Thu, Mar 21, 2013 - Page 9 News List

British veteran’s memories of Iraq not burnished with time

Former British lieutenant James Jeffrey went to Iraq with a sense of optimism and purpose, but 10 years on, he feels ashamed about how the allied forces have failed the Iraqi people

By James Jeffrey  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

All the commentary surrounding the Iraq invasion 10 years on encourages retrospection, but I think that most veterans, like me, would agree that talk of anniversaries makes scant difference. It does not matter whether it is five, nine or 10 years after the event — Iraq is always with you, the sounds from the minarets, desert winds carrying ghosts.

Everyone involved had subjective experiences, some worse, some better, but I would hazard that for most Iraq veterans, transcending that is the mind-numbing sadness at how it all turned out — the unfathomable human and financial cost of the conflict.

That might explain why after resigning my commission in 2010, I deleted all military photographs from my Facebook profile, and sold what clothing and equipment I could to an army surplus store, making sure no related images or emblems remained as I tried to carve out a new life. However, all the while I greedily and willingly conjured scenes of my time in Iraq, reliving — even relishing — my experiences.

The invasion on March 20, 2003, held little personal drama for me, for while tanks from two of my regiment’s squadrons made a heady dash across the Mesopotamian sands, I was in our barracks in Germany, packing paintings in the officers’ mess for a forthcoming regimental move back to UK.

As television news channels reported the stunning progress made by coalition forces and the capitulation of the Iraqi military, I was immersed in bubble wrap, sticky tape and endless wooden boxes. To emphasize my removal, surrounding me were images of my 19th-century antecedents charging Sikh infantry squares at the Battle of Aliwal, riding into immortal verse at Balaclava, outflanking the dervishes at Omdurman and engaged in many other exotic expeditions.

After everyone returned from the invasion, tanned and lean and with tales of high drama, my deployment in April 2004 on Operation TELIC 4 for a six-month tour could not have come soon enough. A photograph of me standing with fellow troop leaders in front of a desert-colored Russian T55 tank — brought back after the Gulf War — shows us looking cheerful and keen for adventure on the day of departure to British Royal Airforce station Brize Norton for our flight to Basra, Iraq. We were not to be disappointed by what we found there.

At that point, we were not part of something that would lead to an estimated 120,000 civilian deaths and demolish a country, and there were not as many wailing Iraqi mothers thumping their chests. Friends had not been killed in downed helicopters or decapitated by rolling vehicles; the gung-ho ignorance of soldiers had not been left unchecked and the consequences of the military hierarchy’s hubris had not caught up with it yet.

We were presented with a scene of opportunity: contractors were settling in, apparently useful and minus the greed and inefficiency that would emerge later; the UK’s Department for International Development seemed set to play an important, constructive role; and as for the stale rhetoric and grandiose concepts of nation-building and bestowing democracy, I had neither the time nor the inclination to pay attention. I had a troop of tanks to run and, not being the greatest military mind to venture onto the battlefield, was busy enough.

So, unencumbered by what came to pass, I could appreciate, or so I thought, some of the finer points of expeditionary life. I defy anyone to ride in a Challenger 2 tank, looking back over the commander’s cupola at 20 armored vehicles kicking up curtains of sand, speeding across the smooth desert while enveloped in warm winds as the gunner traverses the turret to test-fire the coaxially mounted machine gun and then claim not to have enjoyed themselves.

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