1 March, 2008Issue 7.2EuropePolitics & SocietyThe Middle EastWorld Politics

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Home Fires and Poppy Fields

Stuart Hallifax

Patrick Bishop
3 Para
Harper Press, 2007
289 pages
ISBN 978-0007257782

Announcing the British mission to Helmand in Southern Afghanistan, Defence Secretary John Reid famously stated that he would be happy if the soldiers “had not fired a shot” by the time their job was completed. Much sardonic comment can be, and has been, made of this apparent naivety, especially in light of the nearly half million shots fired in the first six months. Reid’s point was not, however, that he expected the mission to be peaceful, but that he hoped the British could oversee reconstruction and the extension of Afghan government control without the physical risks that combat posed to property and life in Helmand and the lives of British personnel. In addition, combat also ran the risk of alienating popular opinion both in Afghanistan and at home in the UK.

The 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (known as 3 Para) were the main fighting troops sent to Helmand in 2006, and Patrick Bishop’s explicit focus on them in his book showcases the stresses and excitement of combat at the cost of downplaying the broader picture of battle group operations. Such a focus only presents part of the experience of a deployment where virtually every job, from supply to policing, could and did lead to fire-fights with the enemy. A better picture of the complexity of modern war is given in historian Richard Holmes’s 2006 Dusty Warriors, which follows a battle group in action in Iraq in 2004. Holmes uses the testimonies of over 700 soldiers from across the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment Battle Group. This gives a diverse and holistic perspective on the experience of war, employing his usual synthesis of the broad sweep and the detail of military history. As a former foreign correspondent, Patrick Bishop’s writing is more like that of a journalist, making greater use of particular individuals and their stories and relating them in a more dramatic way, while sometimes missing the wider picture one finds in Holmes’s work. Despite this difference, it must be recognised that the action is often expressed in the soldiers’ words in both books, and their language is not a great deal less dramatic than Bishop’s.

The difference in approach between that of the historian and that of the journalist raises the question of whether events recorded a year after they took place, while the mission is still in progress, can be treated as history or should instead be related in a more journalistic manner. Sensibly, neither book attempts to tell the history of either conflict, but rather to depict the stories of “modern soldiers at war” as Holmes’s subtitle phrases it. The advantage of Bishop’s approach is that, with fewer people’s stories to follow, the reader is able to get a feel for the physical and emotional strains these men faced with the daily threat of attack, injury and death. The result is a more engaging and human, if less complete, portrait of the experience of modern war.

Bishop’s bias towards the personal is reflected in his style, as narrative and first-hand accounts take precedence over analysis. He provides a picture of the political and historical background to the mission, but the explicit emphasis of the book is on the experience of the men of 3 Para and not on the British deployment in Afghanistan as a whole. As Bishop explains, the 3 Para Battle Group that was sent to Helmand consisted of some 3,300 men and women performing hundreds of different roles, mainly drawn from the air-mobile 16 Air Assault Brigade. Its initial task was to aid reconstruction efforts and Afghan government control in the region, including training local police and army units. A subsidiary aim was to be to reduce the flourishing trade in opium from the province’s poppy fields. Although Helmand’s geographical position on the porous border with Pakistan makes it important in the fight against terrorism, the province had previously missed out on much of the reconstruction done around Kabul and in the north. Despite initial hopes of winning “hearts and minds” locally with their own acts of good will, the battle group was constrained by both British and Afghan political considerations. Appeals for action from provincial governor Daoud Mohammed and the need to prop up Afghan National Police outposts saw the soldiers both exposed to dangerous mobile operations and fixed in district centre buildings (or “platoon houses”) in the main towns, liable to be attacked at any time. Contrary to Reid’s stated hope for a peaceful mission, the very fact that troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade, trained for what the army call the “break-in battle”, were sent to Helmand shows how seriously the risk of such combat was taken by planners.

Under attack, soldiers often called in air strikes by the British and American air forces, causing massive destruction to the buildings used by the attackers. A terrible cycle of violence followed as civilians understandably moved away from the danger areas, unwittingly giving up more properties for use by the Taliban, which in turn might suffer further destruction. According to one soldier, the town of Now Zad changed from a “bustling market town” to “a complete war zone” over the course of the summer. Soldiers could hardly help becoming downhearted at the contradiction between their mission and the actual conditions in the towns:

‘What was it all about?’ asked an officer who spent nearly two months in a platoon house. ‘Well I flattened the town and I killed a lot of Taliban … did I achieve a good effect? I don’t know.’

With Bishop’s approach, telling the story of the soldiers rather than the history of the conflict, we see this destruction largely through its effect on the military situation. Elsewhere, the soldiers’ humanitarian concern for the local citizens also comes across. The fighting between the Coalition and the Taliban had the effect of driving civilians away both physically and politically, thus undermining British attempts to engage the population in reconstruction. Yet despite the clear danger to British and Afghan lives and local property, pressure from Governor Daoud and worries of negative reactions abroad prevented the military commanders from pulling troops out of fixed positions in favour of mobile operations. One soldier recorded his response to the governor’s worries that Musa Qaleh might fall into the hands of the enemy:

As far as I was concerned, the town was in the hands of the Taliban. All we had was a 100 metre dartboard, at which they threw darts in the form of [rocket-propelled grenades] whenever they fancied.

Although an extreme example, this encapsulates the concern of soldiers over their isolation in district centres and the ongoing physical threat to life and property in the towns. Eventually, the town elders in Musa Qaleh began three-way talks with British commanders and Taliban leaders, resulting in both sides leaving the town so that the populace could return and life could go on. The Taliban subsequently took power and in December 2007 the Coalition retook control of the town. Thankfully this is an anomaly, as Bishop points out, and with double the number of British troops on the ground than were sent there in 2006, conditions appear to have improved in other towns in Helmand. More broadly though, security is still a major problem and the fighting continues: 2007 saw increasing numbers of attacks on coalition forces, more than forty British fatalities and the largest number of British casualties evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan in any year since the operations began in 2001. A quarter of the 550 men of the Royal Anglian Regiment who went to Helmand that summer became casualties, either killed or wounded.

As well as the actual success of the campaign abroad, political and public opinion in the UK are important to any long-term military deployment. Both have two main elements: one regarding the mission itself, the other the army serving on it. The fact that this book was possible reflects a new recognition in the military of the need to increase public awareness of the role of servicemen beyond television and newspaper reports of fatalities. The death and injury of British soldiers tends to increase public, or at least media, respect for the military at the expense of belief in their deployment as people start to question whether the ends justify this sacrifice. Bishop’s interviewees repeatedly comment on the training and good fortune that allowed the soldiers to leave many of the fights without casualties. At other times they were less fortunate and Bishop’s emphasis on the personal experience shows both the sorrow and resilience of soldiers faced with friends’ deaths in combat. On a broader political scale, the deaths of two of the Royal Irish in one mortar attack and the more recent loss of three men of the Royal Anglians in a “friendly-fire” incident point to the potential risk of heavy casualties in a single combat operation.

The importance of public opinion on military campaigns has proven to be significant historically, and it will no doubt similarly shape the British mission in Afghanistan. For example, the drop in American popular support for the Vietnam War after the 1968 Tet Offensive, and the gradual whittling away of support for the current war in Iraq with its steadily increasing body-count provide useful insights into the effect of military casualties on public opinion. In Helmand, with the fiercest fighting the British army has experienced since the Korean War in the 1950s, monthly battle casualties numbered at least twenty through the summer and autumn of 2007, reaching a total of 233 for the year, compared to 85 in 2006. Writing primarily of events on the ground, Bishop does not deal directly with the effect on public opinion, but as the deployment continues it will undoubtedly have an effect on the running of the war. With the shift of the British effort in the ‘war on terror’ from Iraq to Afghanistan and American calls for more to be done there, interest in Helmand is likely to increase, and not only when the third in line for the throne is there. Public opinion of the deployment in the months and years ahead is hard to predict but battle casualties are bound to have an impact. Along with sympathetic coverage of the hard job soldiers face, encapsulated in Bishop’s book and recent Observer articles, this may see growing support for the soldiers but with a likely growth in scepticism over their mission.

On the other side of the public opinion divide, this book can be seen as part of a wider effort by the Ministry of Defence to bridge the “gulf” between army and society identified by General Sir Richard Dannatt, the professional head of the army. Dannatt hoped for a situation where the public would have a greater understanding of soldiers and their job, and the MoD has been attempting to spread information to enable such an understanding. Since 2006, when reports of fatalities or kit shortages dominated press coverage of Helmand, there has been a sea change in the MoD’s attitude to publicity that has allowed this book to be produced. Recording such recent events, with the conflict still ongoing and the participants still serving soldiers, Bishop’s book must naturally have been subject to official vetting and approval of its content. Indeed his interviewees include the commanding officers of both 3 Para and 16 Air Assault Brigade, and the book was launched at an event co-hosted by the Paras. In spite of this high-level involvement, the story that comes across is identifiably that of the soldier on the ground, told by men of all ranks from the highest to the lowest. The combination of official involvement and allowing the soldiers’ voice to be heard is present in the National Army Museum’s Helmand: The Soldiers’ Story exhibition, the production of which involved over 150 serving soldiers, and the Observer’s series of articles on conditions on the ground in Helmand in August 2007. Whereas in 2006 the gloomy Despatches documentary Fighting the Taliban was filmed in Helmand against MoD wishes, ITV’s Guarding the Queen was allowed to follow troops there a year later.

The need for official involvement and approval has not substantially altered these various attempts to tell the soldiers’ story in Helmand. In part this is because they are attempts to relate the experience and experiences of soldiers, rather than a complete history, either official or otherwise, of the conflict. While these experiences are almost unimaginable to non-military readers, to most they will be of more interest than a history of the politics and high-level strategy. Considerations of politics and strategy only arise in works like Bishop’s as the background to the deployment or when they directly impact on soldiers’ lives. Thus we do hear criticism of some elements, most notably Governor Daoud’s interventions and the district centre system. What comes across more strongly is the feeling that soldiers were and are doing the job for which they joined up and trained, and the stresses and strains involved in that job.

Naturally, the effort to provide information must include some restrictions as well, particularly in the case of sensitive details relating to an ongoing campaign. For example, the ban on soldiers taking cameras on operations means that the flurry of videos on YouTube of the 2006 deployment is unlikely to be repeated. Although these videos were a direct representation of their experience by soldiers, they tended to overemphasise the macho combat elements compared to the more even-handed, officially-sanctioned coverage. The approved depictions such as in this and Holmes’s book, as well as Observer articles and the Helmand exhibition give a clearer and more rounded picture of the life and work of modern soldiers. One may hope that, with this increase in the availability of information about the army, its soldiers and its role, that the gulf between British society and its army can be narrowed, even if it may never be fully closed.