It’s summer time, I have just returned from my year abroad; my friends and I are thrilled to be reunited. My comrade Hanna is glowing with happiness: not only are all her friends from home together, but her boyfriend Ash is back from Afghanistan.
He is sat beside her. I stare at him with mixed feelings. I am relieved to see that he is ok, and I respect his bravery; I am, after all a student, and I cannot say that I have ever believed in anything enough to fight for it, but the recent death of a school colleague, Samson Davis in Afghanistan, had left me wondering what the conflict really meant.
I am sure that these mixed feelings are felt by everyone else, as we avoid asking questions about the war. Finally, out of nowhere, Steve comes out with, “So have you killed anyone yet?”
My mouth drops. Everyone is taken aback by Steve’s bluntness. Ash responds casually “Yeah, it’s my job.” omething about the way in which he responds jars. His eyes glow with a dumbness that leaves us all wondering what he has seen. The night progresses; a few drinks loosen our tongues. Ash begins to talk more plainly about his experiences.
He opens up with a story that starts how every stereotypical newscast begins. On a routine patrol, insurgents are located and captured. Then he says something that none of us expect. “When the captives are questioned they respond with Brummy accents.” They had come from Britain to fight for the Taliban. Ash explains how “They start giving us all this Geneva Convention bollocks, like, ‘you can’t touch me. I know my rights.'” Eventually, he tells us that the captives are given to the Afghanistan army to be dealt with.
Later, when officers enquire about the state of the captives, they are informed that “they have fallen down a well.”
“Are they ok?”
“A grenade fell down the well with them too.”
No-one really knows what to say. Ash is a low ranking officer so we know he is not to blame for this war crime, but this is clearly not the war we had been led to believe our country is fighting. Is it possible to win a war when we are fighting against ourselves? I begin to wonder. This sudden source of brutal truth makes one want to know what’s really going on.
We ask him more questions. I want to know what it’s really like being out there.
“The Middle Ages, but with AK 47’s”
The image seems absurd at first, but less and less, as he explains to us his experiences. The people out there are scared to speak to the troops. They have mixed feelings towards them. As long as British troops are there they cannot grow poppies for heroin, their only real source of income, so they remain in poverty.
I ask if we can win this war.
“We will be there for years,” Ash replies. He says troops are “like a reserve force. We don’t have enough troops. We secure a region, move on, and then, by the time we’ve taken one place, they’ve moved in on the old place.”
The thing that really strikes me about the conversation is his frankness. Ash has clearly been shaken by the things he has seen. It sounds like little progress is being made. He voices his concerns about the troops’ vulnerability to road-side bombs.
Despite all of this, he will return in order to finish his service.
Having only recently discovered the tragic news of Samson Davis dying, we all wanted to know if Ash had seen him out there. Had they crossed paths? Ash told us about the day he died. He said it was the same as any day at base when someone dies. All soldiers communications with the outside world go dead. This is so families can be informed of bereavement by the authorities, a measure brought in place because a family had discovered the tragic news of a loved one’s death through Facebook.
The truth begins to seep into my mind, Ill-equipped and ill-supported, our soldiers are fighting a war many of them feel they cannot win, sometimes against people from the same nation, possibly even from the same town . If they should die in this conflict, the news of their death could be plastered across the internet in minutes.
I found all this information deeply disturbing, but I can be overly sensitive. My friend enrolling in Sandhurst this winter was sitting across the table from Ash that night.’
Ash’s words were part of casual pub conversation, mixed in with talk of the football, stories of travel. I couldn’t tell you a single word of what else we talked about that night, but Ash’s words stick in my mind. I have no doubt that Ash would be appreciative of better equipment and more supplies for the troops in Afghanistan, but this wasn’t why he told us those things. I think he was just trying to make sense of it all. What he had seen and heard, I think like me on that night he was just trying to work out what it was all about.
There are many debates circulating in the media now around the war; do we need more equipment, more soldiers? When can we get out? However, discussions on how a conflict fought in one country, aims to overthrow an international terrorist organisation, and what, if anything, Britain can take as a positive from the conflict, are issues in dire need of discussion.
Ash never proclaimed to be anything special, his words are the words of thousands other soldiers on leave, talking to their family and friends, telling them more than they should here. Not because they want to lecture or to boast. They are just trying to understand what they are fighting for. I feel that we owe them an answer.