Armed Forces Day

On a train going into London, I met an infantryman. He was back from Afghanistan for a couple of weeks. He was short, cheerful and wiry.

We chatted for about an hour and he showed me his body armor and new helmet.

He’d had a rough childhood, thrown out of his house and got in a lot of fights as a kid. Then he joined up. In turned out he had some deadly skills, and is now a Sharpshooter. He talked with pride about his combats but also his belief that ‘hearts and minds’ with the locals brings better grass-roots intelligence. Thankfully, they are now being paid much more per tour. He laughed that this was just as well, as they have to shit in bags.  Typically (I guess) for a squaddie in a small war, he had mixed feelings about the locals, both affectionate and perplexed. His platoon sergeant had his legs blown off by an IED recently, the darkest point of the conversation. Over this fortnight he’s meeting up with a lady he’s known for a while and wants to marry. We chatted about the difficulty for trained killers who in a COIN campaign have to overcome and reverse their cultivated instincts and adopt a new stance of ‘brave restraint.’

He’s become a fanatic for historical novels. Just as the train was pulling into Paddington, he reached into his bag and gave me a wristband that an Afghan made in Camp Bastion, which has ‘Taliban Hunter’ written across it.

He was a satisfied, happy man, good at his job, prepared to take the risks, and curious about the world. He wasn’t the psychologically wounded or traumatised victim who emerges in much of our press, or the disgruntled volunteer confused about the mission. He was an agent, not a victim.

Here’s to the men and women at the sharp end of our wars. Most of us couldn’t endure what you endure. I hope we’re paying you well and treating you well. And to the Sharpshooter, have a great furlough and best of luck with that girl. Thanks and good wishes to you all.

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