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The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Warsby Patrick Hennessey
We had founded the Junior Officers’ Reading Club in the heat of the southern Iraqi desert. Marlow and me, the smart-alec Oxford boys, with surfer dude Harrison and the attached Coldstream Guards. Basking in boxers on improvised sun-loungers, we snatched quick half-hour escapes from the oppressive heat and boredom routine— caught our breath among the books, wallowing after patrols and riding the adrenaline come-down. Convened behind the junior officers’ tent, the ‘Crows’ Nest’, flaunting non-regulation under- wear in a gesture of defiance to the quartermasters, we might have thought we were the Army’s Bright Young Things, but we weren’t the first and we won’t be the last.
The club was a product of a newly busy Army, a post-9/11 Army of graduates and wise-arse Thatcherite kids up to their elbows in the Middle East who would do more and see more in five years than our fathers and uncles had packed into twenty-two on manoeuvres in Germany and rioting in Ulster. ‘Too Cool for School’ was what we’d been called by the smarmy gunner colonel on a course down in Warminster, congratulating through gritted teeth the boys who’d picked up gallantry awards, too old now to win the spurs he never got the chance to while he was getting drunk on the Rhine and flying his desk.
But in a way he was right: what did we know just because we’d had a few scraps in the desert? The bitter, loggy major who sat next to him had probably been to the Gulf back in ’91, when we were still learning to read; probably been patronized himself when he was a crow by returning Falklands vets who in turn had been instructed by grizzly old-timers sporting proud racks of World War Two medals, chests weighed down by Northwest Europe and Northern Desert Stars, which told of something greater than we could comprehend, the stuff of history imagined in black and white when no one was any- one without a Military Cross. Our grandfathers were heroes, whatever that meant, and they had taught the legends who charged up Mount Tumbledown in the Falklands and had returned to teach us.
We who didn’t believe them.
We who had scoffed as we crawled up and down Welsh hills and pretended to scream as we stabbed sandbags on the bayonet assault course. We tried to resurrect the club at the start of our Afghan tour, lounging on canvas chairs on the gravel behind the tin huts of Camp Shorabak. Same sort of base, same sort of desert, just a few thousand miles the other side of Iran. By the end of the first month it was obvious that there would be no club. Each of us, wherever we were and if we could at all, would be reading alone. We went into battle in bandanas and shades with Penguin Clas- sics in our webbing, sketch pads in our daysacks and iPods on the radio, thinking we knew better than what had gone before.
In the end we did and, of course, we didn’t.
Out in Helmand we were going to prove ourselves.
This was our moment, our X Factor—winning, one perfect fucking moment; we finally had a war. From university through a year of training at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, from Sandhurst to the Balkans, from the Balkans to Iraq, and now from Iraq to Afghanistan, it felt as though our whole military lives had been building up to the challenge that Afghanistan presented.
The only problem was we were bored.
We landed in Kandahar with high hopes. The whole battalion, 600 men, mustard keen to get stuck into the unfamiliar and exciting task of working alongside the Afghan National Army (ANA) for seven months. A task which promised as much action and fulfilment as the last few years had failed to deliver. Of course, there was nothing exciting about arriving in an airfield in the middle of the night, but the taste of Mountain Dew the next morning was the taste of expeditionary warfare.
Yet those first March days of 2007, sitting on the boardwalk, acclimatizing outside the Korean takeaway, watching the many multinational uniforms amble towards the ‘shops’ for souvenir carpets, we had to pinch ourselves to remember this was a war zone. The indeterminate South African accents of the military contractors mixed with the subcontinental singsong of the shit- jobs men jumping in and out of the ancient jingly wagons which rolled haphazardly past millions and millions of dollars’ worth of hardware while the Canadians played hockey on the improvised pitch, and I was bored. As bored as I’d been when I decided to join the Army, as bored as I’d been on public duties, guarding royal palaces while friends were guarding convoys in Iraq, as bored as I’d been once we got to Iraq and found ourselves fighting the Senior Major more than Saddam. Stone-throwing, chain-smoking, soldier-purging bored.
Waiting for the onward staging to Camp Bastion, it was pretty easy to forget that Kandahar was already in the middle of nowhere. A shipping-container city where big swaggering joint headquarters with lots of flags sat side by side with puny National Support Element tents and the luxury of the semipermanent pods of the KBR contractors, who were the real power in places like this. All right, the Taliban weren’t in the wire, but surely Kandahar was at least dangerous enough not to have a bunch of Canadians playing roller-hockey in the middle of its airfield.
Bored of the coffee shop at one end of the complex, we hopped on an ancient creaky bus, drove past the local market, where no doubt the Taliban’s info gathering went on each Saturday as the RAF Regiment juicers bartered for fake DVDs, and hit another café 500 metres down the road. A sign by the bin, overflowing with empty venti coffee cups, announced that here six years ago the Taliban had fought their last stand. A worrying thought occurred: surely we weren’t late again?
From Kandahar we decanted into Hercules transport aircraft for the jerky flight down to Camp Bastion, the tented sprawl in the middle of the ‘Desert of Death’ that was the main British base in Helmand. There we conducted our reception staging and onward integration package under an oppressive and drizzling cloud. The mandatory and in equal measures dull and hilarious set of introduc tory briefs and exercises completed by all British soldiers entering an operational theatre was as vague as ever. All anyone wanted to know was: were we going to be shooting people? and: would we get in trouble if we did? The answers, to everyone’s relief, were ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
After days which seemed like weeks we arrived at Camp Shorabak, the ANA sister camp next door to Bastion. This would be our home base for the next seven months. The photos ‘the Box’—the broad- shouldered commander of the Inkerman Company—had taken on his recce had shown a horizon that symbolized everything Op Herrick (the umbrella name given to ongoing UK operations in Afghanistan) was going to be that previous tours hadn’t been. The view shuffling at night to the loos down in Iraq had been depress ingly eloquent—the burning fires of the Shaibah refinery and silhouetted pipelines told you all you needed to know about that war. The Hindu Kush, on the other hand, was the symbol of the great adventure, the danger and hardship that we hadn’t endured last year. But a bubble of brown and grey cloud blocked out the sky the week we arrived, and we couldn’t bloody see it.
To add insult to injury, it rained. At least in Iraq it had never rained.
The Marines we were taking over from didn’t care. They were going home and had lost too many guys too close to the end of their gritty, six-month winter tour. Patience sapped by working with the Afghans we still hadn’t met, they shamelessly crammed into the gym to work on their going-home bodies, laughing when we asked them questions about what it was like ‘out there’.
We were trying to get to grips with the theory of our task. A normal infantry battalion, the basic building block of any army, works in threes. The basic fighting unit in the British Army is an eight-man ‘section’ (sub-divided into two four-man ‘fire teams’). There are three sections in a platoon—each platoon headed up by
a young whippersnapper lieutenant or second-lieutenant and a wiser, grizzlier platoon sergeant—and three platoons in a company— each company led by a more experienced major and an even wiser and grizzlier company sergeant major. These three ‘rifle compa- nies’ are the basic elements of a battalion, supported by a fourth company of specialized platoons (support company) and a large headquarters company which provides the logistic and planning support in the rear echelons. A tried and tested system forming up a happy family of nearly 700 fighting men, a system which we knew and trusted and which worked.
A system which, for the purposes of our job in Afghanistan, had been thrown out of the window. We were to be an Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (an OMLT), the set-up of which was simple, but bore no relation to anything we’d ever done before.
Gone was the familiar comfort of the formations and tactics they’d spoon-fed us at Sandhurst. Suddenly we found ourselves in much smaller companies of about thirty, the platoons reduced to mere six-man teams loaded with experience: captains and colour sergeants you would normally expect to find in more senior roles and the junior men all corporals and lance-sergeants who hadn’t been the junior men for a few years. In these teams we were to attach ourselves to an ANA formation and mentor them as we both trained and fought together. Each six-man platoon would be responsible for an ANA company of 100, each company of thirty responsible, therefore, for a whole kandak—an ANA battalion of 600 men—with our own battalion commander no longer commanding his companies but sitting on the shoulder of the Afghan brigadier, advising him on how best to deploy his brigade of thou- sands. We would use our experience and expertise and superior
training and resources to form each Afghan battalion into a cred- ible fighting force. The potential for fun was incredible, the poten- tial for fuck-up immense.
So we should have been glad of the enforced lull at the start, should have been grateful for the time to get our heads around what everyone soon referred to as omelette. But, as weeks passed and the training continued and the cloud stayed down, what we were dreaming of was getting out there and having a fight.
The invite to my going-away party had promised ‘The Great Game, Round III—Beards, Bombs and Burkhas’, but we were getting bollocked for not shaving before early-morning PT, and as for bombs, we fucking wished. It was only a matter of time before the creep ing bullshit would start; before those with nothing better to do would start to patrol the huts, complaining that the mosquito nets weren’t in straight enough lines or that we should be carry- ing our weapons in the showers. The sergeants, infuriatingly tidy and unfailingly up at 0530, would crash around the hut and have us pining for the little eight-man tents we’d resented back in Iraq. Like clockwork they would order ‘lights-out’ at 2200, and the hut would become a profound dull tunnel lit by the blueish glow of lap- tops being watched on camp cots. Padding back from the show- ers, I’d pick my way past rows of fluorescent faces, featureless and blurred through the mosi-nets, each man absorbed in the snug little world of the nylon domes, somehow finding a privacy in the headphones and pretending to sleep through the telltale rhythmic rustling of the cot next door.
The frustration grew when the Inkerman Company, lucky bastards (In Iraq they’d been my company), were crashed out in the middle of the night on a real-deal, this-is-not-a-drill, load-up-the-wagons tasking. As it turned out, they spent the next week bored and cold and with no sight of the enemy, but what was worrying was how selfishly and childishly jealous we all were. With nothing remotely gung-ho to boast of, we couldn’t even be bothered to write home, and moodily sat out at nights on the Hesco fence, watching the thunderstorms. Towering clouds hurling mag nificent bolts of lightning silhouetting the mountains to the north drifted over our heads as we sulked and, in the finest tradition of bored soldiers, sat around throwing stones at each other.
The days ticked by. The heat and dust grew more oppressive, and the reports from elsewhere in Helmand grew more exciting, and our own boredom intensified with each passing day we didn’t get out ‘on the ground’. Occasionally we would catch the whisper of something, the sniff of an American op going in to the north. But we were scheduled to spend the next two months training our kandak in camp. The idea of spending months trying to force Sandhurst on the ANA was unthinkable. Other companies started getting sent on real patrols and getting into real fights. Marlow was down on the Garmsir front line, and the daily SITREPs— situation reports sent back from the boys on the ground—were tantalizingly full of heavy engagements. The ANA soldiers, who had watched with amusement as we played our incomprehensible rugby sevens on the helipad, started to get bolshy, trying to play football right through our games. We were already telling our new comrades to piss off in their own country—as someone shouted from the wing: how the fuck was it ‘their’ helipad when their army had no helicopters?
They barely had an army.
205 Brigade of the 3rd (Hero) Corps of the Afghan National Army, though they didn’t know it and though certainly not enough of us knew it, were the solution to Afghanistan. We were trotting out the right phrases—‘An Afghan solution to an Afghan problem’— but we didn’t believe them. Back with the Operational Training and Advisory Group (OPTAG) on pre-deployment exercises in Norfolk, we had asked one of the instructors what special prepa- ration we should undertake to be an OMLT, and he had made a gag about eggs. It wasn’t OPTAG’s fault, not that the training they delivered wasn’t a waste of time. The problem was all in the name; ‘mentoring’ and ‘liaison’ sounded like holding hands and build- ing bridges. If we’d wanted to build bridges we’d have joined the Engineers; we were combat soldiers, a ‘teeth’ arm, and our culture demanded more. If they’d called the task OBFET (Operational Blow the Fuck out of Everything Team), then every battlegroup in the Army would have been creaming for it, but the Afghans might have objected.
Afghanistan was only going to work if the ANA could eventually do it for themselves. The Paras (Parachute Regiment), first out when the war began, had been thrust into a fight they couldn’t win on their own and forgot about the ANA in the midst of keeping the Taliban from their throats. The only story anyone heard about the ANA during the whole of the first British deployment into what the papers soon exclusively referred to as ‘the lawless Helmand Province’ was the one about how they ran away when Tim Illingworth of the Light Infantry won his Conspicuous Gallantry Cross. The Marines had come in six months later with a whole lot more people and, in theory, a whole lot more sense. They dedicated almost a whole Commando, the OMLT Battlegroup, to the task of bringing on the ANA, but they hadn’t found it sexy enough and had sulked, taking it out on the ANA, alternately over-working and ignoring them.
So of course, if we’re honest, the Grenadiers hadn’t wanted the task either, but we’d sucked it up when we were told we were going to be 12 Brigade’s OMLT. After all, we were going in with 1st Battalion The Royal Anglians, who had been the lead infantry battalion in 12 Mechanized Brigade since forever and even had previous Afghan experience, although we all knew by then that the Kabul peacekeeping tours of pre-2006 had nothing to do with the war in Helmand. The Grenadiers were tired from their tour of Iraq; the Anglians had trained hard for the task of proving that, if the Paras and the Marines could do it, so could the line infantry.
We knew they’d get the important jobs over us; we’d only just got back from a no-notice deployment out to Iraq so we could finally wear the yellow medal that everyone else in the Army already had. Bumming around Shaibah Logistics Base, feeding detainees and cramming down lobster in the American D-Facs in Baghdad was no adequate preparation for what—even by autumn 2006 and presumably to the justified annoyance of those Falkland veterans marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of what was hardly a picnic— everyone was calling ‘the most intense fighting the British Army has experienced since Korea’. So while the Anglians got the best kit and training and focussed on the ‘main effort’, we could play with the Afghans and teach them how to use their rifles for the time when the real soldiers had blown up all the Talibaddies and could hand a peaceful if not prosperous province over with smiles and handshakes and flag ceremonies. Just like the British Army were supposed to be doing in Southern Iraq.
Problem was, down in Southern Iraq the Rifles and the Irish Guards were getting hammered. The Americans were pouring everything into a surge which nearly bled them dry, but was start- ing to work, while we were handing over the bases, doing dodgy deals with the militia and then stepping back as Basrah descended to anarchy. And this in a region we’d walked around years earlier wearing berets and smiles and gloating about how good we were at hearts and minds. But even then, Helmand was something else, and no one down there really knew it.
Except the Afghans.
They couldn’t shape their berets. They didn’t get up early and they stopped everything for meals, for prayer, for a snooze. They had no discipline. They smoked strong hashish and mild opium. They couldn’t map-read. They had no tanks, no planes, no order to the chaos of their stores. Their weapons weren’t accounted for. Their barracks weren’t health and safety compliant. They wore what they wanted, when they wanted, and walked around holding hands. They lacked everything that British Army training believed in and taught—and fuck me if most of them hadn’t killed more Russians than we had ever seen.
I loved them.
I liked that they had more balls than I ever did to just stand up and say ‘why’ or ‘no’ or ‘I don’t care if there is a war on and a massive IED threat, I like watermelon so I’m going to steal a car I can’t drive and run a Taliban checkpoint in order to go to the market.’
I couldn’t train them at all.
The video spoof of Marlboro adverts, with all-American cow- boys covered in scratches herding cats, didn’t do it justice. We would wander over to the Afghan side of camp mid-morning, the sergeants already gritting their teeth in fury because they’d been up since half-five and couldn’t understand anyone who hadn’t been, hoping for the best. The best would usually be half of the sol- diers we expected, lounging around on mattresses, sharing chai. Well, we reckoned half of the soldiers, but since we had no idea how many there were supposed to be, how did we know how many were half? And since there was no commander, or headquarters, or any sort of structure, how could we find out? I spent my first week with toolay se, kandaki awal—3 Company, 1st Battalion ANA—trying to find out who commanded it.
Miserable March turned to April, and without warning the temper- ature soared, and the peaks of the Kush were suddenly hidden in haze, not cloud. The remaining ANA were supposed to have come back from their leave, though still only half our Afghans were in camp. The combination of the rising temperature, the continued lack of action and our utter failure to make any progress in their training was starting to take its toll. The frustration was starting to show in shorter tempers, and the old-school lot were itching to form the whole kandak into three ranks and thrash them round Shorabak like Sandhurst cadets.
Instead we took those we could find out on the range and gulped hard and reassessed our desire to fight alongside them as they missed target after target with rusty and broken AK-47s. As the gap between what we were realizing we would need to do in Helmand and what it was obvious we could never teach the ANA to do widened, so things descended into farce.
I guess it was inevitable that I would get told off for conducting the body-bag lesson from inside it.
* * *
Every so often something would stop us in our tracks and almost force a reassessment of our new allies. The blasé way in which the young and impressive sergeant mentioned that he was hoping to go back north with us because he had earned his reputation up there years before, capturing a number of Taliban during the civil war and, unable to take them all prisoner on his own, throwing them one by one down a well and tossing a grenade in after them. Even Mahjid—quiet, considered, intelligent Mahjid, with whom, standing in for all the other officers in his company, I daily talked over chai and too-sugary boiled sweets, liking him more and more—mentioned how he too hoped we made it to Sangin so that he could avenge himself on the man who had shot him in the leg last year, pulling up his trousers to modestly reveal barely half a thigh distinguishable beneath monstrous scarring.
It forced us to remember that we were the tourists here. We were action-starved soldiers who had flown in for our seven months of glory. The Afghans were in no rush—they lived it all year after year. The mandate for OMLT was to be completely integrated with the ANA: if they went out for a fight, we went with them. Brilliant in principle, except that at every rotation of Op Herrick a fresh bunch of British soldiers arrived hungry for some action and started a frenzy of planning and grand ideas, involving the tired Afghans who had just accompanied the previous lot.
Lieutenant Mahjid was weary, a good officer who looked twice his thirty years and who’d never go far because, for all his balls and brains, he had no patronage. He was only supposed to be second-in-command, but there was no company commander and no platoon commanders either; come to think of it, there was no company sergeant major, so it was pretty much his show. His soldiers were from all over the country but mainly, thankfully, far away from Helmand, where Pashtun tribal loyalties undermined what little military command structure there was. His best fight- ers were northerners, battle-hardened Tajiks and Uzbeks with ruthless eyes and Hazaras with their Mongol fighting blood, guys who had stood alongside Massoud, the Lion of the Panjshir, who had fought for the only team ever to defeat the mighty Red Army and then been the last rearguard against the insanity of the Tali- ban. Problem was, they all lived many hundreds of miles away in a country with no roads and they needed to go home once a year. They needed to keep making children.
We had forgotten, if we ever knew, that this ‘training’ we were delivering wasn’t important; was, in fact, insignificant compared to bringing up a family.
And what the hell did we know? It took me three long days of haggling and translating and drawing pictures and taking digital photographs just to get what I thought was a nominal roll of the hundred or so soldiers I was supposed to be working with. We had the audacity to be cross because thirty of them were still absent, trying to maintain their families on the other side of the country. We had the nerve to be pissed that thirty of those who were in camp refused to turn up to our training sessions, or that twenty of those who did left their shirts untucked. Christ, we must have looked stupid as we trudged back across the sweltering helipad dejected to lunch after another failed attempt to teach vehicle checkpoint drills or safe weapon handling. It was the ones we labelled troublemakers early who turned out to be the best sol- diers, lazily pretending they didn’t know how to handle a weapon when later it turned out they knew better than most and were just taking the piss because why would they bother to handle their weapons ‘safely’ when all they used them for was firing at Taliban, no manning gates in Surrey with empty magazines. We grumbled in the cookhouse afterwards over Black Forest gateaux about how the hell we were supposed to go to war with a ragtag bunch like that, forgetting for one crucial moment that most of the ragtag bunch had done this before.
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