RAF Brize Norton, England, 2003.
Brize Norton looked like any other airport; big warehouses and one-way roads except all the people who worked there wore RAF blue and all of us who were flying out wore green camouflage or desert colours if we were lucky, but most of us weren’t. We looked at the soldiers wearing desert camo and wanted to be wearing the same but we couldn’t get them in time. We weren’t that bothered about it, we were off to war and so what if we were wearing green? This wasn’t going to be a war where we soldiers hid behind sand dunes and Iraqis strained to see us as our desert camo kept us hidden. This was going to be a war where the Americans would drop lots of bombs on people and then we would go in after anything that had wanted to fight had been burnt to death. That seemed to be the plan. No hand-to-hand fighting that we’d all watched in films or seen in the Commando comics--just bombs dropped from a safe height and sweep up the mess afterwards.
We stood in a queue to collect our boarding passes and the lads joked that they should have brought their expired passports. That wouldn’t have stopped them going. There was a lot of talk of not wanting to go and I felt it a little too but more of me wanted to go than not. I wanted it. There were protests about the war and we talked about them in the queue but not for long; they didn’t seem to matter to many but they did to a few. But the few that did discuss them were called cowards and told to wind their necks in, get on the plane and do their bloody job. Were they cowards? Some of them had never worked too hard on the army camps and were lazy soldiers and didn’t want the effort of the war. Others were scared since some of the teams in Afghanistan had been blown up and lost limbs and to them Iraq and Afghanistan were no different - they were both brown countries full of bad guys.
They were scared and ignorant, but at least they were honest, they said they were shitting themselves and we put our arms around them and told them it would be okay and then they asked us how we could be so sure. I didn’t know if I was going to be okay. Life is a series of unrelated circumstances that came together to put you somewhere at a certain time and space, where you made decisions and some of them worked out while others didn’t and so it went on. I’d made choices all the way up until this point that had led me here. I’d chosen to join the army, chosen the regiment, chosen these men instead of the officers, chosen a grunt’s life and here I was. I’d chosen this war so who was I to argue my way out of it? I’d happily go.
No hand-to-hand fighting that we’d all watched in films or seen in the Commando comics--just bombs dropped from a safe height and we'd sweep up the mess afterwards.
Then there were others, people who had chosen it all and still thought it was wrong. They weren’t cowards, they were the bravest. To stand among others who were just going to do it anyway and speak out and say what we’re doing here was wrong was something that took real bravery. And it came from the areas I least expected it. A small quiet soldier from Liverpool. The fag ends of life. The nothings. The people who didn’t get their GCSE’s but knew things, they just knew things and when they spoke the rest shut them up or tried to but knew what they had said would live on in their heads and bury itself deep. They might not have had the certificates to prove their intelligence but they had something inside them that told them what was right and what was wrong. Many had that moral grounding but these people had something further; they had the courage to speak. Their insides might have swelled and their cheeks might have burned just like ours but they said what they thought and the rest of us, including me, would feel the slap of sense across our faces. They knew what we were doing was wrong and they said it. A small quiet soldier from Liverpool. And the posh officers told them to shut up and get on with it.
I was used to looking at the soldiers around with me and see no scared lambs but in the queue I saw something else. I saw real courage. ‘Shut up Scouse, we don’t want to hear it’. But we should have heard it and we should have done something about it. But how? Crash our cars? Go AWOL? Go to the papers and shout and scream? Or just go to war and do what we’d signed up to do and then if we came back alive speak out? By then there’d be loads of dead Iraqis who could have lived. Saddam was a bad man but how many bad men were there? It felt wrong. Did all men going off to war feel like this? Did the Marines on the ships going to the Falklands talk like this on the decks? Is that what we did, stop bad men? And in engaging in war did we ourselves become bad? Who was right anyway? If I had to choose a side- and it looked like I needed to- I was on the side of the West. I enjoyed its freedoms though I’d not slept with any of its women or drank any of its alcohol but to me the West was right.
But was I missing something? The small quiet soldier from Liverpool was from the West, he’d no doubt shagged around and drank until his little body gave way and here he was saying it just wasn’t right. Was he ahead of me in thinking this way? How would I ever catch up to him? How was he so clever and so brave and how could he say so much with so little? I didn’t say anything; I queued like the rest, showed my passport, got ticked off a list, got my boarding pass and sat down waiting to get on to the plane. The Scouser wasn’t from my unit and went and sat with his mates but what he said never left me. ‘Lions led by donkeys’ someone said, but then somebody else said the donkeys were the politicians not the officers, and looking around they were here with us- they too were lions. We were hearing from world leaders on the televisions and radios everyday but when did we ever listen to small quiet soldiers from Liverpool?
The author never had the privilege of meeting that Scouser again.
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