Troops skirt around it, deploying instead phrases like, “that was a close one” or “that wasn’t funny” to mask the reality of what they are feeling. But the question is not whether soldiers feel fear – for they do – but how they react to it.
It can be a powerful motivator, allowing you to do things you never thought you were capable of. But fear can also be mentally and physically debilitating, preventing men from carrying out the actions needed for survival.
If you look you will see fear everywhere. I have known fear, felt it, saw it in the eyes of my men and in the faces of my enemies. It strikes without warning, not just in the heat of combat but in the quiet reflective moments when there is too much time to think.
In the heart of Helmand there is much to be fearful of: the threat of death and injury, of having seen your family, your wife and children for the last time; of letting down your friends and colleagues, your regiment, your hometown, your country.
I have felt physically sick before deploying on a routine patrol, almost debilitated with fear as I watch children and women flee an area we’ve just entered, their dispersal known as a combat indicator, it’s always a prelude to attack. But as a commander I must stand tall, continue the mission, it is the loneliest of feelings, the loneliness of command.
In the middle of winter in Southern Helmand the fighting and killing is done in the open, in mud-heavy fields freshly ploughed and irrigated. There is nowhere to hide, the irrigation ditches that could give cover have been seeded with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the bare tree-lines no longer providing cover from view or fire. The mud is everywhere, it clings to your boots like glue and sucks the soldiers’ legs into the saturated terrain
It is a scene and experience that would not be alien to those who served in the Great War.
When the bullets come there is no quick dash to safety, the mud rooting you to the spot. As the enemy engages, the cursing and high-pitched screaming of men starts. But very soon, the training and the adrenaline really do kick in and the job of war truly begins.
The shouts are workmanlike and purposeful, orders are given and information passed. Insurgent positions are identified and fire is returned. For most the fear has been elbowed aside, the controlled violence and frenetic activity offering an escape. However for some the fear is persistent…
Back home, the British public are buoyed by media stories of heroism, young men overcoming adversity, it is uplifting. And these stories are part of the picture. I witnessed such bravery on many occasions, I was instrumental in the award of 3 Military Crosses and a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross to men under my command – there can be no greater honour for me that to have my soldiers recognised for what they have done.
But where is the glory for the man who has overcome the most incapacitating fear? The one who has – against every instinct – unfurled himself from a foetal position and used his inner strength to haul himself up to face the enemy?
What recognition for the soldier who has lost a colleague in horrifying circumstances and yet the very next day will return to the scene despite uncontrollable vomiting and emotional confusion?
For many of the men and women in Helmand the biggest battles every day of every week for six months and more are with themselves. Only when those are won can they turn their attentions to the enemy.
But they are never fought alone, they are fought with those who share your experiences – your friends, your colleagues, the men left and right of you when the bullets fly.
I screamed as the large calibre bullet flew past my face, too fast to see, too quick to dodge, the distinctive cracking noise known only to those who know battle.
I woke in my camp cot sweating. Even in sleep the fear is there.