To be a soldier is to face the prospect of violent death. Over time, of course, the odds of the worst happening to any individual taking the Sovereign’s shilling have ebbed and flowed. Compared to the mass sacrifice of World Wars I & II the 1970s, ‘80s and 90s were periods of relative calm. For UK troops, conflicts came and went, but despite the ferocity of the Falklands, the relentless low-level attrition of Northern Ireland, Balkan horrors and desert escapades during the First Gulf War, the majority of troops were just as likely to have avoided danger as have crossed its path. The former head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, is not alone in having given a lifetime of armed service and yet not once been shot at by someone intent on doing him harm.
For the first quarter century of my own career I was in a very similar position to Sir Mike. But Afghanistan changed all that. During my three tours of ‘Afghan’ it was routinely the situation that I had to kill or be killed. And so it went for most of my colleagues. For those in the infantry the big question since 2006 – when UK troops moved into Helmand Province – has not been: will I have to fight? But rather, when will I have to fight?
My luck held. I survived. Hundreds of others – over four hundred – have not. The latest losses mean yet another grim milestone has been reached and past. For those who did not know these men and women, their names will mean little or nothing. Yet each photo published alongside a report of a fatality 4,500 miles away offers a glimpse of the human toll of the conflict.
For all the similarities between these posed pictures – invariably of smiling, confident soldiers, attired in one regimental uniform or another – they are clearly a window onto the lives of individuals. Each had their own sets of friends and relations, their own hopes and aspirations, plans for the long lives everyone of us who are in the military assume we will go on to lead, whatever the chances against it might be.
You can see that confidence about the future in the eyes. It is there alongside the pride and the courage, the commitment and integrity, the passion and the defiance. For whatever else soldiers might think when we go to places like Afghanistan it is not that we won’t come back.
Which isn’t to say we are immune from the sorrow caused by losing a close colleague.
The figure of 400 dead provides the media a ready-made peg on which to hang the latest batch of stories about our intervention in the country. There have been many similarly suitable markers since 2001 when we first entered Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attack: one dead, ten dead, a hundred, two, three hundred. You see the pattern.
Yet the Army doesn’t do milestones. It honours each death. If anyone remembers that every life lost is equally important, it is those who make up the deceased’s extended family: those in the military themselves. To us who are left behind, the hole in the ranks is all too obvious. Whatever the cause, whatever the greater good; at the most basic level soldiers – and sailors and airmen – primarily fight for each other. And the loss of a brother in arms is felt keenly whether they are the first or the fifty-first to perish in a campaign.
When I first arrived at Camp Bastion in the Summer of 2006 there were just three names inscribed on its memorial to the lost. One was familiar to me. It was that of a proud man who had repeatedly and relentlessly given his all to his country, and where he could have justifiably taken things easy he always chose the hardest route, never reluctant to put himself at risk for a cause he believed in.
By the time I left for home, seven months later, the list of the dead on the cross, crafted out of spent 30mm cannon shells, had lengthened to nineteen. Since then space on the memorial has become increasingly hard to find as more selfless individuals have given their lives. As the fatality list has swelled so has the number of people on it I regard as having been friends. Several were men of the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, some of whom I commanded: others colleagues from different regiments. Departing Helmand for the third time in 2011 the memorial was already well on its way to 400.
Yet it is not just the dead who should be remembered. An exacting price has also been paid by many of the living: those who receive what are called life-changing injuries.
Ministry of Defence figures show that over the past six years – essentially since UK forces moved into Helmand – 1,871 troops were admitted to field hospitals and categorized as wounded in action. Of these almost 550 were described as being seriously or very seriously hurt. Thousands more have been treated for disease and other non-combat related conditions. As the military reduces in size these figures could quickly come to equal more than a tenth of the strength of the infantry.
In some respects it is those who return maimed who are the truest heroes. They must move on with their lives despite having had – and often continuing – to endure debilitating physical and mental pain. And for the most part they just get on with it. They don’t march down Whitehall calling for compensation, nor do they whine that they were hurt doing something our leaders shouldn’t have involved us in.
All soldiers know what the job entails. They sign up for the mayhem. Perhaps the only things they ask for in return is a degree of understanding for the job they do and recognition of the hardships they face. And when it comes to saluting sacrifice, then all those who have paid a price – whether they died or survived – are worthy of attention, no matter where they appear on a list.
Someone better and wiser than me will eventually conclude whether what we have done in Afghanistan has been for the better – though for what it is worth I take pride what we have done to build a more stable future for the citizens of this unfortunate country – yet one thing I know for sure: those who have imperiled their own safety for the benefit of others are the very best our nation has to offer.