It’s not the booming sound you would normally associate with an explosion – it is something more muffled, almost restrained, that marks out a suicide bomb exploding. In the moment of detonation the air is filled with smoke, debris, shrapnel and something else – a thin red mist.
The coppery taste and smell of blood invades your senses. There is a smell of burning; of clothes and of flesh. The damage will have been done instantaneously by shipyard confetti – nails, nuts, bolts, ball bearings – scything through skin and bone.
In the second or two after the blast, an unreal silence falls, with people stunned to a standstill, grasping to comprehend the almost incomprehensible.
The quiet passes all too quickly and then the screaming starts: the injured crying out for help, the survivors searching for friends and relatives, the newly-bereaved overwhelmed by the loss of loved ones.
The utterly devastating assault of a suicide bomb explosion on the body and mind defies adequate description. Perhaps that is for the good. One cannot understand such an attack unless you are there to witness it, but if you do then you wish you had been anywhere else in the world but there.
I know all this because I have been on hand for two such attacks; one in 2006, the other in 2008. Both in Afghanistan.
Each was devastating: several people left dead, many injured, many more traumatised. You may leave the scene of the blast but the memory of it follows you home. There will be days, weeks, months when I forget. And then something happens and it all comes flooding back. Something like Manchester. And with a horrific twist.
For my experiences were not wholly unexpected. I was a man in uniform. A soldier. A target. But not necessarily the people who died around me. But the killing at the concert cannot be explained away as a legitimate act of war. It was an act of terror, of hate, of butchery.
Yet, I also know the pain of watching children die. For the other vivid, blood-red memory I carry from Afghanistan is that of Shabia. A tiny girl with terrible, mortal injuries caused by a British Army shell. In the last moments of her life she was thrust at me by her grieving, accusing grandfather.
The old man did not speak my language. He did not need to. For the message was clear in his eyes. They were pleading eyes, accusing eyes, helpless eyes.
It did not matter to him, or to me, that I had not fired the mortar bomb that did the damage. I was guilty by association. It was a term I hate but one that explains it easiest – collateral damage.
I think of Shabia often. When I look at my own children and grandchildren. When I look at coverage of events like Manchester.
I will never hide from my part in the devastation of war but I tell myself there is a difference. And I believe there is. A big one.
In Afghanistan, I know that we did everything we could to avoid innocent casualties. It was the thing we feared most. I would have given anything to have changed what happened that day.
But in Manchester, the bomber did everything he could to cause innocent casualties. The people he slaughtered were not collateral damage; they were the focus of the attack.