Wednesday, August 5, 2009
By Brigadier Gordon Messenger
Despite the rising death toll, British soldiers are kept strong by the knowledge that their effort is bearing fruit in Afghanistan
In my office is a piece of Helmand marble with an inscription from Gulab Mangal, the provincial governor, that expresses his heartfelt appreciation for the sacrifices of the British forces over the period I was in command. It is a reminder that our campaign in Afghanistan is not simply a fight against the Taleban. It is about supporting good Afghans to govern their own country so that we no longer have to fear a threat that emanates from it.
Such a goal does not come without cost. I have attended a number of funerals recently. Death in Afghanistan is no respecter of cap-badge or rank. Military funerals have been taking place in all corners of the British Isles; in pretty Cotswolds villages, bleak hilltop cemeteries in Wales, Irish coastal towns and inner-cities in Scotland. With the full military honours, the solemnity of the bearer party, the emotive Last Post, the rifle volley ringing out in the quiet churchyard and the lowering of the standards while we remember in silence; such ceremony is all too familiar, but no less moving for that.
At these sad occasions, I have consistently been struck by the stoicism and good grace shown by the bereaved families. Their worst fears have been realised, thousands of miles from home, and yet invariably they are able to see through their grief to act with great dignity and fortitude.
Casualties are a tragic but unavoidable fact of life. With a mission that involves delivering a degree of order to previously ungoverned spaces, we must be prepared to endure a violent phase where the Taleban throw everything at us. From the soldiers’ perspective, the prospect of death will have been on their minds from the moment they were notified for operations.
Once in theatre, every day includes a ritual of mental preparation that serves to both heighten instinct and desensitise against the possibility of getting killed or maimed. Soldiers must constantly live with the knowledge that their next step might be on to a well-hidden IED or that today might be the day that the Taleban get lucky and they get unlucky. This they must do without allowing themselves to become fixated upon the risk or deflected from their day-to-day business. It is a unique and cumulative psychological pressure that is thankfully alien to those who will never have to experience it.
When casualties occur, the unit’s response follows a similar pattern. Once out of the contact battle, there generally follows a subdued period of reflection and an opportunity to talk about the incident and those that have been killed. Everyone deals with the trauma differently, with emotions ranging from groundless guilt through to silent relief that it wasn’t them. And then it is back to work, the grieving not over but necessarily placed temporarily to the back of the mind. Never vengeful, they return to their duties, ever more determined to ensure that their comrade did not die in vain.
This distinctive inner strength is particularly evident among our injured. From the first response by a combat medic at the point of wounding, through the state-of-the-art surgical facilities at Camp Bastion, to the clinical and rehabilitation centres at Selly Oak and Headley Court, our casualty evacuation and treatment system is first-rate and has the complete confidence of the guys on the ground.
But such help can only take you so far, and it is the wounded men’s refusal to succumb that plays a large part in their rehabilitation. One only need spend a short while at Headley Court to marvel at their positive attitude as they strive to overcome their disabilities.
At a recent funeral for a fallen Marine, I met a number of his wounded comrades; some on crutches, some in wheelchairs. All were proudly wearing their No 1 Blues uniform, with folds to cover their missing limbs, and all were determined to pay their final respects to their friend and his grieving family. In the rain-drenched graveyard, I watched in awe as each one of those injured men climbed out of their wheelchairs and slowly made their way across the sodden, uneven ground to the graveside, on crutches or supported by friends, to salute the coffin. It was a hugely emotional and humbling moment.
When asked what it is that motivates our servicemen and women to knowingly and repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way, I point first and foremost to these bonds of friendship, trust and shared hardship. The team matters more than the individual and it is the support from colleagues that helps soldiers to overcome the irrationality of going out on the ground, day in, day out. The quality of our people is the bedrock on which this team ethos is founded. The term “hero” can be over-used, with most servicemen and women simply believing they are doing the job they have been trained and paid to do. But one can identify a very special quality that bubbles to the surface when the chips are down. We see it in our wounded, and we see it on deployment when times become fraught. Bound by a strong leadership ethos at every level, but especially junior command, it is impressive to witness. In the month that we have sadly lost the last of our WW1 veterans, one cannot help but reflect that our servicemen and women today are every bit as impressive as their forebears.
But other factors matter too. The importance of knowing that our efforts are appreciated at home cannot be overstated. Those in Afghanistan accept the risk, yet can deal with it more easily when confident they have the backing of the public in whose name they act. The support that the military enjoys across the country is unprecedented in recent memory. The broader public may never fully comprehend or associate with the circumstances of Afghanistan but they choose to turn out in their thousands to support our homecoming parades. It is an enormously moving sentiment that is much appreciated by us all, and a vital contribution to our ultimate success.
Our soldiers deserve a sense of reassurance that their endeavours are worthwhile. If it were all about fighting the Taleban, there would be no shortage of evidence; we are winning every battle and are progressively ousting them from areas where they have felt secure. Yet it is only when one looks beyond the firefights, to the full breadth of what our military and civilians are doing on the ground daily, that one gets a true sense of the enormous contribution that we are making in improving the life of the local people.
The sharing of knowledge with an Afghan Army colleague, helping to distribute wheat seed as an alternative to poppy, supporting the conduct of elections, funding and overseeing the establishment of a girls’ school, mentoring the leaders of the fragile Afghan police force; the effect of these acts in their own right is almost imperceptible, but cumulatively they represent a campaign that is going the right way.
Many challenges remain, and progress is slow. But progress it is, and progress in the right direction for the right reasons. The marble slab in my office reminds me of that.
Brigadier Gordon Messenger is Commander of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, and is the recently returned Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan