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An Oxford squaddie

From deer park to gun park…

Sixteen years ago, American and British forces hurled themselves into Afghanistan the same week I arrived at Magdalen College, Oxford.

I didn’t give them much thought – although the ‘War on Terror’ was immediately everywhere. I had an Egyptology degree to get to grips with; and choral evensong to sing; and hockey to play; and girls to chase; and booze to drink.

I was in Cairo the following academic year, when Coalition troops invaded Iraq. And then I moved to Sri Lanka, which had its own war going on. And then returned and did a Master’s in the War Studies faculty at KCL. But still I didn’t think of war as something I would personally get involved in.

I am not what you’d call natural military material. ‘Independent-minded’ was, I think, my old headmaster’s gentle euphemism. And a major falling-out with Magdalen had left me feeling wary about big, traditional institutions. Upbringing, too, had hardly prepped me for it. As kids, we weren’t allowed toy guns, and had a ban on TV and/or games involving violence. My brief time in the RAF cadets expired when we were tested on the rank-structure. I don’t like polishing. I left the Cubs because it clashed with choir practice.

But once I had begun to earn a living (ha!) as a writer, I thought perhaps I could be a war correspondent – and so thought I’d better learn a bit about it.

At 28 I was already too old to become a career officer – it’s been done, anyway: the literary-officer thing – so I joined the Honourable Artillery Company, an ancient and somewhat idiosyncratic Reserve (then ‘TA’) unit in a modest castle just off City Road.

An HAC field weekend will typically involve more PhDs than big guns (the artillery in question being ‘Longe Bowes’ back in 1537); I’ve found one of our more retiring active members depicted in the National Portrait Gallery; and the regiment once purportedly fielded an entire rugby team called Henry. Thus it ought to be a breeding ground for whole platoons of Paddy Leigh Fermors; and yet, somehow, it isn’t. But in times of conflict, many members nonetheless have served their country with distinction – including one who thought the First World War was absolutely ripping.

So, in November 2012, I volunteered for Operation HERRICK – cf. ‘Fourth Afghan War’ – as Trooper Smyth (30075856), attached to 5th Regiment, a surveillance unit of The Royal Artillery, under the operational aegis of 1st Mechanised Brigade.

We were sent to ‘integrate’ at Catterick, where the regulars promptly dumped us in a disused block which stank of fish, six miles from the regimental HQ.

We did not, shall we say, have much in common. The gunners called us ‘STABs’ right from the get-go. They looked, and they behaved, like kids. They lived to massacre the English language (‘squaddielalia’, as my friend Harry called it) to an anthropologically-fascinating extent. They were all called either Brown or Thompson. And they almost all outranked us. It’s one thing playing trooper, part-time, in a regiment that thinks it is ungentlemanly to be a try-hard. Quite another in a unit where everyone else has just been made lance corporal.

I was 31. Many of them weren’t far off half my age. The concept of my being a writer was quite beyond them. For one glorious week I was David Duchovny in Californication; the rest of the time they thought that I was ‘on the dole’.

They were suspicious of anyone who liked to do things quietly and/or alone: Harry got absolutely screamed at for having his Kindle out – while everybody else was on a smoke-break. Accordingly, they took a person sitting on his own as evidence that he was in desperate need of company. I kept myself to myself; and on the few weekends when I couldn’t get away I made for a tea-room in the centre of Richmond (100% soldier-proof) or hit the charity shops.

Apart from simply standing out, of course, we part-timers were quite properly concerned that, practically, we might turn out to be less competent. Well. Once you’ve seen a soldier’s mag drop out of his rifle mid-range, or him lose his morphine pens, or pass out at a memorial parade…

Heading down the M1 to RAF Brize Norton, listening to Handel just about as loud as I could make it, my kit-bag was very heavy. It was full of books. And a tin-plaque Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ from my father, with the legend: ‘What if the Hokey Cokey really is what it’s all about?’

Bin Laden was already long-dead (and the movies in the cinema) by the time I touched down in Helmand, and it turned out there was not a lot for us to do there. In the context of the accelerating British ‘drawdown’, our surveillance role was essentially reduced to base-protection.

In the first week or so, Camp Bastion came under rocket attack. But after that things quietened down (I was shot at twice more, by my count), and we Reservists twigged we were the subs bench, stuck fixing broken camera equipment 6 days a week in what was fatuously termed the ‘gun park’. I decided to cut my losses, reverted hastily to type, and was quickly drafted into the Ops Room. It took one day before a gunner complained I’d told him what to do.

I read even more voraciously than usual (all the major prophets of doom – Frank Ledwidge; Max Boot; George MacDonald Fraser – as well as Cormac McCarthy just for light relief); I took endless notes (the army’s requirement that you keep a notebook is a helpful cover); and I made coffee, sorted post, put people and materiel on planes, and answered the phone. One day it was the 5th Regt. CO, calling to find out if my boss, a Cambridge music graduate, had once been in Mumford & Sons. (He had.)

I keenly volunteered for things. Duty driver; watch-tower; even a guard shift at the prison. Getting out of the Ops Room was still the high point of the day, and I’d take any excuse to drive down to the flight line with crypto packages, or surveillance spares that needed a responsible courier, looking for likely types to chat to. I had lunch one day with the major in charge of all the ISO containers. Chaplains, too, are usually good eggs. The vagaries of the HAC’s dress-regs meant soldiers treated one with useful caution, while officers would often stop to have a natter.

In the battery lines, meanwhile Private Brown asked, out of nowhere, if I’d been to ‘college’ – and I decided not to make the obvious gag.

Eventually, I got out. And to Kabul, of all places. The first thing I did was send a postcard home, of TE Lawrence: ‘Made it.’

The second thing I did – after only two months in Afghanistan – was my job. Surveillance. It wasn’t that exciting; but at least there was some purpose to it. No-one was blown up on my watch.

And it was a happy time. Keeping myself to myself, out and about, away from battery strictures, and being, near as damnit, my own chain of command. My favourite feeling was to come off a night-shift (whole hours of alone time), eat, drink coffee, and write a letter in the rising sunlight. If I got bored, I chatted to the Sri Lankan blokes who staffed the kitchens.

I went to Camp Souter, named in honour of a classic British military disaster. I went to Shawqat, a mud-brick castle built by our military forebears, which the locals, perhaps mischievously, said we should feel free to use again this time around. I went to Lashkar Gah, days after Task Force Helmand shut up shop there taking all the top brass back to Bastion. I was briefly grilled by a colonel from the Adjutant-General’s Corps who was convinced I must be gouging the MoD for some inflated City salary, when I was on a private’s pay (and glad of it!). And I got very close indeed to interviewing my overall boss at the time, brigade commander Rupert Jones (son of Lt Col H Jones VC: he of Goose Green). It was felt, though, in the end, that this might pose certain problems re ‘authority’, a private soldier asking a general what we were doing there.

I even ran into an ex-girlfriend of mine – from Magdalen, obviously – working her way up through the Foreign Office. What she made of my ‘trajectory’ she was too polite to say.

I escaped the lines one final time, to write an in-house article on the collapsing of Patrol Base Attal. I never filed it. But for one great week, I slept under the stars, shaved in a bowl, and lived entirely on ration boxes. “Finally.” I thought. “Some ****ing soldiering.” I was on the last flight out of Attal, before contractors ploughed it back into the ground.

Dr Johnson once said ‘every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier’; and I have to say I actually look back on my deployment rather proudly. But I cannot say I’d recommend the squaddie life.

We landed back in England, at Brize Norton. As the train pulled out of Oxford, I forbade myself a look back at the dreaming spires.

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