The New Yorker is always a good source of behind-the-lines war reporting. In the July 6-13 issue, Raffi Khatchadourian writes about Operation Iron Triangle, a “vast air-assault mission” in Iraq in 2006, where eight Iraqi men, apparently unarmed, were shot dead by soldiers under the command of Colonel Michael Dane Steele, forcing comparisons with the 2005 massacre at Haditha (brilliantly dramatised by Nick Broomfield in his film Battle For Haditha). The Iron Triangle killings “suggested a grave problem within the chain of command.” Steele stands accused of “cultivating reckless agressiveness in his soldiers, and by interpreting the rules of engagement in a way that made the killing of noncombatants likely.” Khatchadourian’s piece – which I’m still in the middle of reading (this is the New Yorker), is a close-up chronicle of events leading up to the killings in 2006, and a vivid portrait of Steele.
I was particularly interested to read, in great detail, about the briefing/pep talk he gave to his brigade before they left for Iraq in September 2005, in which he mocked the “soft knock” approach of some of the other commanders, and readied the troops for “the moment of truth, when you’re about to kill the other son of a bitch.” A folded American flag was on a lecturn at the back of the stage. Steele explained that it had been recovered from Building No. 7 at the World Trade Center, and that he had vowed to take it with him into combat in Iraq. “Men, it is time to go hunting,” he concluded. “You’re the hunter, you’re the predator. You’re looking for the prey.”
Well, by September 2005, as far as I’m aware, two years into the occupation of Iraq, it was well known that the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center had nothing to do with Iraq. (And shame on Oliver Stone for implying the link in his disaster movie World Trade Center – in 2006.) And yet, here was a commander making that link explicit with his symbolic flag. What this illustrates, I think, is the disconnect between the real world and the unreal world of military combat – or, if you prefer, the real world of military combat and the unreal world that the rest of us safely live in. In many ways, although he is a bellicose hawk whose career was ended by the Iron Triangle affair, Steele was simply geeing his men up for what would be a gruelling, extraordinary and probably deadly tour of duty in the desert. So, the World Trade Center flag was misleading, stupid and inflammatory. But it probably did the trick on the day of uniting and inspiring his men. We can sit at home and wring our hands about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we don’t have to actually fight them. I’m full of opinions about our involvement in these American adventures and always have been, having marched to lend my voice to the anti-war movement before we invaded Iraq. But it’s gone beyond US imperialism and oil now, into a vast grey quagmire; however, that British operations are underfunded and poorly equipped seems pretty unequivocal, and a real cause for concern. (Generation Kill made explicit the link between bad hardware and mortal danger, even on the American side.) But why would a man like Colonel Steele listen to my namby-pamby opinions about making love, not war? (At the base of 101st Airbourne in Tikrit in 2005, somebody posted signs above, respectively, the wing devoted to practical, military, operational matters, and the wing devoted to administrative, civil and legal affairs: “Carnivores” and “Herbivores.”)
All of a sudden, whether carnivore or herbivore, we are supposed to care more about our troops dying in Afghanistan; in that our media has decided to make Afghanistan front page news now that Jacko is in the ground. We’ve been there for eight years. British troops have been getting blown up and shot since 2004. But what seems to have flicked the public concern switch is that the number killed has now topped the number killed in Iraq. This strikes me as a bit random in terms of sympathy, but the papers do like to number crunch. Clearly, whatever your views on the war – and if you’re anti-war, you’re presumably pro-compassion – it’s an appalling thing to know that a family have lost a son/daughter/husband/father/brother/mother/sister in a foreign war before their time. Some of the soldiers killed last week in Afghanistan, when we were instructed to start caring, were as young as 18. The difficulty for the newspapers reporting casualties is this: one dead soldier is easier to personalise (he was a “great bloke”, say, or a “loving dad”, or a “proper London geezer” as I saw one described in one of our rubbish London freesheets the other day), but a large number is better for shock value: eight killed in one day, or whatever it is. This conflict is being fought on the other side of the world. Most people in Britain don’t really know what the troops are even fighting for – oh yes, to defeat the Taliban and win the war on terror, I forgot; not quite defeating fascism and stopping Hitler invading our shores, is it? But only the most hard-hearted wouldn’t feel sad for the bereaved families of mostly young men.
My brother was in the army – he joined at 16 – and did tours of Northern Ireland when British soldiers were among those being killed in that ugly and unpredictable civil war. (Much closer to home, of course.) I know what it’s like to have a family member in the armed services, abroad in a potentially fatal situation, although because he is my brother, I never for one moment thought he was going to die. I’m sure the families of the latest Afghanistan casualties felt the same. However, a pacifist I may be, but I have always tried to seek out the truth about army life, via films initially, although these are often limited in their proximity to the truth. I have read plenty of books and articles about combat, especially since 9/11, when “peacetime” ended from where I was sitting. The New Yorker continues to provide vivid insight. And now, we have The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars by Patrick Hennessey, which I intend to buy after listening to David Hepworth’s fascinating interview with the 30-year-old British officer on the latest Word podcast. Highly recommended if you have fixed ideas about “our boys” in the desert. I know he’s an officer, and all middle class, but that does not come with an invisibility shield in a war zone, so his account of life on tour is highly relevant.
Talking at the weekend to my brother (who left the army about 15 years ago), and thinking about Hennessey’s evocative and revealing memoirs; the fatal misadventures of Colonel Steele; Kathryn Bigelow’s forthcoming film The Hurt Locker; and the untrustworthy and quite insulting way the newspapers have decided to promote Afghanistan to a lead because of a number, I am currently preoccupied with war, and in particular our civilian relationship with those who – in Afghanistan’s case – volunteered to go out and fight for their country. As my brother says, combat is what they join for. It’s more true than ever with regard those who have joined since 2003. The adrenaline of combat is something I will never know, preferring the adrenaline of standing on stage or sitting in front of a radio microphone and talking, but it’s real.
These boys, and it is still mostly boys, live for the kind of action that could send them home in a bag. They are braver, and maybe more misguided, than you or I, but they deserve respect. I actually think it is important to try and understand why they do it, and what they actually do, rather than to just take the kneejerk liberal stance and dismiss them as political cannon fodder, or take the kneejerk right-wing, patriotic stance and elevate them to instant hero status, like the Sun does. The truth is much more complicated. We’re not all carnivores or herbivores.