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Old Man in Helmand

John Reid

On this day ten years ago, during a visit to Kabul, John Reid, the then Secretary of State for Defence, committed British troops to Helmand Province for the first time. He declared: “We’re in the south to help and protect the Afghan people to reconstruct their economy and democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years time without firing one shot.”

However earnestly he might have held this aspiration it has always struck me as a forlorn hope. If you send men with guns to do a job, the solution to the problem facing them is likely to involve using the tools of their trade. With the benefit of hindsight, I can be fairly certain that John Reid has regretted these words. Three years later in July 2009, with no clear exit strategy and the death toll mounting, he was forced to state in the House of Commons: “I never at any stage expressed the hope, expectation, promise or pledge that we would leave Afghanistan without firing a shot.”

A month later the Daily Telegraph produced a report which contained the calculation that, in the three year period between Reid’s first statement and his subsequent clarification to the House of Commons, the British Army had in fact fired 12,282,300 ‘shots’ in Afghanistan. At a rate of more than 12,000 rounds every day, if this estimate was accurate, it didn’t sound to me like there was a lot of time left over for reconstructing the Afghan economy or democracy.

By 2012 I don’t believe we were expending ammunition at anything like this rate, but this is not to underestimate the scale and ferocity of the fighting. We still experienced skirmishes, or contacts, on a daily basis. My own introduction to Afghan combat came just a few days into our tour when a routine patrol to visit an outlying base in the very north of our area of operations came under attack from multiple firing points. Outnumbered and outgunned the patrol commander coolly requested fire support from the mortars in nearby Khar-Nikar, a base which housed a company strength group from the Royal Ghurkha Rifles. In a 20‑minute period, under direction from the patrol commander, the mortars fired over 200 high explosive rounds before the enemy finally broke contact, allowing the patrol to continue on its task.

Although I’d been in contacts before, I’d never personally experienced anything like this intensity of combat. Listening to the reports coming in from the safety of the operations room, I was struck by the relative calm not only of those involved on the ground but also of the men and women in the ops room coordinating our response. I was the oldest man there by some margin, but I was surrounded by veterans of over ten years of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq for whom this was a routine occurrence.

I was in awe at their professionalism, and more than a little anxious at the prospect of going on the ground myself. How would I react in a similar situation? With four previous operational tours under my belt, and an award for service in Bosnia in 1996, I’d always considered myself a seasoned soldier. As I watched the drama of the contact unfold the realisation dawned that, despite my advanced years and prior service, I was merely a novice. It was now clear to me why one of my instructors back in the UK had described the Upper Gereshk Valley as the University of Close Quarter Combat.

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. All infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Available today on Amazon Kindle for the special introductory price of £3.99.

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

The Queen’s bodyguard

Queen and Grenadiers

As the Queen’s turns 90 today I recall the first time I met her bodyguard.

“As we walked along Petty France, James gave me a potted history of the men I was about to meet. The Grenadier Guards is the most senior of the five regiments of Foot Guards and one of the oldest regiments in the British Army. Formed in Bruges in 1656 as the Royal Regiment of Guards to protect the exiled King Charles II, it has gone on to serve ten kings and four queens, including the current Queen Elizabeth II.

The Regiment was renamed the “First Grenadier Regiment of Foot Guards” in 1815, in recognition of its part in the defeat of the French Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard at the Battle of Waterloo, and has been so named ever since.

For the last decade or more my lunch had been a sandwich and a bag of cheese and onion, hastily eaten at my desk while simultaneously trying to stay on top of my email inbox. As James explained, this is not how the officers of the Queen’s bodyguard choose to conduct themselves. As befits one of the most esteemed regiments in the British Army, officers assemble in the anteroom from 12.30pm and then at 1pm sharp process through to the dining room where they are served a three course lunch by the Officers’ Mess Colour Sergeant and his staff. Once lunch is complete they take coffee in the anteroom before resuming their work schedule at 2pm on the dot.

I suspect it’s a routine that has changed little since those early days in Bruges when Henry Wilmot, First Earl of Rochester commanded the battalion, except perhaps in one regard. Henry Wilmot was a popular commander who liked a drink and according to contemporary commentators ‘drank hard, and had a great power over all who did so, which was a great people’. The modern Grenadiers may not have succumbed to the vulgarity of a sandwich lunch, but in a concession to progress, there was no hard drink to be had.

James and I presented our MoD 90’s – our British Army photo identity cards – at the barracks guardroom and were duly escorted through a maze of subterranean passageways to the mess. Despite its historic location in the heart of London, it’s an ugly concrete building of little, if any, architectural merit that conceals a rich history. Within the drab exterior the Grenadiers have decorated the walls with paintings and portraits chronicling their glorious past. Severe looking senior officers dressed in black frock coats lined the walls, alongside enormous oil paintings recording magnificent, hard-won victories from a bygone age.

One such painting struck my eye.

A little smaller than the rest it seemed oddly out of place, although like so many others it depicted a fierce and violent battle. A small group of about eight or ten Grenadiers can be seen taking cover behind a low wall. As those in the background fix bayonets, perhaps preparing to fend off an imminent assault, those in the foreground are engaged in a furious firefight. Men can be seen standing dangerously exposed above the parapet firing their belt-fed machine guns at an unseen enemy, while their comrades work furiously to keep them resupplied with ammunition. The air is thick with cordite and dust, their situation looks pretty desperate. I can feel the heat of the battle, hear the crack and thump of rounds passing perilously close, smell the sweat and blood of these men as they stand firm on their position, fighting for their lives.

What made this picture so different from the others was that the paint was hardly dry. The scene it depicted was a battle, not from a previous century, but from the Grenadiers’ last tour of duty less than 12 months before. Standing transfixed by the painting I was once more reminded of the dangerous business I was getting myself into. I was about to sit down to lunch with veterans of this scene, or ones just like it, and wondered if I had what it took to stand shoulder to shoulder with them on the field of battle, as James had done. I didn’t know the answer to that one but I did know that, if this picture was anything to go by, they’d earned the right to their anachronistic lunches.”

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. All infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Now available on Amazon Kindle for the special pre-order price of £1.99.

Call me, maybe

Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins caused quite a stir in Afghanistan when their cheerleaders appeared in music video ‘Call Me Maybe’ by Carly Rae. In a predominantly male, heterosexual community sex, or the lack of it, was a constant preoccupation and the bikini clad cheerleaders did nothing to improve the situation.

“DURING THE FEW days I’d been away at Clifton, I discovered that in my absence someone had ‘cocked’ the notepad I’d been foolish enough to leave in plain sight on my desk.

Cocking was an obsession in the Headquarters, a symptom of the sexual repression under which we all laboured. Both British and Danish commands imposed a strict no-sex rule in MOB Price, which for the most part was observed. This sexual abstinence was not the result of a commendable adherence to military discipline. Had an opportunity to engage in sexual congress presented itself I’m pretty certain that most of my colleagues, like me, would have set aside all considerations of military discipline and good order – but opportunity did not present. Price was a predominantly male, heterosexual community most of whom had wives or girlfriends waiting for them back home.

Sex, or the lack of it, was a constant preoccupation. So much so that at one of our decompression briefings in Cyprus at the end of our tour a female officer from the Royal Army Chaplains Department felt it necessary to remind us that sex involves two (or possibly more) people. By then I could hardly wait.

For the dozen or so women in Price, mostly medics and dog handlers, life in this sexually charged, testosterone fuelled environment must have been a minefield. On one occasion a female reserve officer was admonished for running wearing running shorts. This came to the attention of the chain of command who deemed it dangerously erotic. She was ordered to cease and desist immediately. In her case I had to admit they had a reasonable point, but the officer in question was incensed. When she came to seek my counsel it seemed inappropriate to compliment her on the comeliness of her gluteus maximus, so instead I offered a sympathetic ear, and tried to impress upon her the uncertain benefits of voluminous army issue shorts.

For men at their sexual peak – and even for those of us who had already passed that particular milestone – this enforced abstinence inevitably had its frustrations which were expressed in a number of ways. Cocking was one of them.

As far as I am aware this is an exclusively male obsession and involves the covert drawing of phallic imagery. This is nothing new of course. Such representations have been found dating back to the Ice Age around 28,000 years ago, and appear in many ancient cultures and religions. But the art reached new heights in MOB Price. Penis imagery would mysteriously appear on notebooks, notice boards, signage, PowerPoint presentations and operational staff work. An unusual geographical feature to the north east of PB Clifton was even referred to on our maps as ‘cock and balls’.

On one occasion I attended a packed briefing session in which a senior officer scribbled a note intended for Colonel James, who was sitting across the room, and handed it to the man next to him to pass down the table. By the time it reached its destination it had passed through the hands of a dozen or so officers and warrant officers, many of whom had surreptitiously cocked it. Although it was impossible to overlook the images with which it was now adorned, Colonel James accepted the note without so much as a raised eyebrow.

The towering penis that had been drawn on the front cover of my notebook was magnificent. It was a detailed and anatomically precise representation depicting an erection I’d have been justifiably proud of in my twenties and could only dream about in my forties. Phallic imagery varied considerably according to the imagination of the artist. I noticed, for example that Tom’s notebook had been illustrated with a lovingly drawn image of Winnie the Pooh being improbably penetrated by his diminutive sidekick, Piglet.

Judging from their absurdly oversized erections, which more closely resembled ancient Greek and Roman depictions of the deity Priapus than the sketches of AA Milne, they were both clearly enjoying the experience in a way that their creator had never intended.

Oh, D-D-Dear! said Piglet.

Back in civvy street, probably even back in barracks in the UK, Victorian prudishness and political correctness would not have tolerated phallic observance of this nature. HR departments would be called in, enquiries held, perpetrators reprimanded or even sacked. But in MOB Price phallophoric celebration of the Lingam, and to a lesser extent the Yoni, went unchecked.

The sexual health nurse who briefed us on RSOI had been right. None of our mucky lot was getting any and it was clearly preying on our minds.”

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. All infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

Now available on Amazon Kindle for the special pre-order price of £1.99.

Trousers, civilian w. turn-up


I retire from the Army Reserve today. I joined up back in 1988 but I still remember my first day at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst like it was yesterday:

I BECAME AWARE of his presence before I actually set eyes upon the Colour Sergeant for the very first time. Viscerally, I knew I’d properly fucked up well before I knew the reason why. The year was 1988 and I was trying to extract an ironing board from the back of my MGB GT, a vehicle not best suited to the carriage of such an unwieldy item. It was my first day at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst where I was embarking on a six month leadership training course which, if successful, would culminate in a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the British Army.

On arrival I had been directed to a car park some distance from my new home in Victory College, and instructed to get my kit unloaded and up to my new quarters in double quick time. In addition to the ironing board now stuck between the rear parcel shelf and the seat backs, the kit list of requirements had been extensive, running to several pages of curious back to front wording which transformed seemingly mundane items such as trousers and shoe polish into ‘trousers, civilian w. turn-up’ and ‘polish, shoes black’.

Getting this kit into my little car had been a gargantuan task in itself and I did not look forward to the multiple journeys to and from the car park that it would take to unload it all. In a flash of initiative that I reckoned would serve to highlight my suitability for commissioning, I resolved to bring Mohammed to the mountain and drive my car to an empty car park I had observed directly adjacent to the college. This would more than halve the unloading time.

Having put this unilateral change of plan into action I quickly completed the task, with the exception of the ironing board, which refused to budge. In an attempt to identify the cause of the obstruction I had somehow managed to squeeze my torso into the space between the parcel shelf and the seatbacks when I became aware of the Colour Sergeant at my back.

I inelegantly extricated myself from the vehicle. His towering presence loomed over me. It was obvious that I had transgressed in some way and was about to experience the wrath of the Colour Sergeant.

Immaculately dressed in blue tunic with red sash, brandishing a highly varnished wooden pace stick, the Colour Sergeant opened and closed his mouth a few times as he struggled to find the words to adequately express the full depth of his rage. The effect was like that of a pressure cooker about to explode. His arms and shoulders began to rise and fall in a series of short violent movements, but still no words emerged from his soundless lips. In an effort to diffuse the situation I stuck out my hand and attempted to introduce myself. The Colour Sergeant appeared truly affronted by this gesture, recoiling as if I had slapped him hard across the face. His impressive moustache twitched alarmingly and he finally found his voice.

“I know who you are, Sir. What are you doing on my parade square?”

He managed to make this prior knowledge of my existence sound deeply sinister. It was clear from his intonation that the ‘Sir’ was not intended as an honorific. Unsure how to answer without enraging him further it was my turn to be lost for words. The Colour Sergeant filled the void.

“Are you an amoeba, Sir?”

“Are you pond life, Sir?”

“Have you recently crawled out of a nearby swamp, Sir?”

“Are you not aware of the difference between a car park and a parade square, Sir?”

“Can you get anything right, Sir?”

I was dumbstruck. I had no idea how to respond. After a further few moments of uneasy silence the Colour Sergeant appeared satisfied that he had made his point.

“Cut away, Sir, cut away.”

And he walked briskly off in the direction whence he had come.

It wasn’t the best of starts but it was the start of one of the best adventures.

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. All infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart. Now available on Amazon Kindle for the special pre-order price of £1.99.

Pathetic and worthless

Fellhorn Off Piste

The 15/16 ski season is almost over. I’ve spent it working as a ski instructor. My ex-wife’s divorce lawyer would not be impressed.

“On leaving the army in 1996, I’d worked hard to climb the corporate ladder, achieving a degree of success which had brought wealth but not happiness. I felt trapped on a treadmill. My employers kept paying me ever larger salaries but demanded more and more of my time in return. My beautiful wife, Jane also enjoyed the trappings of success and required a seemingly inexhaustible supply of designer clothes, beauty treatments and visits to the hair salon, all of which required funding. Not to mention the trophy house with it’s prestigious SE21 post-code in Dulwich Village. This we filled with expensive designer furnishings so that we might employ a housekeeper to keep it all clean. Then there were the exotic but tediously sanitised holidays which we bragged about to our friends and neighbours.

I yearned for something more meaningful than this life of comfortable consumerism. Ironically, as a marketing specialist it was my job to encourage others to buy more and more goods and services for which I personally cared less and less. Skiing had become my escape valve. But it was also a source of constant friction between Jane and me as I sought to spend more and more time in the mountains.

When we finally divorced in 2013 she cited my excessive skiing as ‘a cause of upset and unreasonable behaviour’. Her advocate, whom it would have given me great pleasure to meet in a dark alley, sneered in court sessions at my ambition to become a ski instructor, as if this was somehow a pathetic and worthless aspiration.”

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 on the basis that all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart. Now available on Amazon Kindle for the special pre-order price of £1.99.