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

However, that did not click at the time. You were carried away with the momentum, the zany mix of action, humor flicking from dark to slapstick, the stress, close shaves and adrenaline. It all made for an intoxicating experience and was possibly, I am sad to say, the best thing I, and I imagine others, had ever done. Ever since it has been like something has gone out of my life forever.

Because it was not just the unparalleled sensory spectrum, there was a communal satisfaction, tapping into a primordial core, which came from taking part. That blissful sense of community started with the soldiers, wonderfully skilled and maddeningly headstrong, insubordinate at times, but ultimately doggedly looking out for each other.

Obviously it was not a total love-in. Some soldiers still disliked you, or you resented other officers, but such incidences tended to be exceptions to the norm that was a sense of comradeship the civilian world just cannot seem to replicate. In Iraq, you had the most tangible relationships you have ever had: people did not look through you every day. It was the most utopian experience we will ever know — possessions, backgrounds and ranks counted for very little, the group was everything; forged by what amounted to a love that transcended class, personality and education. However, now it is wrenching to meet up with those friends and comrades as each of us know how the special realm that sustained our intense comradeship is gone. We are marooned among the mundane demands and petty recriminations of everyday life.

However, no collective amount of such reminiscences is enough to outweigh our immense failure in delivering to the Iraqi people what we promised, compounded by what may be the UK’s greatest crime: having little, if nothing, to do with rebuilding the country it helped dismember. Reports of explosions killing dozens of Iraqis seem unending as the country continues to be cleaved by sectarian strife, while the UK watches on, if that. The British consulate in Basra, the scene of my second Iraq tour in 2006, was closed down at the end of last year — it does not appear that making amends for what’s happened to Iraq is a priority for our nation.

I am not, and never have been, a violent person; a half-hearted attempt at a schoolboy fight in which I got thoroughly licked persuaded me never to try that again. I do not actually know if I killed anyone in Iraq despite doing my best to engage targets, or, should I say, people. For example, there was a man — he might have been a teenager, who knows — holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at a building corner in my tank sight whom my gunner engaged after I gave the order. After that, there was a small column of dust in my sight and once it dissipated, he had gone.

Had he collapsed to be hauled away? I hope he got himself safely behind the corner in time. I never want to fire at another person again, not even an animal, and if I ever have children, I sincerely hope they never want to or have to fight. Despite this, at the oddest, most random times, I find my thoughts turning back eagerly to a war I do not believe in and the consequences of which I am ashamed.

What can I say? I miss it. I miss traversing turrets, Basher-75, those feisty, irrepressible soldiers, lines of green tracer fire arching lazily in the night sky, gas flares burning on the horizon, the operator on the other side of the turret screaming: “Loaded!” and a whole lot more.

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