Operation HERRICK formally drew to a close recently, and whilst troops will remain there for some time in a training capacity for the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP), the British Army’s role in leading combat operations has very much ended.
We’ve all read and heard in the news about the successes and failures of this campaign/conflict, and whether we have really achieved our aims in stabilising this nation, and reducing the terror threat to the UK. This is a topic that political analysts, military experts, naysayers and supporters can debate for the rest of time, but what the vast majority of them will be unable to do is to provide any kind of commentary on the real-life changes that the military has made, largely because they’re intangible or too small-scale to be worthy of public comment. That is unless, of course, you’ve spent a number of months serving there.
In which case it is likely that your perspective will be very different.
For me, entering the transitional phase in which we now find ourselves after 13 years there brought mixed emotions. I guess I’d always envisaged that after such public hype, the formal return of our troops would be met with celebration of their achievements, large-scale remembrance of the sacrifices made, relief that it’s all finally over. But as a UK citizen sat watching the news in the safety of my own home, I couldn’t help but notice how removed I felt from it all.
Watching a news report, reading articles, leaving comments on discussion forums – this is as close as most will (thankfully) ever come to being in any kind of conflict scenario. But if that isn’t testament to the lifestyle for which so many have fought and died over the last 100 years, what is? Most people take for granted the freedoms that they enjoy. They get het up about issues that they deem close to their hearts, of great importance, rarely stopping to think that were it not for the sacrifices made by others, they would not have the means to worry about such issues.
We take the technologies we use, our freedom of speech and thought, the great liberalism afforded to us by the ECHR for granted. Meanwhile, those enjoying such freedom and comfort are all too happy to sit and critique the British government’s policies and actions, luxuriating in the delightful warmth that only hindsight can provide.
Of course, I am all too aware that my own position is a biased one – both myself and my girlfriend have served in Afghanistan for a collective total of 21 months, with her completing two tours to my one. I have also served in Iraq, which whilst politically different, was actually rather similar in terms of being a serving soldier there.
The aesthetic landscape was much the same. The issues experienced by the common man were much the same – poverty, insecurity, crime, domination by those with extremist views. And the ways in which they tried, and succeeded, to kill us was again very much the same.
I return to my original point that unless you have been there, unless you have made personal sacrifices yourself, you can not possibly know much about Afghanistan or any other such place. Sitting in your armchair watching a shark stalk its prey on the Discovery channel does not give you even one iota of the experience you would feel were you to be the prey.
The fear as you wondered if this would be your final day, the sensation of the water on your skin, the smells around you, the noises. None of that is conveyed through a television screen.
Nor is the 7 months of intense dust, the constant whirring of rotor blades as serviceman after serviceman is flown out, or flown in with catastrophic injuries that will never make the news unless he dies. The inability to talk to those you love for long periods, the same food, the same often squalid living conditions, the curling smile of a local national that claims to be grateful for your help, yet the deadness in the eyes that betray his inward thoughts. Walking along wondering if your next step will be upon a hidden improvised explosive device, which will at least remove one or more of your limbs, sleeping under the stars in the cold, ‘stagging on’ with your heart pounding your chest so hard, wondering if the footsteps you can hear on the other side of the wall in the tiny checkpoint you’re stuck in belong to a person that is going to post a grenade through, or pop up and spray you with hot metal.
Everyone’s experiences of Afghanistan will be very different. Whilst there is no ‘front line soldier’ as traditionally perceived anymore, there are still infantry troops whose predominant role is to take the fight to the enemy. My role was far removed from this – yet the things I have just written about are very much my experiences. That heart pounding the chest was entirely mine, and whilst the hearts of many others will have experienced the same thing, if I really think about those nights now, the same fear creeps upon me.
When I came back from Afghanistan, I was a very angry and traumatised person. This is not something I realised until about 18 months later, but the impact my experiences had on my life were profound. I behaved out of character, I was short-tempered. I had a lot of difficulty adjusting back to civilian normality, enjoying the freedoms that I have spoken of. I felt under-appreciated, and the true scale of the non-malicious ignorance of the political commentators and naysayers hit me with full force. It was a dark place to be in.
But that is not the point of this article. The point is that unless you’ve been there, unless you’ve experienced the minutiae of life in these places, unless you’ve felt the fears yet at the same time witnessed the great deal of good that the British military has done there, you should think twice before providing comment dismissively.
Children now receive widespread education, a government is in place, people have jobs, water, warmth and food where previously there was none (unless provided by the extremists, without which they would die). Of course terrorism is still rife, of course there is corruption, of course we haven’t made it a completely safe place to be. I think we could spend a lifetime there and this would still be the case. Religious ideology rules in the Middle East, and it would take hundreds of years worth of education, experience and infrastructure to change that. And even then, just like on UK soil, you will have individuals that are simply attracted to instability and violence.
That is the way of the world.
Whatever your views, pin a remembrance poppy to your chest this week and wear it with pride. Spare a great deal of thought for the conflicts that have taken place from World War One onwards, and indeed before that, because had the individuals that gave their all for them not done so, you probably wouldn’t be able to sit in that armchair, in your comfortable clothes with your streaming internet and your inner sense of peace and comfort, wondering if that shark will get its meal.
Like so many others in parts of the world that have not been so fortunate, you’d likely still be sat in a cave, cold and worried and without a clue what to do but fight the invading foreigners that you don’t understand
Lest we forget.
Read Jonathan's blog at Call Me Jonathan