We patrolled for six hours, a wearing journey I can assure you, and whilst never blasé, you can also become a little un-attentive after a while. The heat saps you, your body armour cuts into all those fleshy parts, dust fills nature's holes and vulnerable parts and all the time you are trying to get photos whilst remembering these few salient points. 50 yards behind me a soldier lost his legs a couple of weeks back, 600 yards to my left is a sniper, to the front is a compound with insurgents, we can see them watching us, and the same to our right, a compound chock full of people who rightly or wrongly wish us ill. And for six hours you lie in the low cut grass watching them watching us, speculating that your next step will surmount a pressure plate and signal a definitive full stop. Period.
Eventually, patrol over and our work achieved we head back to our Check Point (CP) where we will stay the night. Operational bases flow like this. At the estuary you have Bastion, the HQ, and as you head upstream towards the 'head of the river' you have in order; Forward Operating Base (FOB), Patrol Base (PB), and finally CP's. If Bastion is the palace then CP's are the second hand sleeping bags. They are furthest away, closer to the action, and the least resourced. Men cook their own food, showers are 'Heath Robinson' and you sleep where you can. Ours was in an old Afghan compound, and beds littered the floors of rooms that were once the bedrooms of agrarian Talibs. We were assigned to sleep under the stars, and I admit, we were all genuinely happy about this. Tired and sore, we had all the right equipment, and the Afghan night is a cloudless and crystalline thing.
The wonder of mortality is your proximity, daily, to slipping this mortal coil, and yet we average four score years when we depart the ether. We had been back from our patrol for no more than 30 minutes when it all kicked off outside. The cracking of bullets, the thump of mortars, somewhere on the other side of the compound wall, in the near-distance 'kinetic' was occurring, contact was made. As the light faded, Apache helicopters threw off flares to illuminate the enemy and more rounds split the still evening air.
And yet somehow you feel secure, cocooned behind the mud walls, you have so soon forgotten that you were on the other side not so long ago, and you settle down for tea of gammon and rice, and a convivial chat with fellow men. And as night's chill sets in, you scramble into your sleeping bag, stare at the stars, watch helicopters cross the moon and fall asleep to the dying embers of someone else's energetic evening.
It seems to me that the military have been in the business of war for a very long time, and whilst I respect their tenacity and undoubted commitment, there doesn't appear to be much flexibility of thought. Companies must develop new revenue streams to survive changing market conditions; Microsoft went from Windows to the XBox, Virgin from LP's to airlines and cute hostesses. But the army seems very stuck in its ways if you ask me. When we were on patrol in Helmand last week, we passed a poppy field, a million opium-filled heads; you could cut each one open and watch the dollars ooze out. Think what you may, the Talib are not stupid - they keep war to a minimum and commerciality at the peak of agenda.
Enter stage right the unlocked potentiality of the British Armed Forces. The only members of ISAF that I didn't see smoking last week were Labradors (they don't have opposable thumbs you know). There are 30,000 people at Bastion, the size of Aldershot I am told, and each one seemed to puff and splutter their way through 20 a day. That's 600,000 cigarettes a day, 219,000,000 a year. At £5 a pack, if I was in Whitehall devising military strategy, I would requisition a single cigarette, break it open, work out how to manufacture it, and set to work producing the requisite annual consumption. In no time at all you would be rich, you would have 'one over' the clever Talib, and they would quite possibly have to reconsider their approach and engage in meaningful warfare again, instead of cowardly acts of detonation and heroin addiction. They should put me in charge of this mess, I am visionary I tell you!