The recent killing of two Swedish soldiers in the Swedish-Finnish contingent of the military international security force in Afghanistan has sent the country known for its almost 200 years of peace into an identity crisis of unprecedented proportions. In a state of baffled shock mixed with an ill-at-ease dabbling with publicly displayed national chauvinistic emotions and expressions usually frowned upon when occurring in other countries (not least our happily nationalistic neighbor, Norway), it is as if my country's collective mentality has suddenly caught up with the fact that we are nowadays actually participating in war for real. People are killed in war - even Swedish soldiers!
Before going on, I need to make the obvious clarification: this is not about ridiculing the near and loved ones of the soldiers killed, or of questioning the obvious fact that their killing is as much a tragedy as any other killing. Rather, what I will say is a confirmation of this: War is hell; hell for everyone - even for Swedes.
What is so strange about the public reaction to the news is the apparent surprise at this elementary fact that it expresses. The responsible military officers that gave the news at a press conference projected one strong feeling: disbelief. "We are the good guys, we take off our helmets in order not to seem threatening to the Afghan civilians", it was as if they were thinking, "this can't happen to us!". But it did, of course, and it was only a matter of time. Everybody knew this deep down, but buried the insight so well, so that now that it actually occurs they stand defenseless.
Interestingly enough, this is far from the first time that Swedish soldiers have been actively involved in military operations abroad, and some Swedish soldiers participating in those ventures have indeed been killed in action - twelve since the 1960's, to be precise. Some of these events have taken place during my adult life, and I remember vividly the sorrow with which the news were relayed, but I can't recall anything like the stunning of an entire people now taking place.
Quite possibly, the reaction can be traced back to a truth so thoroughly denied for some years now: the Afghanistan venture is, unlike the former participation in various peace-keeping operations, about making war for real. What Swedes, Danes, Finns, French, etcetera, soldiers are doing there is no different from what we all have watched as a piece of exotic entertainment in movie after movie about the Vietnam war. For Afghanistan is not a case of a temporary conflict in need of UN buffer to settle down (as Cyprus or Congo). Even less is it a cleaning-up operation to establish a parameter of safety for the victims of devilish bad guys (like Kosovo). The state of Afghanistan is, since several decades back, one of the most primordial types of war - the social chaos where every human being is at the same time the most vulnerable of potential victims and the most vicious of threatening predators. This is hell for anyone, and the attempts to come to grips with the situation so far has only served to sustain the elementary state of things, let alone with some shallow political make up. So Swedish soldiers are making war for real in Afghanistan and indeed it is hell. It always is.