Two years ago, not far from today’s date, this photograph was taken.
I posted it this morning over on Twitter, with the caption ‘This feels like it was a million years ago and a million miles away…’ And it does. At times I look at pictures like this one and don’t even think that it is me. It is a million miles away from where I am right now; both in terms of physical location, and state of mind…
For me it sums up my tour in Afghanistan. In the picture I am hot, sweaty; covered from head to foot in protective gear; helmet, glasses, body armour, blast pants, gloves, boots… carrying my rifle, ammunition, equipment, food, water. I had just completed a patrol from one Check Point to another and we had just come out of a field of corn. Hence my less than happy expression – tired, tired beyond belief. Wondering what the hell I am doing there, why is someone snapping my picture, why had I chosen to come out ‘here’ and do this?
The cornfields out there are a little bit of hell on earth. Sown randomly by hand, they are not the lines and lines of straight seeded stalks we see in the UK. They grow in clumps, they grow in deep mud, they grow densely and tall. They are humid, trapping the hot air, and killing any chance of a breeze. The mud sucks in your feet and saps your energy with each attempt to pull it out of the deep mire that rises above the top of your boots. It seeps into your socks and wets your feet with foul smelling filth and stains your trousers and slowly, through capillary action rises up your legs, like kitchen towel sucking up a spill of water.
Your breath is ragged, you fight your way through tree like stalks of corn that swing in your face from the man in front. You put your head down, spot where your feet are placed, avoiding the roots that tangle you and trip you on each step. You push your rifle out and use it as a virtual snow-plough to furrow a way through the eight foot high plants. You smash it down and out of your way and out of the way of the man behind – if you can – venting your hatred of the bloody stuff, of the bloody country and of the bloody people that put it there and those that made you walk through it.
You have to go through it because, despite the pain and the heat and the discomfort, it’s the safest way to on foot. The random path you take through it can’t be guessed by the enemy and they can’t place IED’s there. There would be no point. You are as safe as you can be in there – from the IEDs – as it is possible to be in that country, but you wonder again and again, with every slog of each step of each leg…is it worth it? Is it worth this pain.
And you then start to wonder is any of it worth it? Is my presence here, in this place that has seen so much war and death and pain, going to make any difference? Am I – or the rest of the people with me – going to make this place better? What have we got that makes us different from the rest? How can I, one man, make a difference to all this? The enemy are fighting for their homeland, for their god, for their families. They don’t want us there. They would happily kill us in any way they could. They follow no rules, they have no code of honour. They don’t differentiate between combatant and non-combatant. They fight their dirty little war in their own way; one moment with a gun, the next with a bomb, the next they drop their weapons and hide amongst the local population and pretend to be farmers… How do you fight that? How do you make a difference to that?
What is the point? They will be there when we are gone. We have the watches, but they have the time. We have dates set for pull outs, for ending the war without actually winning – just transferring the fight to someone else. We might talk of progress and transition and change, but will we have made any difference to this place? Other than prolonging the fight and fuelling the fighters and the hatred.
But then…you finish your patrol and you stand or sit with your comrades and friends. You laugh about what you have just done and what you have just been through. You realise that of all the places there are in the world, none of them are like this. You are doing something that so few people have ever done, or ever will do that you are perversely privileged. And you are doing it with the best bunch of people in the whole world.
You are sharing something that will stay with you forever. They are seeing you at your rawest, where you can’t hide the real you that is deep inside, suppressed by the day to day walls that we build around ourselves. When you are in this place, you don’t have the energy to maintain yourself and the wall, so the wall falls away. They see you, and you see yourself for what you really are…and yet…they say nothing. You say nothing about others. You laugh, you joke, you banter, but you never say the real things…what you have seen people do, how you see people react.
And eventually you leave it. You go home and you try to file it away, order it. Process it. And you think about how you were and what you considered when you were in that place. And you think about the people who died and were injured and you still wonder…what was it all for? Did I make a difference? Did I make the world better?
I helped to build a school.. I helped to build wells and sluice gates and bridges and repair mosques and houses. We provided security – of sorts – but if we were not there would we our security have been required? Were we a self-fulfilling prophecy? Did our presence bring the enemy there to fight us? Did the people want or need us there? Would they not have built schools and wells and bridges eventually anyway?
We will never know. We were there. I was there. I was tired and doubtful and stressed and scared and in the worst place in the world, but I was also alive and sure and happy and safe and in the best place in the world. For all the questions I have in my mind, for all the heartache and doubt that I have for the the future I know, I know, that I loved being there. I would be back there now, just to feel that excitement and adventure and the life coursing through my veins every time I stepped foot outside the Check Point gates. Each time my doubted my very existence each time I struggled with the heat and the conditions and the locals and the terrain, I was at least alive. I was more than existing. I was trying to make a difference, and I am sure that in some way, some how, I did.
It might not have been to the lives of the Afghan people, but it certainly made a difference to me. I am a very different person to the man who went out there in March 2011. I am not sure if I am a better man, but I am certainly a different one.