Maysaan province, Iraq 2006
It’s always the popular ones who get done, of course. But Rich actually was – a superb all-round soldier, a Captain in the Parachute Regiment who had been on attachment to the Highlanders and so was well known to two of the three regiments who were present in Maysaan (as part of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Battlegroup). And he took the ‘please kidnap and hideously murder me’ job, liaison officer to the police headquarters in Amarah, and made something of it. He boxed (as most paratroopers do because of the place of milling, a non-stop, high-intensity version of boxing they use in their selection process) so we had something in common and he was just easy to get on with anyway (not always the case with the Parachute Regiment).
To foil the campaign of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices – what the media inaccurately refers to as ‘roadside bombs’ because they aren’t necessarily planted by the side of the road or even on the road for that matter), we would front up our convoys with tracked, heavily armoured Warriors, followed by the lightly armoured, wheeeled Snatch Land Rover. But as fast as we changed our tactics, the other side would respond and the dog-fight continued. We had put heavier armour at the front of the convoys: the devices became larger, eventually taking out Warriors and Challenger tanks alike (but that was during later tours by which time I had hung up my uniform and moved north to the ‘Dad). Or the other side would revert to something simple like a claymore mine, simply peppering the exposed top-cover troops (the ones who protrude through the roof space of vehicles) with hypersonic ball-bearings. The fundamental asymmetric nature of an insurgency means it is the more intelligent, creatively agile force that wins, rather than the largest, better trained or the best equipped.
That day the other side went back to using a command-wire detonated device, allowing them to select which vehicle in the convoy to target – the second vehicle, a lightly armoured Snatch, not the heavily armoured Warrior that led the convoy.
A squat barrel of thick metal (usually iron), packed with explosives, topped with a convex disc of copper, dug into one of the numerous earth mounds or rubbish heaps that adorned the roadsides of Iraq and Afghanistan. The other side had learnt to tilt it slightly upwards, otherwise all that happened was that the wheels of the vehicle were taken out. Now, once the device was laid, the centre of the convex lid pointed straight into the cab of the vehicle.
Explosives upon detonation are like flowing water: they can be channelled. So the heavy iron casing drives the brunt of the explosive force forward through the copper lid, which melts in an instant and forms a bolt of liquid metal.
The eruption rocked the 24-ton Warrior at the front of the convoy forward on its tracks: they thought they had either gone over a mine or been hit from behind by an RPG. After the roar of the detonation, a cloud of dust shrouded the Snatch behind the Warrior.
‘I can’t describe the fookin thing goin’ aff, boss, it was the fookin loudest thing I’ve ever heard in ma life,’ said Taff.
‘Like the entry of a demon,’ I commented. ‘It’s from a Second World War poem by a guy called Keith Douglas. He died in late ’44 in Normandy.’
‘Yes, that was what it was like, like the entry of a fookin demon,’ said Taff.
Taff was one of my gang, was in the Snatch behind Rich’s and, once the dust cloud settled and everyone had done their own checks (universally ‘Thank f*ck’ followed by a swaggering, ‘Beat you again, Abdul’), he got out and walked forward into the haze. Only one of the two top-cover (the soldiers who stick their heads – and weapons – out the roof of the vehicle for better observation) was still up: the back doors were open and the two dismounts were in the process of falling out the back. Taff looked in the back – the other top-cover was holding his arm up and moaning because he had taken a couple of fragments under his arm. But the four in the back were okay. They would live.
And then Taff saw the front of the vehicle.
The front suspension had collapsed, the wheels splayed outwards.
‘Like the legs of a baby giraffe’, Taff commented – why he was thinking of giraffes I’ll never know, but then again he wasn’t planning on being a writer at a later point so probably didn’t feel the need to have lines of running imagery. Maybe I had started him feeling all poetic, like. Maybe poetry, which I was always so disparaging of as a teacher (‘poetry is for poofs’, as I used to tell my adoring pupils), is the only medium intense enough to capture what he saw.
The forward passenger side of the Snatch was blackened from the blast. And there was a fist-sized hole punched in the door, just below the window. Taff pulled the buckled door off.
It’s gloomy enough in the cab of a Snatch. The windows are armoured, which means the actual (toughened) glass sections are smaller. There is a thick wire mesh over the windows to protect against bricks, stones and the other gifts the locals flung us as we passed by. The whole cab is lined in a fire-retardant fabric that is akin to black canvas. Everything is caked in dust anyway.
But this time it was darker still – dark red.
A pair of legs from the knee down, a helmet with the top half of a head still in it, a buckled, pointless rifle…. A less mangled body in the foetal position in the driver’s seat. That was Ellis, Rich’s driver.
I didn’t get much more out of Taff – a mish-mash of images. Rent-a-mob appearing soon afterwards and starting to brick the reeling troops… The cheering from the crowd as the bodies were loaded onto the casevac helicopter… Taff disarming one of the dismounts from the back of Rich’s vehicle who was ‘gonna light up the fukin crowd’ with the General Purpose Machine Gun… The pop of baton rounds being fired into the crowd by the follow-up cordon troops (and the ‘thock’ as they hit)… The heavy tarpaulin being hauled over the ripped up Snatch (not the sort of thing you want sitting around camp when you are still expecting troops to go out in them)…
Things were different after that.
Shezzer changed when he got back from leave. Rich was his platoon commander. He was resilient – he had to be with the stammer he had, in the intolerant world of the Parachute Regiment . But he had pervious: he went a bit strange after his first tour of Iraq. (Shezzer got home, got sloshed and then shaved off all his body hair. Naked, he then broke into his brother’s house and hid on top of the wardrobe, only revealing himself when his brother and his Mrs were hard at it, at which point Shezzer launched himself on top of them. Luckily his brother was also in the Parachute Regiment and his Mrs’ father had been, so they understood.)
His humour went. The wit that had seen him say, in response to an Iraqi schoolgirl’s request that he marry her, ‘No weddin’, sweetheart, but you can smoke my pole if you want’ was lost for the rest of the tour. Now every time he saw a local he screamed ‘Them’s the BASTARDS what killed Richie!’ We had trouble when he wouldn’t allow the locally employed civilians to have plastic plates and cutlery in the cookhouse because he wanted to make them eat off the floor.
In the cookhouse the night before, I had sat with Rich and others, talking about this and that – football (we were a gaggle of un-officerly officers, preferring football to rugby and so on), cars (he and his doctor wife had just invested in a couple of flash ones), music, favourite songs.
I had said Olive’s ‘You’re Not Alone’.
And Rich had said David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. It’s a song I can’t listen to anymore.
‘Vergissmeinicht’: ‘don’t forget me’. The name of the Keith Douglas poem I quoted to Taff as he struggled to describe what he had seen.
Forget? We should be so f*cking lucky. We would if we could.
We remember. We remember.