Today in the gym, I was doing my workout - a random collection of sweaty awkward movement - and I started thinking about my life, what I have learned from it. To sum it up, what kind of person am I?
There have been several things in my life so far that define me - going to war, love, and travel. Each of these things has shaped me into the person I am today. In war, I learned what I am and what I am not. I saw how far my humanity could go in the wrong direction. I saw how easy it was for me to throw away empathy in situations that required more empathy than ever. I relished the darkness that came over me and accepted that the most abnormal of situations, was normal. Most important to me though is when I learned what I am not. I learned that I am not a cold-blooded killer. It's not something in life that anyone should have to feel out, you have to go to a pretty dark place to be given an opportunity to find out. Unfortunately, my decision to join the Army put me in that place - Afghanistan.
On a patrol in Afghanistan I was presented with a 'golden situation'. A situation which, had I acted on, would have resulted in the death of an Afghan civilian by my hands. It is not very often in Afghanistan that one sees the enemy one is shooting at. I, as part of a team got shot at and worked out using some pretty simple techniques where it was coming from, and shot back. When 20 people are all shooting in the same direction it's pretty impersonal - its suppression of the enemy to allow you to break contact (run away).
Back to the situation.
We headed to a village near the Helmand river. The Helmand river runs north to south down the western side of the Upper Gereskh valley, our area of operations. It acts as a natural border between territory we more or less controlled to territory we had no control over. Often, the aim of a patrol would be to go to the river and stir up some trouble to draw out the enemy. On one of these patrols, we headed to a hilltop overlooking a village on the Helmand river. We were exposed, sitting around, asking to be hammered. In the military I was taught to understand atmospherics i.e. what is my sixth sense telling me. There is a saying, 'absence of the normal, presence of the abnormal'. Things were beginning to feel pretty damn abnormal. The occupants of the village left via our position in a long line, the elder told us that Taliban fighters had occupied the village, and were about to engage.
We sat, we waited, and we silently scanned the village waiting for targets to appear. Each one of us in that patrol gearing up for whatever was about to be thrown at us. Each one of us ready, and willing. A few minutes went by, it always feels a lot longer when adrenaline is overwhelming your system in anticipation of a good scrap. I scanned a shaded treeline with my weapon scope and noticed a slight movement. I focused in on the movement and began to make out the shape of a man laying down in a ditch between the trees, he was facing our direction. It was shaded, I could clearly see the shape of a fighting age male observing us. I realised that no one else had observed him as the infantry tended to shoot first and think later - nothing wrong with that, it's survival. I decided that if I took the time to alert people this potential Taliban fighter might escape, or worse take a shot. In the back of my mind I ran through my rules of engagement, the village was clear of civilians. The village elder had told us Taliban fighters were in the village ready to engage us. He was a grown male, hiding in a ditch observing us. Everything pointed to a fighter getting ready to take us on.
I adopted the kneeling position for accuracy, slowed down my breathing, did a quick estimate of distance, the wind, and adjusted my rifle aim accordingly. I then put a small amount of pressure on the trigger. There was a calm nagging voice in my head that argued patience, I decided to give him a few more seconds. Sometimes in my experience, villagers just come out and watch fire fights, I guess it's the most exciting thing going on.
At the end of my patience, when I was about to apply that final bit of pressure on the trigger - he stood up quickly and walked away. I could clearly see that no weapon was present and that he was a civilian who posed no threat. If I was to be honest, I was partly relieved and slightly disappointed. I have no qualms in war with the legitimate killing of enemy combatants, but to kill an innocent civilian - that is murder.
Had I been too eager to kill, or harboured murderous feelings. I would have pulled the trigger as soon as I thought I had the shot lined up. Instead, there was a voice in my head, in amongst all the adrenaline and jumbled thoughts one experiences in anticipation of/and during combat. A voice that argued calm rationale reasoning, and patience. That voice meant that an innocent civilian wasn't murdered that day. That voice allows me to live my life without and guilt or shame. That voice is me, my morals, my ethics, my consciousness.