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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics


Combat Camera

From Auntie Beeb to the Afghan Frontline

Christian Hill         Alma Books, 25 April 2014

When I read the press release, it said “From Auntie Beep to the Afghan Frontline”, which made me think that was a strange nickname for one’s aunt, and why mention her prior to an Afghan tour?


But it was just the slip of a slack flack. Christian Hill is a radio journalist, and a TA Captain, working in media relations. After a swift canter through his early spasmodic career in journalism, the book is a narrative of his doubts after volunteering for an Afghan tour, and then the events that took place out there.


The book is written in a witty, engaging style – as one might expect from a journalist. The description of the minibus journey from Chilwell (where the Army processed its TA Afghan fodder)  to Brize (the RAF’s Gatwick) will have most male readers clutching their sides. The description of his arrival in theatre is thus: “Camp Bastion rose out of the wastes of the Afghan desert like a mirage, rich with its promises of doughnuts and air conditioning.”  A sense of irony rarely deserts Hill: “In the heart of this temporary but probably permanent monument to Western overstretch was the JMOC…” (his place of work).


But what is more mystifying is Hill’s mindset. His first job was a short service commission with the Royal Artillery – he bailed out after four years. Yet he seems unremittingly unwarlike. So, although he knows the Army’s hierarchical structure, and way of doing things, sufficiently intimately to be a useful media liaison person, much of the book covers his whimpering about the nastiness that might befall him if he ventures out on patrol in Helmand’s Green Zone.


If this sounds harsh, it is because the book resonates with me because Hill’s Afghan sojourn came just 12 months after that of SOD™(see glossary). The summer fighting season of 2010 saw more or less the worst rate of casualties amongst British forces of any period in the Afghan folly. Although it was barely better when Hill arrived in Bastion. The author reports his own nervousness with characteristic self-deprecation.


One of the merits of this book is that it will feed an inquisitive reader: one who doubts the perennial guff spouted by British politicians (started by Tony Blair and John “We will never fire a shot” Reid). Hill shows the effort that is made to spin the progress of the British military & civil effort, together with that of ISAF colleagues. Hill is the Alistair Campbell of the MoD when he is in theatre, and one senses that role sits uneasily with his purer journalistic traits. So the author is understandably obsessed with incident reports and the flow of customers for Bastion’s amazing hospital, or rather customers for the almost two hundred  amazing staff, who deal with up to 30 trauma cases each day.


Whilst news media back in the UK focused (and still focus) exclusively on fatalities, Hill notes (but does not promulgate) the endless stream of amputations and other serious injuries. He monitors the Bastion throughput, shown in Appendix 1, from the same data series that I monitored in 2010, sometimes with injuries acquired in PBs where he served, as I wondered whether SOD™ would be reduced to a statistic. An infantry sergeant does a briefing to new arrivals in theatre, and makes a common mistake (possibly on purpose): “This month, so far, we have only had seven battle casualties out of 9,500 people. That is not a lot guys. If you work that out as a percentage, your chance of getting injured is very, very slim at the moment”. Wrong. The 9,500 included everyone in the British compliment – chefs, bottlewashers, blanket stackers – if you were an infantryman, particularly the point man on a patrol, your odds would be much, much worse.


Hill notes wryly the moral dances of ISAF in approaching the vexed issue of the Afghans’ poppy cultivation. In the arid quagmire, if such exist, of Helmand Hill’s role is to search out the rare nuggets of good news. His interviews with infantry officers typically go along the lines of  “The IED threat has gone up dramatically.” “Well what about Gereshk?” interjects Hill “It seems quite normal.”  “Gereshk is a toilet in an oven” – British soldiers, be they officers or men, do not like polishing turds!  On another plane, Hill reports the 2010 UN finding that corruption accounts for 38% of the nation’s GDP – even Alistair Campbell would have difficulty making that look good!


As we have just passed Mothering Sunday,  it is worth noting that that date sees queues of men for the scarce phone resources trying to reach their mothers in the UK. Hill also notes the emotional rollercoaster of Op Minimise. This will be familiar to most service families, and unfamiliar to everyone else. But it bears an explanation: when a British serviceman is killed or suffers a very severe injury, private communications from Afghan are banned, so as to prevent the victim’s family hearing the news by accident or informally. (They are told by the dreaded knock on the door). Minimise therefore means there is another man down. Conversely silence in the UK, when one is expecting communications from a loved son, daughter, or boyfriend, means an uncomfortable few hours until one hears the victim’s name on the UK media.

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