dose of reality. The question in every London newspaper the past several weeks was whether President Obama will or should intensify the war in Afghanistan by providing 40 thousand more American troops on the ground, as their general in charge has insisted was a necessity.

It reminded me of the extent to which wars have plagued Britain throughout history. In the 19th Century, they failed to conquer Afghanistan. In the first ten days of this November in London, the atmosphere was bathed in red as countless men and women wore paper poppies on their lapels or blouses to mark Armistice Day and remember those who served in World War I. Newspapers and television newscasts conveyed scenes of countless cemeteries or of scenes depicting the great retreat from Dunkirk in 1940. Loved ones or surviving veterans paid their last respects to those who gave their lives in both World Wars I and II as well as Korea. On the first day of the visit with my wife, we were confronted by a half page spread in the Guardian, depicting veterans of Britain's Second Battalion of The Rifles. The three most prominent soldiers in the color photograph, dressed in their combat uniforms and wearing black berets, sitting in wheelchairs, were amputees. Two of them had lost both legs and the third soldier, one limb. Behind them was a crowd, smiling and obviously proud to welcome home the warriors. It was a chilling reminder of the fact that not only American fighting men were enduring the cost of serving in Afghanistan.

At the New London Theater, we were among other theatergoers who sat transfixed by a unique play entitled War Horse. Its staging recaptured memories of the First World War through the imaginative use of puppets. The storyline was based on a children's novel, but it was the staging that provided such a remarkable interpretation. Unquestionably, it will be a major attraction when it reaches Broadway next year. War Horse has played to two sold-out runs at the National Theater before moving to the New London. Its focus was on the story of a young boy who went to Europe in search of his horse that had been confiscated by the British Army for the war on the continent in Europe. Only readers of Barbara Tuchman's historic rendition of the so-called Great War, The Guns of August, can truly appreciate the scope of the conflict that was re-enacted on the stage. It was fought with artillery, tanks and poison gas that claimed the lives of millions of soldiers and, in effect, tore the hearts out of three generations of men from Britain, France and Germany.

At the Frontline Club one evening, a journalists' gathering place in central London, a large audience met to discuss Afghanistan. It lasted for some two hours. A panel included a BBC foreign correspondent, a veteran Afghan television producer with a long list of credits in British television, a professor at London University and an Oxford-educated woman who had recently completed two years in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch. At best, their overall perception was one of skepticism about the future.

Their impressions, reinforced by London newspaper after London newspaper, raised the question of whether the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was winnable or should even be pursued. Clearly, that debate has been just as intense across the Atlantic as it has been in America. But it also was clear that only when President Obama renders a final decision on whether to increase the U.S. troop level on the battlefield will the story assume a new dimension and how Afghanistan is perceived or conveniently forgotten.