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

Thu, Mar 21, 2013 - Page 9

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.

Even when things went wrong you could come out grinning. On a night patrol, I found myself huddled behind a truck making a farcical pirouette as bullets pinged off the metal all around me. Those rounds came from friendly troops engaging the enemy on the far side of the truck. I was terrified and ashamed of getting into that position, but managed to extract myself.

I returned to base with the rest of the patrol, enjoyed some back slaps all round and could not wait for the next firefight.

“War offers endless exotic experiences, enough ‘I couldn’t fucking believe its’ to last a lifetime,” US writer William Broyles said after serving as an infantry commander in Vietnam.

Part of the lure is the fundamental human passion to witness and see things: “What the Bible calls the lust of the eye and the marines in Vietnam called eye fucking,” he said.

There was plenty of that in Iraq: From Chinook helicopters slicing through the heat haze, to mortar illumination rounds trickling down the face of the night like fiery teardrops throwing shifting shadows on to the desert floor. Or sitting in a Hercules transport plane as the interior lights turned off, replaced by a lone red hazard light as the pilot executed a steep descent to the runway to avoid enemy fire; tank turrets flickering with flames after rocket-propelled grenade warheads exploded; a market stall dangling off the end of a barrel as a tank motored through the empty streets of Amara; and smoking a shisha pipe beneath the globes of the Kuwait Towers during two days of operational standdown — the eye-popping slide show never ended.

The aural experience could be just as rich: Warrior armored vehicles letting loose six rounds of 30mm automatic fire, a beautiful sound when you needed it. Closed down in my turret on a night-time operation into Amara, I listened entranced to the voice on the radio of the US operator in a C-130 Spectre gunship aircraft — call-sign Basher-75 — discussing the acquisition of targets on the ground.

“Keep your heads low; it’s going to get hot down there,” he drawled.

I had never heard anyone sound so utterly damn cool.

I do not know exactly where the attraction lay. Perhaps the synthesis of man and machine up above, all-powerful with a bristling array of weaponry trained on insurgents, omniscient with night vision and radar systems, or knowing it had my back and could be called on no matter what, but there was something seductive about such moments.

Yet, at the same time, I know how wrong these experiences were — especially Basher-75 circling malevolently in the night sky — how, while I was bouncing off the inside of my turret with glee, Iraqi children huddled and wept in their beds, scared out of their minds by fire fights raging around their homes and the ominous rumble of armored vehicle columns; how the market stall dangling off that barrel — which we all had a good laugh over — represented some faceless Iraqi’s livelihood.

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.

A month before leaving the British Army, I stayed at the London apartment of an army friend. An electrician called by one morning and asked about a photograph of my friend in uniform, which prompted me to ask about his accent. He was from Kosovo. After telling him I had been there for two months at the beginning of my military career, he put down his tool box and shook my hand energetically, thanking me. I felt like a fraud — Iraq a silent, condemning attendant — and had to turn so he did not see tears welling in my eyes.

What can I, or any veteran, say to an Iraqi? Whatever desperate words are chosen, they are not likely to result in a handshake, nor should they, which breaks my heart and always will. Damn you, Basher-75; damn all of us for what we did or failed to do in a time and place that I will always long for.