Friday, April 22

The General Idea

I’m tired.

I mean, really fucking tired.

I apologise for beginning this somewhat delayed instalment on such a whiny note, but it’s unfortunately the complete and utter truth. The closer I get to my escape from this ravaged, famished, forlorn country the slower the pendulum swings. How I miss the sweeping sun-up-sun-down days in the earlier months of our tour. A succession of six-day-long missions slumming it in compounds and on rooftops obliterated significant chunks of the calendar in such satisfyingly efficient fashion as to indicate an unstoppable momentum shoving us hurtling head first down the chute towards the plane ride home. Recently, that chute has mercilessly flipped over, presenting an unforgiving and gravity defying sheer wall. The wall. It’s been well and truly hit. Regrettably it’s not the only thing being hit over here these days. A week or so ago our guys offered up four more casualties to the Afghan altar. Two had their legs blown off by anti-personnel mines while a third was hit by debris from one of the explosions, and the fourth - a member of the air rescue team - was hit while loading the injured into the helicopter for evacuation. Jesus, do a good deed and there’s your thanks!

Fresher in the mind, however, is an incident from Wednesday afternoon. Our friends down the road in Srobi saw one of their vehicles hit by an I.E.D. while out on patrol. Nine injured. One dead. A young corporal with a three year old daughter. The 56th soldier mort pour la france. Traditional fire fights are finding themselves increasingly relegated to the bench as the more sinister tactics take to the field in these ever-heightening temperatures. It topped 50°C today, and we’re not even into the conventionally designated "Summer period". Thank Christ we’re getting out of dodge in a month’s time. I can’t begin to imagine conditions throughout June and July for the brave souls coming to our rescue over the coming weeks.

50°C today. But that wasn’t the only cause of perspiration. Coincidentally, only a few hours ago did I find myself perched snugly in my turret looking out over the very same stretch of road where our guys only recently underwent a hair-raising encounter with a suicide bomber. On that occasion, myself and my driver were playing taxi man, having dropped the lads off in the morning and being charged with collecting them later in the day. The explosion, when it happened, only briefly stirred me from my Harry Potter marathon by having me remove my headphones to listen attentively. We had actually believed it to be artillery fired from our FOB. The car exploded five kilometres away, shaking my helmet off the top of my wardrobe. Yikes! On this occasions, we were snared into parking our fat metal ass roadside and "surveying" the thoroughfare for any suspicious vehicles. No laptop lounging this time round. Naturally, all precautions were taking, earplugs staying in all day long, ballistic goggles enduring a similar fate, windows remaining firmly shut (I suppose that too might have contributed to the sweat fest). No one wanted to risk internal trauma or permanent loss of sight/hearing unnecessarily. Who would? Thankfully today’s outing was exceptionally placid, as one hopes the remaining missions shall also be. Nevertheless, considering the risks involved in those essential missions (today’s involved us securing the entire route for a convoy delivering supplies and provisions to a combat outpost, or COP) I found it particularly displeasing to have recently been involved in what can only be described as a whimsical, cost-ineffective and disproportionately risky little promenade.

Another COP adorning our precious valley only recently arrived at completion. A welcome addition to our meandering repertoire of strongholds throughout the region, it was somehow deemed necessary to indulge in a full-blown opening ceremony. A four-star general with family roots in the lumber trade presented himself as just the man for the job, having graduated with honours from the Pompous School of Ribbon Cutting. It had long been established that our group together with an infantry platoon would be the armed escort for his Highness. However, that morning our flock of bodyguards had flown out to intervene in yet ANOTHER roadside bomb. I’ll never forget the faces on the five or so lads watching us intently from the other side of the river, a mixture of disappointment at our discovery mixed with overwhelming indifference, silently insinuating a healthy stock of successors to this, their foiled attempt at further carnage. Still, as they weren’t openly waving Kalashnikovs in our faces there wasn’t much we could do.

Anyway, back to this babysitting business. Arriving back from the I.E.D. intervention, we were permitted an outrageously lavish EIGHT minutes to park, eat, and load up once more, direction - the sparkling new COP. Of course, struggling to be on time for the scheduled departure was such a fickle battle lost before it ever began. Will we never learn that armies’ favourite activity is the endlessly amusing "Hurry Up and Wait" ("Stereophonics" back when they were good). Forty five minutes later and we were all set to hit the road. And my, my weren’t we an impressive sight. Twelve road vehicles, sixty troops, four (count that - FOUR) fucking helicopters in the skies overhead (securing the essential delivery of life-sustaining supplies to isolated troops merit’s a measly pair) and two hours of sitting around twiddling our thumbs while the beret-sporting, body-armour-ignoring fat cats waltzed around with an air of nonchalance that would inspire derision from staff at the motherfuckin’ Louvre. Upon our departure, a cocky exhibitionist flyboy swooped down so low with his chopper that I genuinely feared for my protruding helmeted head. I bet the general enjoyed it immensely though.

They talk of the cost of fighting a war. For example, they recently eliminated the provision of plastic cutlery at meal times, obliging each soldier to use his camping cutlery. In reality, it’s a most correct decision, contributing to the environment’s well being and liberating space in future convoys for more urgently needed materials. The reason given, however, was the economising of approximately €7,000 per month. Seven grand wasted on plastic knives that couldn’t cut through shit in a bath tub and forks that serve only to pepper a tough lump of mash potato with jagged projectiles. That’s most certainly an unworthy expense. But then what of the cost of escorting a revered general four kilometres to open a COP that for all intents and purposes was already fully operational and in no dire need of the blessings of some irrelevant and overpaid figurehead. General’s set the Ministry of Defence back about €20,000 a month. That’s a might high fee for cutting a fucking ribbon. I’m sure a pair of scissors and a willing volunteer from the rank and file would cost considerably less. Making even more financial sense, perhaps, would be borrowing the services of one of the local goats. So hungry are the poor divils roaming the country side here that I’m sure they’d tear through that ribbon quicker than you could say "Pay Check". There’d be no trouble finding one, that’s for sure. Those goats are simply EVERYWHERE you look.

And they wouldn’t keep you waiting for forty five fucking minutes either.

Monday, April 11

Strange Sort of Psycho

It can be rather disturbing, the things one grows to miss over time. Like buses. God, I miss buses. Waiting in the rain, wind and freezing cold at the crossroads by my house. Waiting twenty, thirty, sometimes forty minutes for one. Then one comes hurtling along, goes hurtling past. Full. Nothing to do but go on waiting. Those were the days. Sofas, I remember, were another whose absence found itself unexpectedly lamented. My closest friend during basic training - a suave Swede with perfect French and an enthusiastically reciprocated penchant for quoting The Fast Show - once mused lightly on how long it had been since our arses had enjoyed a warm, soft, comfy sofa. Ouf, Suits You Sir! The bar at the time had lowered itself to a gravel-free slice of concrete with a lump of moss for a pillow, if you were lucky.

Once a certain amount of time has passed here in Afghanistan, the desensitisation eventually becomes apparent having previously contented itself with chipping away at our various thresholds ever so stealthily, gradually yet relentlessly. Much like the Legion in general, passing a certain point here in ‘Ghan renders things previously considered exceptional as appearing increasingly ordinary. Things like especially remarkable levels of pain, fatigue, hunger. General discomfort, really (owing in part to the chronic lack of sofas, no doubt). One’s tolerance of idiots also reaches new heights (or new depths, if you like) during one’s service with the Legion, enforced ever more poignantly on an operational tour such as this one. All in all, the continued and progressive fusing of environment with subject renders anyone in such a situation defenceless against the annihilation of established dichotomy. Basically, what you once thought outrageous and even taboo becomes the norm in relation to both external and internal forces.

What am I trying to say here, exactly? Well, I’ve mulled over the writing of this particular blog entry for a while now, almost afraid to open my laptop. Hesitation stemmed not from fear of being unable to begin, but rather from fear of where it might take me once I did. You see, the list of things I’ve grown to miss since arriving in Afghanistan took a rather violently unexpected turn while out on patrol recently. It was a scorching mid-afternoon, a flawless, majestic blue sky over head, and we were forty brave men and women out doing the rounds. Foot patrols have increased recently due to increased vegetation severely diminishing visibility from the roadside out across the valley. Furthermore, the good weather allows the coalition forces to greet the village elders and scores of kids that line the laneways and crossroads along our route. Typically spanning no more than two or three kilometres (which nevertheless in 30°C heat with full body armour and weapons equals serious punishment), the patrols are relatively straightforward affairs. Up until now, we’d encountered practically no problems whatsoever.

So this patrol then.

There we were in standard single file formation snaking our way along alleys, over bridges, cutting through gardens and circumnavigating freshly-sown fields when suddenly there came this sound. This long-lost, familiar sound. A loud, dry, crisp crack as if someone brought a parched twig to your ear before mercilessly snapping it in two. In such an event, instinct followed by calculated reflex immediately kicks in as first you drop down low, perched on one knee, before seeking more substantial cover in almost the very same motion. The source of the sound wasn’t too far, maybe two hundred metres or so. The first shot is always inevitably theirs. The response from our side never dallies and typically assumes all further responsibility in the gun fire stakes until such time as it’s time to either plod on or head back. Spread out on either side of a narrow dirt lane, keeping our heads down and at the ready for any non-uniform wearing figure to show themselves, short, sharp glances were exchanged. Initially undertaken as an unconscious form of verifying that everyone was still breathing, prolonged eye contact slowly dragged a curious smile across each of the guys’ faces, adrenaline-fuelled hydraulics steadily pumping the corners of our mouths up high into our dusty, sunburned cheeks. That’s when it hit me. I missed the sound of live gunfire. I missed the thrill of being surprised by a rogue trigger-pull, the whiz, fizz and zip of bullets flying a few feet over head. Lengthy periods of relative inactivity had until that moment pushed it further from my thoughts, back to the tail-end of my preoccupations. No effort was required in sounding genuine in my assurances to loved ones that all was well over here, that I was safe and sound and that nothing much was going on. The truth never fails to be effortless when pleasing on the ear. Hence my uncertainty and subsequent hesitation in approaching this particular blog entry.

I know this would generally fall under the category of taboo. It may not be a confession of Oedipal proportions and yet I understand that even other soldiers themselves might consider it irresponsible and downright inappropriate. It wasn’t a deliberate decision to set my heart racing and senses tingling once that first shot rang out across the valley. It never is, never can be. And yet, so it was and so was I rendered. I guess the hydraulic smile and jittery excitement would fade fast should one of those zipping, whizzing, fizzing bullets ever find it’s intended target, but then you never think of that. You simply mustn’t think like that, and almost nobody over here does. If you do, I imagine you’d find yourself incapable of continuing in your duties and slumped on the next plane bound for France. I suppose it’s just one of those things all soldiers know, but don’t necessarily say. Necessity won’t serve as too stoic an excuse for me, but then it wouldn’t be much of a blog if I kept most of what I write unwritten.

This refusal to reflect lengthily on the danger-filled hypotheses greeting us at every sunrise goes further, however. Incidents like the recent suicide bombing, the various IEDs detonated in proximity to coalition vehicles, fire fights and other noteworthy occurrences have - for the most part - resulted in little more than cuts, bruises and pairs of ringing ears. You could nearly put it on a par with a weekend at Glastonbury. Joking aside though, our guys have been extremely lucky to have walked away from such events relatively unscathed. Those of us completely withdrawn and distanced even further from exploding roadside bombs and such should be considered even more fortunate, practically avoiding any contact whatsoever with such harrowing experiences. Or so you might think. The reality for the unaffected is far more complicated than what an outsider may conclude. When a friend or comrade is caught up in an explosion or enemy contact, there are three primary thoughts that flash through your mind.

The third thought to pass through and materialise is always
"Thank God they’re alright!"

The second thought, an undoubtedly logical, rational and human thought is "Thank God it wasn’t me!"

The first thought, however, is probably simultaneously the most honest and yet shameful. Many would dispute it publicly, even if few could deny it in their heart of hearts. If the second thought, arriving a mili-second later, happens to be "Thank God it wasn’t me!", then the very first thought to enter your head is inexplicably, undeniably......

"I kind of wish it was."

Tuesday, April 5

Cocktail Party

I remember the first ever time I stepped out in to the civilian world as a Legionnaire. It was a Friday evening and the first weekend at regiment, a mundanely standard affair for the seasoned but for one just released from the four month captivity of basic training it felt like sipping from a Saharan oasis after years lost in those monstrous dunes. The modest city of Avignon suddenly transformed into this heaving metropolis offering up every seedy soothing cure to every aching desireimaginable. But I had already gotten my tip. I knew where I was headed. Did somebody say "Irish Pub"? Ah the cosy bar stools and oak-cask tables, hooray for the antique Guinness posters and Irish rugby scarves, and oh my what a delightful list of whiskeys you have yourselves there. Game on! However, it didn’t take long scanning the drinks menu to stumble across a rather amateurish error. Amongst the Mojitos and Sex-on-the-Beaches sat a rather insolent entry on the chalk board....

A "Belfast Bomb Car"? I asked the waitress with thinly veiled incredulity.

"Yeah?" came the abrupt response slightly overlapping an less-than-graceful Gallic shrug.

The waitress - a pretty Belgian girl without more than a handful of English words as were almost the entire staff - maintained a rather masterful air of being just that little bit too uninterested to register any actual curiosity in my grievance. And then it sort of slowly seeped in. They just don’t get it.

Let it be stated for the record that my unease radiated primarily from the appalling grammatical structure of the cocktail’s name. With that said, I guess I was also just a tad shocked by a cocktail of that name existing in the first place. Apart from an under-aged outing in a memorably Republican establishment on Aran Island, I could never have imagined an Irish bar displaying the words "Belfast Car Bomb" (I assumed creative control, it’s my blog, OK?) anywhere within its walls. But then this wasn’t a real Irish bar. The staff weren’t Irish, didn’t grow up on an island plagued with political acts of violence since before they were born, didn’t understand the potentially inflammatory nature of a smooth, refreshing alcoholic beverage sporting such a title. I get it, even if I don’t really.

The events in Northern Ireland over the past few days brought this all back to me. Or perhaps I should admit that the afore-mentioned events coincidentally combined with a rather unsettling occurrence over here in Taliban Town brought this all tumbling down on my conscience. I’ve recently found myself inundated with various questions on the death of the policeman in Omagh, it’s reasons, motives, etc.

Is there still a war over there?
No, the IRA took a chill pill and everybody’s backslapping each other over lasting peace.

Why the bomb then?
Well, some little upstarts still fancy sparking violence to aid the apparently officially resolved cause.

What cause?
Ah ya know yourself, 26 vs 32 and all that.

Surely it’d be better to have the 32 united?
Ah get out of that garden, never gonna happen, are ya mad?

No, not mad, just French and curious. Fending them off as feverishly as possible only served to highlight my own utter ignorance concerning the "situation" in the North. But not only that, I also found myself engaged in some discreet head-scratching concerning our beloved coalition’s presence in Afghanistan. Having never been directly affected by the troubles, I don’t believe I could ever achieve the required insight to offer qualified commentary on the ghosts of the past and promises of Northern Ireland‘s future. So when a battered old Toyota came hurtling along and smashed in to three French Army vehicles parked on the side of the road the other day, detonating on impact and sending (literally) shockwaves across the region, both the familiar and the unanswered reared their ugly heads once more. In the suicide attack itself (the very first encountered on this particular tour of duty), only the guy behind the wheel of the exploding corolla kicked the bucket. Miraculously, an unexpected shower of rain had coerced our lads in to descending from the roof hatches on the vehicle and settling down on the comfortable cushions inside. Had their heads been exposed and on the lookout, well……. hooray for rain! Only the gunner and driver of the vehicle directly hit encountered any sort of injury. "Blasted" but otherwise OK ("Blasted" meaning their ears took a right old hammering and their insides too, from the force of the explosion), the two most adversely affected (Legionnaires, both of them) together with four others who received a jolt in the back of the vehicle jetted off to Kabul for a routine check-up and some well-earned R ‘n R. I’m happy to report that all soldiers are now fully recovered and back at the FOB.

Nevertheless, there is something inexplicable in the emotions stirred by a suicide bombing. Taking pop shots from distance at our troops over here, laying roadside bombs during the night hoping to hit a vehicle the following day, it’s all very "safe", all very guerrilla. Strapping yourself (or your vehicle) with explosives and going headfirst towards the heart of the enemy, however, is a different kettle of fish altogether. Some consider it fanatical, extremist, cowardly. Others consider it honourable, courageous, inspirational. I consider it BeJesus scary and completely fucking insane, but that’s just me. And unlike me, the people of Afghanistan have grown up in a country seemingly war-ravaged since the dawn of its history (or even before.....Spinal Tap?.....anyone?). These people have seen the before, are living the present, and have their own hopes and dreams for the future of their country. The modern age has instilled a sense of global uniformed acceptability regarding the advancement of democracy and, for the most part, I would consider myself a supporter. As always, however, there are the means and then there is the end. The key, for me, is effectiveness.

Nothing can be done about the reasons for or the actualisation of the war here in Afghanistan. We are here now. We have our orders to execute, our missions to complete and our asses to save along the way. I just can’t help wondering if this country will be any better off at the end of this six month tour than it was right back at the beginning. And despite the medals, the money, the photos, the souvenirs and the bragging rights, all any soldier really wants is to feel like they’re actually making a difference. If not, then there really is no point to us being here. Get it? No?

Me neither.

Saturday, April 2

It Never Rains But....

There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.

Alas, no matter how hard I click my sturdy, sandy heels together the days aren’t passing any quicker. Rather, the only acceleration in the past while has involved the placing of IEDs along the main roads and route ways here in our beloved valley. One couldn’t accuse the Taliban of being overly imaginative, however, with two roadside bombs coming in the space of three days and both in almost exactly the same location.

The first was of a delightfully classic design - an anti-tank landmine strapped to a container housing seventeen kilos of explosive. The little fella was quite well buried too, more than half a metre under the road’s surface. Nevertheless, it would have taken more than a few layers of dirt to dissuade our trusty metal detectors from signalling its presence. We were called to the scene by the Afghan police, themselves having been tipped off by some locals earlier that morning. Our squad leader undertook the initial excavation measures, with the bomb disposal experts joining in for the securement and subsequent removal. As they walked past me, perched high up in my little gun turret, I was treated to a closer look at the sinister device itself. The landmine alone would be enough to send our VAB on a one-way trip to the scrapheap. Throw in a container filled with seventeen kilos of explosives and you’ve got yourself one hell of a fairground ride. With that said, one simply musn‘t dwell. You sneak a peek. You get that familiar chill. You shrug it off, and on you go. Bastards.

Solid intel pointed us towards the second IED. Thermal images had snapped a few lads hacking away in the middle of the road at 2am the previous night. Well outside of even the harshest chain gang union hours, the alarm bells rang loud and clear. Arriving on site, we first had to negotiate our way past the enormous queue of traffic snaking its way up towards the Afghan police roadblocks. Once through, the boys hopped out of the VAB, snapped open the metal detectors and slowly crept up towards the supposed location, carefully sweeping the entire width of the road as they went. The infantry took up their usual support positions, sprawling outwards from the roadside in an inverted V formation. Their job is primarily to search for any wires or trigger posts - the little hole or hovel from which an insurgent observes and then detonates the IED. The shout went up, wire found. Wires are good. Wires indicate manually operated IEDs. Manually operated IEDs require a trigger man. A trigger man has a tough job staying hidden and detonating an IED with forty or so ground troops combing a stretch of 200m or so on either side of the road.

And so we followed the path of the wire right up to the roadside, where we introduced our metal detectors to trace the buried section until the high-pitched squeal reached its climax, indicating something rather interesting and investigation-meriting beneath us. Same MO, squad leader digs, experts remove. Only this time, certain irregularities in the position of the IED enforced an attitude of heightened caution (well, higher than usual I guess). Hooking it up to a cable and attaching the cable to our vehicle, all personnel were ordered to take cover. This technique, you see, involves the pulling clear of explosive material deemed too unstable to remove manually. The sensitivity of the material means it could go off at any time, sending shards of metal flying in all directions. I dropped down on to my seat inside the VAB, closing the hatch as my ass reacquainted itself with the cushion underneath. My Bulgarian buddy slapped our metal marauder in to reverse and slowly we backed her up. The cable tightened, the tension appearing to reach breaking point and risking having it snapped in two. And then the device popped out of its nest and scuttled on to the surface of the road. No explosion, thankfully. In fact, the lack of an explosion was all the lore remarkable given that a hand grenade was found in the recently vacated hole, having been tucked discreetly under the IED with the pin removed. Booby trapping IEDs is a favourite of local insurgents, knowing that the majority of their little destructive gifts are inevitably identified and neutralised by coalition forces. Bastards.

Briefings had already been attended prior to the above flurry in activity, predicting, well, a flurry in activity. The tail-end of March spells the typical upward shift in Taliban activity across Afghanistan. Admittedly, things have been relatively quiet since we touched down here. Granted, the first few missions saw some lively encounters as our tactics, reflexes and solidity were tested by the insurgents. Indeed it only took a month to register the first tragic loss of our tour. With that said, the Winter months enforced a diminution in daring-do as the cold weather kept our adversaries more or less at bay. Regretfully, the Springtime thaw has injected fresh warmth and impetus in to the enemy ranks (and a tube of Factor 50 sun cream in to the pockets of the good guys). Those scorching rays of sunshine are spurring our hosts on in ever increasing boldness. All the same, burying IEDs in the middle of the road is one thing. What befell our troops last Wednesday, however, took this particular round of war games to a whole other level........