Breathing hard, my back against the dusty wall of a mud compound, its metal doors forced open to reveal a small shop, the coolness of its shade washing over me, I stared hard at the Taliban fighter at my feet.

All smiles after the patrol when all my men are safe

He stared back.

Just moments earlier he had been intent on killing me and my men. What his motivation was – ideology, money, excitement – I didn’t know and would never find out. For the man’s deep, dark eyes were unseeing.

They were those of a man who had breathed his last, another casualty of war.

Where he lay, a small pool of blood had formed behind his head, his loose fitting robes twisted around him, the feet bare, the long hair matted with dirt, his beard matted with blood.

Around him was strewn the detritus of a medical emergency; tubes, bandages, a syringe, signs that immediately after he had been shot the soldiers then proceeded to try and save his life. It was not to be.

Death had triumphed over life. When we could, we would take a DNA sample and a photo, and then leave his body to be buried by the local population whose hospitality he had forced himself upon, taking advantage of the Pashtun-Wali code, the ancient custom of kindness to strangers adhered to as much today by the local population as it was during the time of Alexander the Great.

Afghan Market Stall.

But procedure would have to wait a bit longer, for the sounds of combat had not died with the young insurgent.

Even as my soldiers had tried to staunch his flow of blood and that of one of his wounded colleague, their comrades renewed the attack, trying to force us from the ground we had so recently taken, hoping we would abandon not just the territory but also the wounded fighter and the weapons and radios we had captured.

There was nothing particularly unusual about the situation. Using military mission verbs, we had been in the area to Find, Feel and Understand, in other words learn about the area.

Our patrol had been working on a road between Kalang, our main Patrol Base in Saidabad, Nad-e-Ali, Helmand Province and the rather smaller and more isolated checkpoint Tanoor. The result was predictable.

The insurgents had been first to engage, the 7.62mm short rounds from their AK47s, and 7.62mm long rounds from the PKMs, splitting the air above our heads, ripping up the earth at our feet and slamming into the compound walls the young rangers were using for cover.

But this wasn’t a day to absorb the enemy fire and merely trade a few rounds of our own. Today was a day to take the fight to them. Fast, aggressive movement, charging in depth, clearing insurgent positions and cutting off withdrawal routes.

The dead insurgent had tried to use children to mask his retreat, the same terrified youngsters he had hidden behind when he first opened up at us.

Not that his tactics were any match for the skill of my ranger sniper. He fired without hesitation, but not without thought. Because the highly trained Royal Irish soldier had many things going through his head as he focused on the insurgent.

He had been trained to ask himself three simple questions, Can I? Could I? And finally should I? The first two questions relating to his rules of engagement the last question relating to the impact of firing, what effect would it have not just on the insurgent but on the local population. In the end he had no choice, his skill matching his training.

It was then that the insurgent’s comrade moved from the shadows, rifle in hand as he fired wildly down the track. It was the next .338 calibre bullet from the sniper’s weapon that

A Force Multiplier in Combat

smashed through his groin exiting his buttock and sent him spinning to the ground.

This was not the movies. There was no spray of blood, no arms thrown theatrically into the air, just the sickly sound of the impact; lead boring through flesh and bone.

For the enemy the relief of being alive would quickly have been tempered by knowledge that his body had been seriously if not fatally damaged, physically unable to respond to the commands sent from the brain.

I am no stranger to violent death. Bosnia, Kosovo, the war in Iraq and now three tours of Afghanistan, have ensured that. But that does not mean I am immune to it, whether the loss of life has been suffered by friend or foe. I feel both keenly. The immediate euphoria of overcoming an enemy tarnished by the sense of waste.

Death on the battlefield is at least followed by a full stop. It is the fate of the wounded that raises the questions and introduces the thorny matter of compassion.

After the sniper struck there were quick decisions to be made. Do I send my men 400 metres forward to recover the wounded, give them medical treatment, arrest them and send them back to Camp Bastion?

Or do I leave them writhing in pain and misery, hopelessly willing their shattered limbs to carry them beyond our reach? It’s is a question of risk versus gain, but it is also a question of compassion on the battlefield.

I decided to exercise the compassion only available to the victor. The surviving insurgent is treated as if he is one of us. With a dressing on the wound, and morphine for the pain, a MIST report is sent back to HQ classifying him as a CAT A casualty.

Soon a helicopter will arrive to whisk him away to the same facility that would have treated a British casualty if the roles had been reversed, no medical distinction being made, it is the Law of Armed Conflict and it governs all our actions on the battlefield.

Meanwhile his dead colleague is shown the dignity in death I suppose we all deserve. His clothes are rearranged, his arms straightened by his sides.

Nowhere in the rules and regulations does it say this needs to be done. For what the young soldiers of 1 R IRISH do is a human thing, not a military action, there is a gentleness in the mayhem that makes me proud to command these young soldiers.

Our Fallen – #Afghanistan. Article first published in @thetimes

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.