At the age of 19, I deployed on my first tour of Afghanistan. It was the first of two operational tours. My girlfriend at the time said I was emotional, kind, and sympathetic. Then I went to war. Looking back, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was a fool. I was arrogant. I thought I could walk between the rain drops. I was like every other young soldier throughout history, naive.
I joined the Army in 2008, it was an easy decision to make. I had already spent a few months the year before in the Royal Navy as a Chef. I was diabolical, truly horrific. Don't get me wrong, I loved the Navy. The Royal Navy, as I found out, didn't love me. I was called into a quiet office, told to sit down by two overly serious head chefs. They politely told that I was my instructor's nemesis. I was sent to test him. Unteachable. To be honest, looking back, I'm slightly proud. I was pointed in the direction of another service or civilian life. I'd fallen in love with the idea of the military, that ruled out civilian life. The Army peaked my interest, the war in Afghanistan was at it's height. News reports were regular and footage of gun fights with the enemy were almost daily. I wanted a slice of that pie. I wanted wargasms. I wanted to fight. When I joined the British Army, I made the conscious decision to join an elite regiment. If I was going to fight, I wanted to be taught by the best, I wanted to fight alongside the best. My logic process was that the better my training, the better my comrades, the better my chances of survival. I settled on the Parachute Regiment. An elite regiment inspired by Germany's parachuting shock troops. They have the reputation of constantly being involved in conflict covertly and overtly since first being conceived by Winston Churchill in 1941. Nicknamed the red devils by Germans who fought against them, because of their brutal, vicious, and aggressive tactics. The parachute regiment are one of the big three. The Army have the Parachute Regiment, the Navy has the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force has the RAF Regiment. They are the second tier below special forces and so training and competition is tough. The Parachute Regiment were praised by Field Marshall Montgomery in a speech entitled 'everyman an emperor'. Well, they sounded great to me.
Training was nothing short of barbaric. It was an aggressive alpha male environment that sought at every opportunity to take me past my limit. The true test of a man is how he reacts when every ounce of mental and physical strength is taken from him. That is where I lived. In a dark torturous place. The training to be accepted into the Parachute Regiment lasted 28 weeks. I fought tooth and nail through every minute of everyday. I fought myself, I fought those around me, and I fought the urge to quit. At week 18 of training we began preparation for P-Company. P-Company is an assessment week, hell week. Everyday is designed to push you physically and mentally to your limit, everyday, for 5 days. On the morning of the 21st week, it began. I wasn't physically or mentally strong enough to complete it. The third day began with a 1.8mile sprint. It involved running as fast as I could over arduous terrain carrying a telegraph pole. I ran until I had nothing left, then I ran some more. My body gave out long before my mind did. The last thing I remembered was pain, unrelenting, physical pain. My mind was strong, but my body wasn't, and so, it all went black. I attempted that week again a few weeks later. I hit the same barrier on the same day. This time, I got further, but further wasn't the finish line. Broken, underweight, psychologically strained from constant sleep deprivation and aggression, I transferred to another unit. I settled upon the Royal Artillery Observers. They work in small teams generally comprising of four to six men. Their task during conventional war is to sneak behind enemy lines, dig a hole, observe, collect information, and if necessary, neutralise with heavy artillery and other guided munitions. In Afghnaistan their job is to work alone attached to an Infantry platoon and co-ordinate heavy artillery, mortars, and guided rockets onto Taliban targets. Sounded cool. So it came to be. I transferred to the Royal Artillery for training, training was a breeze. Nothing has ever, and will ever, come close to the mental and physical pain I put myself through to become a member of the elite Parachute Regiment. In hindsight, everything they did was to prepare me for war. In war, I can't quit. I can't blackout from exhaustion. In war, I need to keep going until the job is done. I landed in my Artillery Regiment in March of 2009. 40th Regiment Royal Artillery, also known as the naughty forty. It was a regiment full of freaks, perverts, renegades, lunatics, sexual predators, fighters, and lovers. They are all stories for another time. One month after joining 40th Regiment, I went to Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan I stood shoulder to shoulder in battle with some of the finest men that Britain ever produced. Saying that, they were all somewhere on the psychopath scale; murderers, thrill seekers, and hammers looking to hit nails. I faced down against an ideology, an ideology with a fearless lack of self preservation. I saw suffering, and I saw happiness. In the worst situation, I saw the best in humanity. In the best situation, I saw the worst in humanity. I did it all having a bloody good time.
How do I articulate the fact that war was the best time of my life? How do I balance that with the fact that every night I'm haunted by a face? How can I sit there describing the grim realities of war, shaking with tears running down my face and then day dream about conflict? This is it, I can't articulate war to those that haven't seen it, because in the end, I can't even articulate it to myself.
My first tour in Afghanistan involved counter drug operations. We destroyed a lot of opium factories. There are probably more than three heroin addicts out there that hate me for pushing up street prices. When I returned home, that emotional, empathetic, caring, and kind man was nowhere to be found. I was angry, all the time. I hated the world for not experiencing what I had, I felt less and less connected to those outside the military, and more and more connected to those within the military. They became my fathers, mothers, wives, and brothers. Eventually, it led to the breakup of a five year relationship. After five years, I felt nothing towards my girlfriend. She was an idiot to me. She didn't understand. In hindsight, of course she didn't, but I was consumed by myself. I hated it, but I loved it. I wanted more, but I wanted it to stop. The lust for war began.
My second tour of Afghanistan became a ground hog day. The battalion we were attached to was being sent to the last area of Afghanistan in need of pacifying, the Upper Gereskh Valley. The BBC had coined the place, the 'valley of death' two months before we deployed. We knew the risk. We were ready to fight and we were excited. As we were the best team in the brigade, we won the right to fight in the naughtiest area and so we to join the battalion in the valley of death. Everyday was the same, I loved it. We would wake up, go out, look for a fight, either fight or not, get back, play cards or monopoly, fight each other verbally and physically, try and provoke a fight with the local Taliban through loud speakers, either fight or not fight, and then sleep. I was prepared this time, or so I thought, for anything that could happen to me. I was prepared for anything that would come my way. On my second tour, I had a lot more responsibility. I was 'experienced'. Being 22 and already an experienced veteran is something that began to hit me, hard. They trained me to operate alone, rather than part of a small team, and gave me medical training. This is where my road to ruin began. In war, it is necessary to do unspeakable things to other humans beings. Empathy is something I had to forget, sympathy is something I needed to shun. To survive physically I needed to be a good solider and a lucky man. To survive psychologically, I needed to forget my humanity. The problem is, when I forgot my humanity I became someone I am only just beginning to change. It was the beginning of September, 2012. I had been called back from the outpost to the main camp to spend a few weeks "normalizing," before going home. My boss had become worried that I was going "feral and a bit mental". He wanted me to sit around, scratch my balls, eat food that isn't rationed sweetcorn and spaghetti, and listen to radio traffic. I couldn't complain. I was going relatively mad out there in the outpost and I did have a very expensive holiday in Mexico booked, dying wasn't an option.
It was a quiet afternoon in Afghanistan, there had been a few roadside bombs found, pot shots fired. The usual stuff, nothing noteworthy. I was sat in the operations bunker discussing life, the world, and everything in between, with my boss. A shock wave ripped through the bunker, sand blasted in through the slits, and the usual suspects started panicking. We had being experiencing sustained rocket fire quite frequently. Sometimes they got lucky and hit an open space. but most times it landed harmlessly on the helicopter pad. We were relatively adjusted to this. As it turned out, it wasn't a rocket attack, much worse. The call came through for those with medical training to head to the medical bunker. Eight of us arrived and in the 3 minutes that passed, the Company Sargent Major briefed us. The Taliban had driven a car packed to the brim with explosives into the front gate of an Afghan soldier camp. The initial blast killed a large portion of its inhabitants. The (reinforced) front wall was instantly vaporised, sending out shrapnel in all directions, and all structures inside collapsed. Those that survived the initial blast all received life altering injuries. We received eight casualties, unfortunately, I was given the the most injured Afghan. The skin around his abdomen was removed, the vast majority of his bones were inverted. He was conscious and he was in a whole different world of agony. I applied pressure to his wounds, applied tourniquets to his lower limbs that were bleeding heavily, I looked into his eyes, told him that he would be fine, and smiled with reassurance. He began to deteriorate when he stopped breathing 5-10 minutes later. The doctor performed a tracheotomy on him and inserted a pump. I pumped this bag, ensuring that his lungs kept oxygen going around his body. He stared into my eyes blankly and slowly, the life ebbed from his eyes. The doctor told me to stop and reluctantly, I did. I played God that day. He was dying, but I was the person that killed him. The whole time he stared into my eyes and when he died, those eyes stayed open, staring at me. I had been around injuries in the past, but I had never directly had to deal with it. I had never seen a group of men with such tragic injuries, I never want to again. No man ever should. When he died, my friend and I looked at each other and made a joke. I laughed so hard. It's truly disgusting to do that, but even when I write this, I don't feel anything. He was an animal, an Afghan, a goat f**ker, a sand creature. Who cares, I do. He was a human being. The problem is, I didn't used to care. I feel an eternal contradiction with my own humanity. A few days ago, a goat died on the farm where I'm staying. Watching it slowly and painfully die overwhelmed me with an irrational wave of emotion. I hid myself away for a few minutes trying to compose myself and then eventually broke down. I suppose you could say I had a flashback, but a few hours later, my feelings on the subject were completely numb. When I went to war, I removed as much empathy from myself as I could, the only problem is, that I didn't get it back when I got home. That spelt the end of relationship number 2.
The fact is that war doesn't end. I was locked in a forever war the moment I first witnessed it, the moment I pulled the trigger, heard the sounds, and witnessed the chaos. I became forever in conflict. The saddest part is the enemy is the only enemy I can't defeat - myself. I'm locked in an eternal struggle with my mind. On one side, I'm screaming to fight. I don't want to get in a fight down at my local pub with knuckleheads, I want to face down an enemy that far outnumbers me and have it out to the end. On the the other side, I'm afraid of conflict. If you get in my face, I'll walk away. If you threaten me, I'll shrug it off. I don't enjoy fighting, but I want it. There's an illogical hunger in me. I need to feel that chemical reaction in my brain when a bullet whips past me. I need to smell war. I need to feel that electrifying sweat when I don't know if I'm going to live or not.
Then again, I don't. It's a never ending struggle.
Bhudda once said, "It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you". That's great. The reality is that most people don't possess the wisdom and mental dexterity that the great Bhudda did. We walk among you every day, carrying the burdens of our youthful adventures. I used to watch my grandfather, a veteran of World War II and Korea, cry and then laugh a minute later telling me a story of an old war buddy. It was a hard thing to understand. And then I went to Afghanistan, and I understood.
Is it really war I crave? Maybe it's something else.
Tim Hetherington was a journalist who could understand and articulate conflict as an observer looking in. He once said that, "war is an Eden of men". Being in Afghanistan made me realise that there is a certain amount of Zen in war. When I was stripped of all my possessions, distractions, and the need to think about the future, I was able to achieve a certain state of semi enlightenment. It is infectious, it is confusing, it is war. Social norms, fashion sense, hygiene (we didn't shower for weeks - It was great), emotion and bonding are all the snapshots of war. War is the only place men can truly and unconditionally surrender themselves to each other, compassion, and love, without any expectation of it being reciprocated. Not in a way that an average person can understand. Not love as we know it between couples, but the love that lets you bleed without pain, charge without fear, and fight without conscience.
Am I confusing you yet?
I hope I am. I wake up confused everyday. I haven't slept properly since I joined the Army. I'm woken up regularly throughout the night by my own mind. My girlfriend shakes me in the night to stop me from grinding my teeth to the gum. A restless war takes place inside my head.
That is war, my war.
The war I fought in Afghanistan wasn't my war, it was someone else's war. It was a coward's war. A war that saw good men wasted for political gain. I'm not necessarily anti-war, I'm all for smashing an enemy that deserves it, and war is far too commonly our first option though. It is my personal forever war, my contradictions that I live with everyday, that bother me. There is no good and bad side in war. There is just two sides. Eventually, one side will get tired and go home. That was our side. Afghanistan was the greatest time of my life because I felt true brotherhood. I will cherish that until the day I die. I miss the gun battles more than I should, logical - no. I miss fighting my best friends every day. I miss speculating about which girlfriend is having a visit from Leroy and his large penis. I miss the lows and I will forever dwell on the highs.
I've come to realise that Afghanistan has forever changed me. It has ruined me, destroyed part of me. It has left an intangible impression upon me. At the same time, it has made me, matured me, grown me, expanded my potential as a human being, taught me the importance of life, love and the little things. Falling in love has being the guiding star on my horizon. Falling in love has saved me. Not the love people feel after a few minutes when they are drunk. True love. This is the force that guides me, that inspires me, and that will heal me. No therapist will ever empty the baggage I carry. No amount of nightmares will ever make me stop missing war. No amount of daydreams will ever take me back to war. Love, love is making me more human again, day by day. Love is making me feel again, love is the one emotion that can help a man sign a peace treaty with his war.