The shell that killed seven year old Shabia was fired by British troops.
As the mortar landed, fragments of molten shrapnel sliced into her fragile body while phosphorus burned through her thick hair. The patrol called an ambulance. But Shabia was transferred to a squalid Afghan hospital. Within hours she succumbed to her wounds and died.
This was northern Helmand, May 2008. The tragedy is described in the opening chapter of a memoir by Doug Beattie, captain of the British patrol that killed Shabia. Throughout his six-month tour of duty he is haunted by the image of her beautiful face.
Beattie’s is one of the more humane and insightful of the recent flood of books by or about soldiers and air crew who have served in Afghanistan. Most are crude, war-fighting potboilers vetted by the Ministry of Defence and designed to whip up support for the army. But between their tales of derring-do the soldiers also reveal the horror of the occupation.
Shabia’s death is not recorded among the military reports published by the Wikileaks website last month, which delivered such a blow to the notion that Nato is fighting a “good” war in Afghanistan.
The soldiers’ stories back up the picture painted by the leaked documents – this is a brutal, cynical, unwinnable war.
The troops themselves admit that the image of the occupation presented to us by the media bears little relation to the reality. “I don’t think the country is ready to see real war. It’s pretty grim,” says Captain Tom Kelly. “If people saw the results of operational tours, where we killed several thousand Taliban, which is an incredible amount of people…it would be pretty horrendous to see.”
The fighting is indeed intense. “Although the politicians may describe what’s happening in Afghanistan as a ‘police action’, a ‘peace-keeping exercise’ or even ‘reconstruction’, the reality is that at the moment it’s all-out war,” says Harrier pilot Ade Orchard. He was stunned by “the sheer volume of ordnance [ammunition]” that he and others dropped from the air, which was “closer to Second World War carpet bombing”.
While troops fight the Afghan resistance on the ground, most of the skirmishes end with the drone of an approaching aircraft and the seismic thump of a huge bomb. Soldiers and air crew repeatedly refer to the Apache helicopter bomb ships as the real battle winners.
These killing machines are laden with fearsome weaponry, such as Hellfire laser-guided missiles, dozens of rockets including “flechettes”, each containing 656 five-inch armour-piercing tungsten darts, and thousands of 30mm cannon shells, each one like a grenade, fired ten per second. It is little wonder that civilians become caught up in warfare on this scale. “Unfortunately in close-quarter fighting in complex terrain there’s always a risk,” admits Colonel Stuart Tootal.
During the massive assault to recapture the town of Musa Qala in December 2007, information fed to the media was mostly good news of a well-planned operation efficiently executed. There was just one report of civilian deaths after a journalist witnessed soldiers opening fire on refugees, killing two.
Consequently, the army’s official line was that just two civilians had died in the operation. But reporter Stephen Grey, who was embedded with the troops, later discovered that many more innocent people had been killed. Within a week of the fall of Musa Qala, British soldiers came across a pile of decomposing bodies – all of them women and children – in a nearby village that had been bombed during the assault.
Despite their overwhelming firepower, Nato troops face determined resistance. “Anyone who reckons they don’t get scared in combat is a gobshite,” says Royal Marines commando Matt Croucher. “Experience helps, but you still crap yourself every time.” He describes the scene among British troops after an encounter with the Afghan forces: “There was blood everywhere, like someone had thrown buckets of red paint around.”
For some, death comes mercifully quickly. “They are the lucky ones,” Captain Beattie says. “But for others dying is an agonising, lingering, terrifying experience.”
Brutal boot camp
“Part of the toughening process”: pain, violence, sleep deprivation, bullying, humiliation…
Captain Doug Beattie describes his training in Taunton as a 16 year old recruit as brutal in the extreme, involving constant shouting, bullying, sleep deprivation, pain, humiliation, violence and racism.
On one occasion he was forced to stand spreadeagled in a stress position in a pool of his own blood and tears, with his palms flat against a wall, until the instructor kicked his legs from under him. His crime? He had spilled some coffee.
Captain Patrick Hennessey evokes the constant “screaming and shouting and bloodcurdling threats”, often for the most trivial reasons, throughout his officer training.
Commando Matt Croucher says this is all just “part of the toughening process” which “sorts the men from the boys”. In fact it is designed to create an army of people united in their contempt for any sign of “weakness” and who delight in inflicting pain. Even Croucher admits to having to endure degrading initiation rituals, such as being stripped naked and having eggs thrown at him. Inevitably the training brutalises many soldiers. Those whose sanity survives can find it very hard to cope.
Soldiers such as Joe Glenton, who went absent without leave (awol) after serving in Afghanistan, are punished with imprisonment and dismissed as “cowards” or “malingerers”. Yet Ministry of Defence figures reveal that there were more than 2,000 incidents of British soldiers going awol in 2009 alone.
In 2008-9 nearly 5,000 cases of mental disorder were identified in British troops who toured Afghanistan and Iraq, while at least 67 who served in the two war zones have committed suicide since 2003.
The true toll of mental illness is likely to be far higher. In the US commanders have said that 30 percent of all combat troops suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
When soldiers begin to question what they are doing, the support given to them by the anti-war movement and campaigns such as Military Families Against the War is vital in helping them turn their backs on the army and return to normal life.
He describes in detail “the wretched truth” of what stepping on a landmine does to a human body. On the TV we hear how a British soldier has been killed in action by a roadside bomb – “It all sounds so unsentimental, so impersonal, so clinical. But it’s not. It is usually brutal and bloody and painful.”
Major Ian Lawrence spells out the appalling reality of violent death: “The look of death on a man’s face on the battlefield, where he obviously died in a state of pain, is not a pleasant sight. People know when they are reaching their last few moments and will get anxious as their body starts to close down.
“You see the look afterwards: of horror and anxiety. There’s no drifting away with a smile on their face.
“There are terrible noises. There’s lots of sighing. If they’ve been injured in the lungs and the blood is frothing up, there can be gurgling, which can be quite noisy in itself.
“There can be screaming. They’re uncomfortable. They’re writhing. Sometimes, when a young soldier has been shot, he’s simply crying for his mother every few seconds until he just drifts away.”
So why do soldiers fight? There is undoubted discipline and bravery, but also their training instils in them very high levels of aggression, brutality and a thirst for action.
Captain Patrick Hennessey reveals that officer training at Sandhurst involves watching lots of war films – Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, Full Metal Jacket, A Bridge Too Far, Black Hawk Down. Croucher says the troops’ favourite DVD in Helmand is the Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now.
So many soldiers arrive in Helmand with their heads stuffed with violent images and are itching to use their weapons. According to Captain Tim Illingworth “there is no shortage of complete lunatics” who want to go out and fight, despite the risks. For them the resistance are all “ragheads”, “raghead bastards”, “a bunch of flip-flop, dress-wearing bastards”. Hennessey is a shocking example of the officers’ blood lust. “It’s sheer exhilaration” to be at war, “such fucking good fun”, he writes in his bestselling memoir, The Junior Officers’
The Oxford graduate compares the pleasure of killing to sexual conquest. Fighting in Afghanistan “ramps up the heartbeat so high and pumps adrenaline and euphoria through the veins in such a heady rapid mix. [What] compares: the winning goal-scoring punch [sic], the first kiss, the triumphant knicker-peeling moment? Nowhere else sells bliss like this, surely?”
Mowing the lawn
The slaughter becomes an end in itself, even though the violence merely provokes more resistance. Troops refer to operations against the Taliban as “mowing the lawn” – as soon as you cut the grass it grows back up again. The resistance is like a hydra, Beattie says: you cut off one head and two grow in its place.
Consequently the occupation has spiralled down into one bloody firefight after another. Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Jackson, commanding officer of 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, describes what fighting like this does to soldiers. They have very little interaction with the local population, so they have no understanding of the country or its people and lose sight of any other aims of the occupation. “It’s very easy to become detached from the humanity and just see it all as a big game of war,” he says. So much for winning hearts and minds.
As a result, there is widespread cynicism among troops about what they are doing. Commando Croucher, who is no philosopher, asks, “In the back of all our minds was the burning question: could there ever be a real victory in a place like this?”
The troops harbour a deep distrust towards the Afghan national government, army and police. More to the point, they see that their Afghan allies are powerless without their well-armed Western backers. “When I was there, we were still giving the orders and fighting the fight, even if they were hoisting the Afghan national flags for victory for the cameras,” says Croucher.
Beattie describes how Western troops caused the town of Marjah to become the “bleeding ulcer” that so frustrated General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander who was sacked in June for complaining about the lack of progress. Until Nato troops arrived, Beattie says, this had been a peaceful town. But their presence drew in the resistance: “We were turning Marjah into the front line.”
There is a grudging respect for the resistance, who fight with bravery and tactical skill. The picture that emerges from soldiers’ accounts suggests that some resistance groups go to considerable lengths to avoid civilian casualties, warning local people of roadside bombs aimed at the troops.
Women and children
Whenever women and children are spotted leaving a village it is a sure sign that the Taliban are about to attack, because they have urged civilians to move away. Though it appears suicide bombers have the same ruthless attitude to causing “collateral damage” as Nato, they are targeting the enemy, and too bad if civilians get in the way.
Scattered among the solders’ accounts are mentions of the shadowy “special forces”, such as Task Force 373 which was revealed by Wikileaks to be conducting covert operations, often leading to civilian deaths. These are the “no name, no rank, no razor outfits”, says Orchard, referring to the agents’ unshaven appearance, “who really were everywhere” in Afghanistan.
Special forces “manhunts” are a big part of the war in Afghanistan, writes Grey. Some soldiers told him they are uncomfortable with the tactic, which they compare to Israeli assassinations of Palestinian leaders – too often the wrong people are killed. One officer gives a vivid description of these secret raids: “The routine is something like this. Go to a gym, pump some iron, jump into a helicopter in the dark, jump out and kill all males of fighting age and then go back, get a bit of kip and then back to the gym, pump some iron.”
During the assault on Musa Qala there were accusations that these special forces had murdered civilians in their beds. Only one British newspaper reported the atrocity, even though the British army said it was “taking seriously” claims that children were shot and several adult villagers had their throats cut during the secret operation. Grey later confirmed that a US elite special forces operation had indeed taken place in the village of Toube on 18 November 2007, conducted by Navy Seals. Dozens of villagers spoke consistently of soldiers breaking down doors, shooting children and cutting throats. The incident is not recorded in the Wikileaks documents.
This, then, is the story that the troops tell of the war in Afghanistan. For any real reconstruction to take place, it is an essential precondition that Western forces must leave: for Shabia’s sake, for the sake of people of Toube and Musa Qala, for all the troops who are being sacrificed on the altar of US imperial ambition.