Tag Archives: mid-life crisis

Turn to Starboard Round Britain Challenge

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Steven Price Brown, or PB, called me a ‘fucking cunt, Sir’ when we first met. He was feeling aggrieved as I’d just fallen on him from a great height. I can’t say I blame him. He’s now sailing around Britain in a leaky boat with a dodgy engine and you can follow his progress and that of his shipmates on his blog: Turn to Starboard. Here’s how I described that first encounter:
 
“As soon as Ron and his team arrived I briefed him on the plan and set off back down the bund line towards the river with Ninety, PB and Double A in hot pursuit. I hadn’t had a chance to brief them yet, but they all knew that wherever I was going they were going too. I could hear Delta blazing away behind us while Ron bellowed at them to conserve ammunition and slow their rate of fire.
The berm afforded limited cover which meant we could only run bent double but, despite this, we made quick progress until the bund petered out about ten metres short of the river bank. We would need to break cover and dash these last few metres. Stopping just short of the open ground, I quickly explained to the lads my plan and their individual roles. I could see that Ninety was made up to be joining me for the final assault. Then I explained we should individually make the dash across to the cover of the river bank. PB set off first. As soon as he disappeared Double A followed, then Ninety and I in rapid succession.
The river bank was about six feet above the level of the water and, in my haste to reach cover, I simply launched myself over the edge into thin air. The lads had all done pretty much the same thing and I landed on top of a heap of bodies in the river. Being the first one to cross the open ground, PB was now at the bottom of this pile and from the look on his face he wasn’t particularly enjoying the experience. At 43, PB was probably one of the oldest, if not the oldest, private soldier in the British Army. His paper round as a child must have been a hard one and he wore every single one of those 43 years in the lines on his face. Beneath this craggy exterior was a man of steel; PB was easily fitter than most lads half his age and was basically unbreakable. Providing a soft landing for three fully laden soldiers might not have been at the top of his ‘to do’ list that morning but it still wasn’t a big drama for him.
Given that I’d fallen on him from a great height, I was prepared to overlook the fact that he’d just called me ‘a fucking cunt, Sir’. As far as I was concerned, PB was gleaming.”
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SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Barclays reaches out to veterans

Rupert Stevens

Barclays reaches out to veterans moving into civilian world – Coventry Telegraph

It’s good to see Rupert Stevens making the headlines. Rupert was our Adjutant in Afghanistan – a key figurehead in any Regiment and the Commanding Officer’s right hand man. I owe him big because he delayed his own R&R so that I could return to the UK in time for Alfie’s birthday, but it was his very low opinion of the RAF that I remember most:

“I RETURNED TO the barracks to find a group of soldiers standing around their bergans, like so many girls at a school disco, quietly chatting and smoking, their cigarettes glowing in the dark as they patiently waited for the transport to RAF Brize Norton. A voice addressed me from the shadows:

‘Good of you to make it, Chris.’

It was the Adjutant, Captain Rupert Stevens. Rupert had been one of the first Grenadiers I’d met almost two years ago and although he’d always been supportive of my ambition to mobilise with the battalion, that didn’t mean he was averse to a bit of squaddie banter. He informed me that our trooping flight was scheduled for 07.00 the following morning but as this was ‘Crab Air’, army slang for the Royal Air Force, this was not a departure time but a ‘no move before’ time. In his opinion it was anyone’s guess when we might eventually take off.

Rivalry and deep cultural differences between the armed services ensured that Rupert, like all self‑respecting soldiers, did not have a kind word to say about the RAF. Still there was some truth behind his comments. The RAF was trying to maintain a busy air bridge between the UK and Afghanistan using an ageing fleet of Lockheed Tristar aircraft. These had first come into service in 1978 as commercial airliners operated by Pan American Airways who subsequently sold them to the RAF shortly after the Falklands War.

After 34 years of service the Tristar was showing its age and, a bit like myself, was only just about fit for purpose.

Troops had become resigned to long delays in the journey to and from Afghanistan. It’s also fair to say that the RAF, unlike the aircraft’s original owner, is not a customer focussed organisation and puts little thought into the welfare of its passengers. We would all spend many hours experiencing RAF hospitality and it was never enjoyable. Disparaging comments not only helped to pass the time but also managed expectation.

Some months later a much publicised visit to Afghanistan by James Blunt and Catherine Jenkins was cancelled after the Tristar in which they were travelling was forced to abort and return to Cyprus, not once but twice, with first an air leak and then a problem with the undercarriage. James Blunt, himself a former soldier, was not impressed and wrote an uncomplimentary article in The Telegraph which delighted the rank and file but angered the top brass, who disputed his claims of military incompetence. For Rupert, who had been tasked with organising this visit and who had boasted for days about his self‑appointed role as Catherine Jenkins’ personal assistant, this would only serve to confirm his already very low opinion of the RAF.

Ironically, despite his obvious frustration, the RAF had actually done James a favour. So far as I could tell, Rupert had invested considerable time and effort preparing a detailed and comprehensive visit programme for Catherine in which he intended personally to take care of her every need and desire. By contrast he’d assumed ‘Blunty’ would doss down in the honking transit accommodation and sort himself out.”

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Hell hath no fury

Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in marriage split – BBC News

Amber Heard files for divorce days after Depp’s mother dies.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I should know:

“ON 11th JULY 2012, some six months after I’d departed the UK, I finally received a communiqué from Jane. Not a message from Jane herself but an email from a Leeds based law firm which stated:

‘As you may be aware we have been contacted by Jane Harris in connection with the breakdown of your marriage, Indeed we are instructed that the marriage is at an end and we are to commence divorce proceedings against you in the near future. It would be helpful if you could provide me with an address to which the papers can be sent. The divorce will be based upon your unreasonable behaviour.’

Although, with hindsight, it was pretty obvious that Jane and I were heading for a divorce I was shocked and confused by this news. We had previously agreed that we would wait until I returned from Afghan before deciding our future as man and wife. By that time we would have lived apart for two years. Knowing that Jane already had a new boyfriend, I’d promised her that I would consent to a decree being granted if this was what she wanted.

This not only left the very slim possibility of reconciliation, but also ensured that Jane would receive a widow’s pension and other benefits from the army in the event of my death. I didn’t understand why Jane had so suddenly and dramatically changed her mind, but I could do little more than wait to learn of my unreasonable behaviours from the York County Court.

A few days later I received a further email from her solicitors to which they had attached a copy of the court papers. Internet access in MOB Price could be maddeningly slow and was confined to 30 minute sessions on the computers in the welfare cabins. I waited several long minutes as the file downloaded but then had no means of copying or printing the eight page document, which was written in a legalese with which I was not familiar. Hastily scribbling the main headings onto a bluey – the free aerograms supplied to troops on active service – I tried to make sense of the petition.

Part 6 the Statement of Case outlined my unreasonable behaviours:

  1. Over the course of the last 12 months of the marriage, on occasions far too numerous to specify there were arguments between the Petitioner and the Respondent. More annoyingly for the Petitioner when there were not arguments there were prolonged periods of silence causing a very unpleasant atmosphere within the matrimonial home. The respondent could sit for hours without speaking.
  2. Over the course of the last 12 months of the marriage the Respondent was controlling and selfish.
  3. The Respondent would take issue with the Petitioner for boiling more than one cup of water in the kettle and wasting electricity.
  4. The Respondent would take issue with the Petitioner for using the vacuum instead of a carpet sweeper.
  5. The Respondent would go on 2 or 3 skiing holidays a year, without inviting the Petitioner nor the children, causing the Petitioner upset.
  6. The Respondent would complain that house hold paper work remained unfiled.
  7. The Respondent demanded the running of the property in his own way and was derogatory towards the Petitioner when his own way was not followed.
  8. The Respondent on one occasion threw a pack of BBQ skewers at the Petitioner following the Petitioner having made a cooking suggestion.

Jane was right, of course, everything she’d outlined in her divorce petition was true, I was guilty as charged. But perhaps her statement of case didn’t quite tell the whole story.

We had indeed argued on occasions far too numerous to mention, although these arguments had principally been about Jane’s refutation of our precarious financial situation, or about her point‑blank refusal to rein in her expenditure, describing this to me as demeaning. I had indeed insisted on running the property and our budgets in my own way, but only after Jane spent the £3,500 I’d earmarked for school fees on her wardrobe. I had enquired on numerous occasions why she refused to use the energy saving ‘one cup’ kettle my father had kindly given us for Christmas, although I suspected I knew the reason why. I did recall sitting for hours in stunned silence after Jane had revealed to me that she’d voted in local elections for a party of the right most commonly associated with shameful immigration policies and shaven‑headed, tattooed thugs. And yes, I had complained about unfiled paperwork and I had thrown a pack of BBQ skewers.

There was also the question of my excessive skiing. I’d declared my passion for skiing long before we married and we had been on several skiing holidays together. But Jane did not share my love of snow covered mountains and never took to the thrill of descending their gelid gradients. When she informed me that she no longer wished to go on skiing holidays I hadn’t understood this to mean that I should no longer go skiing either.

If I were splitting hairs I might have argued that I had merely asked Jane to remind our housekeeper to use the carpet sweeper, rather than the vacuum, on our expensive Persian rugs. To the best of my knowledge, Jane neither vacuumed nor swept.

However, there was one further item that I could not accept. My hand shook as I hurriedly scrawled the final statement onto the bluey:

  1. The respondent would become very aggressive towards the Petitioner following occasions when the Petitioner merely made simple suggestions or comments. The Petitioner would view the actions of the Respondent during such periods of time as borderline abuse.

I couldn’t accept the allegation of aggression and abuse. It simply wasn’t true and just rereading the accusation in my own illegible handwriting on the flimsy airmail paper felt like a betrayal that brought tears to my eyes. I hadn’t expected Jane to lie. But perhaps I should not have been surprised by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.

Much later I would draw the conclusion that Jane must have been schooled by her solicitors on this point. She would never produce any evidence to substantiate these terrible claims and was always very careful never directly to accuse me of abusive or aggressive behaviour, stating instead that this was her opinion of my behaviour. Over time I think Jane came to believe her own rhetoric, and would always default to this line whenever we had a disagreement.

It seemed that Jane and I were now at war and she had achieved Foxtrot Triple Tango. Stuck as I was on the front line of the most dangerous district in the most dangerous province of the most dangerous country on the planet, with just 30 minutes of low speed internet connectivity per session in the MOB Price internet cabins, there was precious little I could do about it.”

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Stuff not Sh*t

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It was great to meet and chat with Steve Yabsley today on BBC Radio Bristol. To stop listeners from choking on their lunch he deleted my expletive and replaced it with the word “stuff”.  You can listen to Steve’s interview at the link.

BBC Radio Bristol – Steve Yabsley, Steve Yabsley

His producer, Becky Walsh is an author and life coach and has written a number of books including:

You do know: Learning to act on intuition instantly.

She is an expert on guiding people through a mid-life crisis. If only we’d met three years ago she might have saved me the trouble of writing my own book. I left the studio totally in awe of her and with a bit of a crush.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

 

Radio-in-a-box (RIAB)

Steve Yabsley

I’m joining Steve Yabsley’s lunchtime show tomorrow on BBC Radio Bristol. I have some prior radio experience but it’s not very positive:

“The radio‑in‑a‑box was exactly that. A rather large and cumbersome box which contained ruggedised tape and CD decks, together with sophisticated recording and broadcasting equipment. Requiring only the addition of electrical power, an antenna and a willing DJ, it contained all that was needed to set up a new radio station.

I’d been introduced to the RIAB on the PsyOps course I’d attended at the Defence Intelligence and Security Centre in Chicksands, Bedfordshire. Due to the very high rates of illiteracy in Afghanistan, or perhaps due to the very low number of Pashtu speakers amongst ISAF soldiers, radio was considered an essential communications tool by both British and American forces.

RIABs had first been used in Afghanistan in 2005 at a time when the Taliban were assessed to be winning the public relations battle. At the time ISAF had no means to counter Taliban propaganda or to communicate anti‑Taliban and anti‑al‑Qaeda messages of its own. The RIAB was the answer, enabling ISAF to broadcast its version of events to a large, often remote audience.

By the time I arrived in Helmand the RIAB was the psyopers¹ weapon of choice and a network of radio transmitters had been set up across the province using local Afghan DJs to broadcast information and host call‑in shows. The psyopers liked to call their creation ‘Radio Tamadoon’, but all the Afghans I ever met called it what it was, Radio ISAF. To complement the transmitters, wind‑up radios had been handed out to local nationals. Although I was not prepared to vouch for the reliability of the statistics, it was alleged that 92% of Helmand Province’s 1.5 million inhabitants listened to the radio every day.

Certainly thousands of radios had already been distributed and I gave away hundreds more on my FFUI² patrols, but I never saw any of the locals actually using the radios or listening to Radio ISAF. All those who eagerly accepted the free radios I handed out assured me that they tuned in every day, but I was sceptical. I’d grown used to locals telling me what they thought I wanted to hear so I took to carrying one of the wind‑ups in my pack and attempting to tune into the RIAB on my patrols. To my surprise, despite maps of the province produced by the PsyOps Group which outlined antenna reach and indicated almost total coverage in our AO, I discovered that reception outside Gereshk was patchy at best and non‑existent in many areas.

In contrast it was easy enough to tune into BFBS Radio, the English language station for UK troops, almost everywhere I travelled. BFBS was of course staffed by civilians, all of whom were professionals in the broadcasting industry, while the RIAB was staffed by soldiers, like me, with little if any prior experience.

Nonetheless, Thor and I invested a lot of time trying to improve the station programming and make it less blatantly an ISAF propaganda tool by inviting GIRoA officials, ANA commanders, Mullahs and other local dignitaries to conduct radio shows. We even had a go at healthcare and agricultural advice programming, but neither of us had any experience in running a radio station and there was no budget to produce these shows. Our efforts, while initially enthusiastic and well intentioned, were amateurish at best and we quickly ran out of goodwill and content to fill our ambitious schedule.

It was claimed that some RIAB DJs had as many as 50,000 listeners, but I guessed that poor reception and dodgy scheduling was having a negative impact on our figures and I started scanning the phone‑in reports produced after each show. Despite the statistics being bandied about by the PsyOps Group, I discovered that most of the calls we received came from the same half dozen callers. Even Sultaan, the irrepressibly optimistic District Communications Advisor became disillusioned with the RIAB and stopped turning up to host the weekly live phone‑in show that Thor and I had given him.

When I discussed my reservations with Owen, our Royal Marines Cultural Advisor and one of only a handful of fluent Pashtu speakers in Task Force Helmand, he helpfully pointed out that one of my supposedly local DJs was in fact from another part of Afghanistan where they spoke a different dialect from the Helmandis. This embarrassing oversight may have had something to do with our rather poor performance.

But there was another even more compelling reason. I’d read in an intelligence report that ownership of an ISAF radio could be injurious to human health. In the contested area in which we operated locals risked a severe beating from the Taliban if they were found to be in possession of one of the free wind‑ups we were handing out, although I’d observed that these were still eagerly accepted in all but the most hard‑line areas. All my evidence may have been circumstantial but it still pointed to an obvious conclusion. Our woeful reception and lamentable programming were quite simply not worth a beating. Although I couldn’t prove it, I rather suspected that the majority of the radios I handed out ended up, still in their original packaging, in the markets and bazaars of other more permissive districts.

Perhaps the RIAB was not quite as effective a weapon in the communications war as the PsyOps Group were claiming. It seemed perfectly possible to me that the POG were psyoping the home team by overstating the role and value of the RIAB to the counter‑insurgency.”

 

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

¹Psyoper: A psychological operations practitioner

²FFUI: Find, Feel, Understand, Inform. In January 2010, Major General Michael T. Flynn USA wrote an influential paper titled Fixing Intel: A blueprint for making intelligence relevant in Afghanistan. His paper recommended sweeping changes to the way the intelligence community thinks about itself – from a focus on the enemy to a focus on the people of Afghanistan. This involved modifying the five components of the kinetic targeting approach: find, fix, finish, exploit and analyze into a non-kinetic social engineering construct: find, feel, understand, inform.

More time in the office?

Author in Fresh Pow

When I first set out to write my book during the 2012/13 ski season, a season which coincidentally saw the heaviest accumulated snowfall in the French Alps for over 70 years  I naively imagined it would take me three months.

In the end it has taken a little over three years, during which time I have discovered a statistically significant inverse correlation between fresh snowfall and writing productivity.

Snowfall v Productivity

I’ve lost count of the number of writing hours sacrificed in the search for fresh powder but I don’t regret a single one of them. No-one looks back from their death-bed and wishes they’d spent more time in the office. Do they?

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

1000’s flee fighting

Father and sons, Zumbalay

Displacement due to conflict within Afghanistan increased by 40% from 2014 to 2015, and this year could see another increase.

According to an OHCA report published yesterday, about 118,000 people have already fled their homes since the beginning of the year. 1,000 Afghans Flee Fighting Every Day: UN.

In 2009, General Stanley McChrystal observed that “Destroying a home or property jeopardises the livelihood of an entire family – and creates more insurgents.” I certainly saw evidence of this:

“Although Mirajdin invoked Allah in his endeavours to kill British servicemen his was not a Holy War. Mirajdin was a proud Muslim, but not a Jihadist nor even a Talib. He did not fight for reasons of faith or ideology.

Nor was his an intergenerational struggle against a colonial oppressor, even though his forebears had routed the British at the battle of Maiwand. As a wide‑eyed toddler at his grandfather’s knee, Mirajdin had listened in awe to bloody tales of the last stand of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot at the Mundabad Ravine, not far from where he now lay.

These stories, passed down the generations by the village spin zhiras, had nothing but praise and admiration for the bravery of the Angrezis who’d fought to the last man in the defence of their Colours. It was said these men, surrounded by thousands, died with their faces to the enemy, fighting to the death and their courage was the wonder of all who saw it.

It was a courage Mirajdin did not recognise in the men who now came to avenge them, hiding as they did in armoured vehicles while raining death and destruction from the sky.

Although Mirajdin, along with many others, was of the firm conviction that the British had returned after 150 years to avenge their ancestors, his own motives for opposing them dated back to a much earlier time. As an Ishaqzai tribesman, Mirajdin fought to resolve an injustice imposed upon his people over two and a half centuries earlier when Ahmed Shah first united the Pashtun clans of Afghanistan and founded the Durrani Dynasty.

Prior to 1747 the Ishaqzai had been the dominant Pashtu tribe in Helmand. Under the Durrani Confederation their fortunes had waned and another tribe, the Barakzai had come to prominence. Loss of power and prestige had resulted in a loss of livestock, many lost their nomadic lifestyle, and some were also deprived of their respected status as warriors.

Impoverished Ishaqzai nomads were forced by circumstance to become farmers and earned the derogatory nickname Sogzai or Vegetable People. Ironically perhaps, the Vegetable People had learned to grow poppy and, under the Taliban, their fortunes had revived.

Mirajdin now fought the British not from religious zeal, or from racial hatred, but because the British, following the fall of the Taliban, had been duped by the Barakzai leadership into supporting their efforts to take control of the opium trade in Helmand. The British, and the Americans before them, had empowered the Barakzai by awarding them lucrative construction and security contracts. In return, the Barakzai had fooled the British into believing their old tribal rivals were insurgents, or Taliban.

In 2006, in the face of Barakzai intimidation, with the unwitting collusion of British troops, Mirajdin’s family had been forced to abandon their home to the north‑east of Gereshk and resettle in less fertile lands outside the green zone. Seen through the lens of a centuries‑old intertribal rivalry, Mirajdin had endured this humiliation as a teenager and had silently vowed to restore his family and his people’s honour. Six years later, lying in the dust beside the road, with pounding heart and trembling fingers, he was just moments from realising his pledge.

If God willed it.

Mirajdin was no more than an accidental insurgent. He fought the British simply because they were his rival’s allies. His forefathers had contested Barakzai domination long before the arrival of the Angrezi kafirs, and his descendants would continue to do so long after they had departed.”

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Seek Out Danger

ACOG optical weapon sight, Saidan

I discovered James Elroy Flecker’s verse play Hassan (1922) at the weekend. His words ring true, perhaps because they reference snow covered mountains or perhaps because they so perfectly describe my mid life crisis. Ironically, they are also much admired by the Special Air Service, with whom I was mostly at loggerheads throughout my time in Afghanistan.

Go as a pilgrim and seek out danger
far from the comfort
and the well lit avenues of life.

Pit your every soul against the unknown
and seek stimulation in the comfort of the brave.

Experience cold, hunger, heat and thirst
and survive to see another challenge and another dawn.

Only then will you be at peace with yourself
and be able to know and to say;

“I look down the farthest side of the mountain,
fulfilled and understanding all,
and truly content that I lived a full life
and one that was my own choice.”

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go always a little further;
it may be beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
across that angry or that glimmering sea.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Out manoeuvred, outgunned and out of breath.

No 2 Coy, Zumbalay

Yesterday I shared War on the Rocks blog, Outnumbered, Outranged and Outgunned. I was more frequently out manoeuvred, out gunned and out of breath in Afghanistan.

“IT’S A LITTLE after 4.30am and I’m already weeping sweat from every pore. This is partly because for some weeks now night-time temperatures have not fallen below 20°C/68°F, and partly because the combined weight of my combat body armour, weapon systems, ammunition, water and other equipment tops the scales at just over 52kilos, 65% of my bodyweight. It’s a burden that stretches sinews and cartilage to breaking point. It’s no wonder the Taliban, who go to war unencumbered by health and safety legislation, call us donkey soldiers. The British seaside donkey code of best practice recommends that donkey loads do not exceed 25% of an animal’s weight. No such guidance exists either for donkeys, or for British soldiers, in Afghanistan.

Fooling around on the lawns at Gooseberry Hall with Harry and Alfie we’d perfected a manoeuvre we called the triple in which Alfie would sit on Harry’s shoulders and Harry would then sit on mine. We would then stagger around the garden for a few minutes before eventually collapsing in a heap of bodies and a fit of giggles. Between them they weighed substantially less than the kit I’ll be wearing for the next eight hours as temperatures soar into the high thirties.

Studies have shown that at 173cm in my socks, I’m the perfect size and build for the modern infantry soldier. Human joints essentially work on a lever principle. The heavier the load and the longer the lever, the weaker the joint and the more prone it is to failure. So‑called short‑arses like me have an advantage over our taller and longer boned colleagues, but in my case I reckon these advantages are well past their sell‑by date. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Shortly after we arrived in MOB Price an anonymous colleague procured a Zimmer frame from somewhere and kindly placed this beside my desk in the J9 cell. I was touched by their concern for my welfare and mobility needs.”

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the true story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

Spin Zhira Content Rating

Unpalatable truths

Spin Zhira Content Rating

Strong language, adult content, unpalatable truths. I’m afraid my book contains them all. But I suspect it would be impossible to write an honest account of any conflict without them and the war in Afghanistan was no exception:

“There was, however, another reason why I was attending the symposium. Brigadier Douglas Chalmers, the Task Force Helmand Commander was to give a keynote address. I’d made some potentially treasonous claims in my after‑dinner speech about the progress of the mission in Afghanistan. I was curious to hear what he had to say.

Naturally the senior British officer in Helmand Province could speak only of success. His military masters and his future career prospects depended upon this. But he chose some unusual metrics that suggested, perhaps, that he too had private reservations. He even touched upon the Helmand malaise of self‑deception to which I had myself acceded.

His commanders and advisors, he told us, would often tell him what he wanted to hear. In order to get to the ‘crystal truth’ about the state of Helmand he ended up talking to butchers and grocers instead.

‘I picked them because the Afghan capacity to eat meat is unrivalled on the planet, and the need for them to get a good supply is quite prevalent. On earlier tours I saw they were only really selling goat and chicken and on this tour I saw a lot more beef. Now, cattle are expensive and when you slaughter a cow, with a lack of refrigeration, you need to have the confidence to sell that cow. I saw a lot more cattle being slaughtered and a lot more cattle in people’s compounds.

I became fixated by tomatoes… it is quite a soft fruit and easily damaged, and again there is a lack of refrigeration. The market stalls were never without tomatoes. And the ability for them to be moved from the villages to the market towns was a good indication of the freedom of movement that the stall holders have.

From those two elements I got a sense of the micro economics in the market towns and cities.’

The Brigadier was right. Beef and tomatoes were both prevalent in the local markets and bazaars, and there seemed to be no shortage of customers with sufficient disposable income to purchase such luxury foodstuffs.

But I was less certain of the causality he presumed. The explosion of poppy production over which the British had inadvertently presided was more likely to be at the heart of the economic growth he described. Nahr‑E‑Saraj remained the most violent district in the most violent province in the whole of Afghanistan, manifestly unable to sustain itself on beef and tomatoes rather than poppy.

I think the Brigadier knew this too. I think he also knew, but could not publicly state, that there could be no effective military solution when the political objective was so far from aligned with the country’s underlying social framework.

DfID’s state building hubris and incompetence, together with the tsunami of poorly regulated international aid and the vested interests of the narco‑industry, had combined to create one of the most corrupt nations on earth, alongside Somalia and North Korea. These were metrics of which Brigadier Chalmers was surely aware but could not discuss. So instead he spoke of cautious optimism for the future.

I took this to be code for an excess of caution coupled with a lack of optimism.

If the Brigadier was visiting the bazaars and talking to the stall holders as he claimed, then he must have seen the same things I had seen. He too must have observed the dissonance between the official narrative of a better life with GIRoA and the evidence of his own eyes and ears. Or perhaps, despite his best efforts, the butchers and grocers he spoke to told him only what they thought he wanted to hear.

Brigadier Chalmers was clearly an intelligent and experienced officer and I did not believe he was blind to the realities of the failing Afghan mission. He did, however, have the unenviable task of motivating men for battle and of justifying whatever pain and suffering might then result. This may well have convinced him to keep his own counsel, for which I would not blame him.

In preparing for Afghanistan I’d been much motivated by the British 19th century philosopher, John Stuart Mill. Although Mill had no personal experience of combat he’d theorised that an honest war could be a means of personal regeneration.

At a time when I was trying to seek some purpose and guidance in my life beyond the accumulation of wealth and possessions I’d seized upon this notion to justify abandoning my wife and young children in the pursuit of some higher purpose.

With hindsight, despite our very best intentions, it seemed we all had fought under a misapprehension. Rather than protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice we had preserved tyrannical injustice in the form of a hopelessly corrupt and irredeemable government.

We had been used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a governor in the pay of the illegal opium trade and of a police chief feathering his own nest and lining it with little boys for unspeakable purposes.

Rather than face up to the unpleasant reality of the things we knew to be happening around us, and which we appeared to be perpetuating, we blinded ourselves with self‑deceit.

Perhaps it was fanciful thinking on my part to believe that Brigadier Chalmers might share my own deep misgivings. After all we had met only once before when he had misjudged my efforts to influence policy in Afghanistan as ‘deeply impressive’. But if I was right, we were not alone in self‑deceit.

It enveloped us all:

In the pronouncements of the Provincial Reconstruction Team; in the declarations of successive Prime Ministers; in the statements of visiting government officials, movie stars, musicians and glamour models; in the cautiously optimistic reports of the international media; in the glittering array of honours and awards bestowed upon Afghan veterans, and in the millions donated to service charities.

Rather than admit the possibility of failure we embraced this deceit, basking in its warming, self‑satisfying glow before perpetuating the deceit ourselves so that others might also enjoy its embrace.

But these were just my personal musings. I wasn’t a government minister, or a glamour model, so what did I know?

Perhaps in years to come the third Anglo‑Afghan War (2003–2014) will be seen as a blueprint for military intervention, counter‑insurgency, international development and state building. Catriona Laing, the head of the Helmand PRT seemed to think so when she earnestly pronounced:

‘We have presented the people of Helmand with an opportunity. They have grabbed it enthusiastically, confidently… it’s now in their hands for the future.’

I am far less certain history will agree with her.”

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the true story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand. A true story.