Friday, November 13, 2009
Every reporter will have experienced it and every one of us fails to actually tell the real truth when we are asked this recurring and obvious question: “Stuart, another soldier dead in terrible circumstances. Opinion polls show the public is against the war. Surely it must affect morale?”
The real answer “Does it chuff, they love it.”
They do and that is the difference between civilians and military; it is why you and I and everyone wringing their hands about the poor soldiers facing horrendous conditions and danger totally don’t get it.
It is why they can kill people without question.
It is why they joined up in the first place.
If you think about it logically do soldiers, first and foremost, really want to build schools for poor Afghan kids? No, they want to kill Taliban.
I am not saying this lightly, I am not saying they are bloodthirsty or in any way unprofessional. It is a simple fact: they are soldiers and soldiers fight wars and they are in one.
They are mightily upset when one of their mates gets killed or injured, but the way they deal with it is to clean their weapon, make sure their kit is squared away and get ready to go outside the wire and kill the bastards trying to kill them.
A couple of months ago I met up with a mentoring team of 10 British soldiers who had been held up in their base for months. Firefights every day; supplied by helicopter drops for weeks on end. They controlled no more than a few hundred yards of dusty road outside their front door.
They were attacked night after night. It was like a movie of explosions and shooting and camaraderie – trust me I have seen the pictures they filmed.
They were led by a very nice posh officer lad and a classic gruff sergeant. They were the happiest blokes I have ever met.
“It was f****** great mate. The lads f****** loved it. Thank f*** we didn’t lose anyone but we f****** twatted them – every time we went out. We knew where it would start, we knew what they would do and we just went out and tried to f*** them up. F****** brilliant.” That was the sergeant.
The officer: “Stuart, the lads did a great professional job. I think they relished the opportunity to engage with the enemy and implement the changes we and the ISAF forces have been tasked with achieving. The goals are difficult and achievements will sometimes be difficult to quantify but we feel we achieved a fair, if modest, degree of success.” I think that translates as “We f***ed them up.”
I have met many, many soldiers over the years and this example is absolutely in keeping with the general view of the military.
After spending another long night on the floor of a dusty tent, with no air conditioning in the day and freezing cold at night, eating awful MRE’s (meals ready to eat) when it was clear there could be a cook, I took it upon myself to ask the commanding officer why his men lived in such terrible conditions when it was pointless.
“Stuart I don’t ask much of my men,” the colonel told me.
“But I may ask them this: ‘Men, we will take that town tomorrow and we will prevail whatever the cost to you or your comrades.’ I am telling them to roll out of bed and kill people and risk being killed. That is why they live like animals, because I want them to behave like animals. It is war.”
He was American and as you might gather - a bit scary - but he had a point I suppose, even if we might find it totally alien.
Few of us ever wanted to be in the army and few have ever experienced what war is like. I have experienced it. It is strange and frightening and frankly exhilarating when it's over and you have survived.
But it is what soldiers have trained for and crave. The current deployed men and women see themselves as the “chosen generation”. Not for them tours of Northern Ireland to experience battle – but full-on conflicts, and they are at the centre of it.
We may debate the rights and wrongs of Afghanistan and Iraq and we may hate the dreadfulness of war and the effect that it has on civilians - something I have focused on in the many conflicts I have covered.
But please do not think that another soldier killed in an incident in Afghanistan ever affects the soldiers’ commitment – quite the opposite, it makes them more determined.
Stuart Ramsay, Sky News' Chief News Correspondent, is on assignment in Afghanistan.