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Mothers are full of passion for their offspring. That is why we love them.  But what when the creature they nurture becomes, not to put too fine a point on it, a trained killer? And what if that son goes to war and is himself killed? It is an heartache that has afflicted too many mothers over the centuries. But few have documented the emotional turmoil, and yet fewer are, as is Margaret Evison, a trained psychologist, and therefore perfectly placed to document that turmoil.

 

I read the book some while ago, and have been somewhat tardy in writing this review. Other deadlines came first. The publisher was (and is notoriously) unhelpful. And also because my main initial interest in the book left a nagging emotional legacy of its own. Mark Evison, the book’s subject, was just a little too like SODtm, indeed they had been in the same CCF at school, until Mark gained a music scholarship at Charterhouse, and moved on. The chronicle of the life of a parent with a son in Afghan - it was all rather close to home.

 

The book starts as it means to carry on – at full emotional throttle. Margaret describes the dread knock on the door by an Army officer, the rush to Selly Oak – the end of the medevac conveyor belt that took Mark from battlefield to Brum in a matter of hours. Then there is the clinical debate on when, and whether, to turn off his life support.

Death of a Soldier: A Mother's Story

Margaret Evison            Biteback, 2012

 

There was Mark with his beautiful brown lithe body, his sunburnt feet strapped with flip-flop marks, his handsome broad-boned face, peaceful and asleep. This was my Markie, the Mark I knew, despite the tubes and the huge wound in his side, apparently raw flesh taped over with see-through dressing, and his swollen right arm in a solid plastic sling.” There were two humans in great pain in that room, and only one was receiving elephantine quantities of analgesics. At least her professional background enables her to make more sense of the hospital environment and the clinicians’ utterances.

 

Having split up with Mark’s father some years previously, Margaret only has her daughter to share this dreadful burden. After his death the book steps back to Mark’s Army career. On Herrick 10, he died in July 2009 – which turns out to have been the worst year for British fatalities in that campaign. She makes heavy use of Mark’s diary. A thoughtful young man, his words are always of note. As he remarks on the surrounding population’s reliance on the poppy harvest, and his squaddies’ eagerness to use their sophisticated weaponry “I seem to be the only one here who believes that war might  not be the answer to this particular problem.” The strategic vacuum that has bedevilled Britain’s presence there is soon evident even at his lowly level “I am yet to be given a definite mission and clarity as to my role out here.”.......

Mark Evison

These thoughts are truncated – Mark was killed only 19 days after arriving at his patrol base – Haji-Alem, a  particularly poorly located PB, with grim living conditions – even water was heavily rationed. Margaret then embarks on her self-appointed mission to find out the circumstances of her son’s death. She delves into his medical decline with forensic ferocity, and soon realises that response times for his helicopter medevac were less than ideal. Gordon Brown, to his credit, was writing to all bereaved parents of soldiers KIA, and so Margaret ended up having an audience with the PM at number 10. Whilst he wanted to bring the conversation to politics, Margaret steered it to the lack of resources on the front line, so graphically illustrated in Mark’s diary, and the poor vertical communications within the MoD and the Army. Not to mention the deficiencies of the Bowman radios then in use, and the poor supply chain. Mark missed the “golden hour” between wounding and operating table, during which chances of survival are much enhanced. It was 61 minutes between his colleagues calling for a chopper to its arrival, and then another 12-15 minutes for its flight back to Bastion. In another communications breakdown, Mark’s platoon only learn of his death back in the UK via Facebook.

 

Margaret Evison receives a letter of condolence just before the funeral from Mark’s CO, Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, (written in fairly standard Army speak), all the more ironical for Thorneloe, only five weeks  later, becoming the highest-ranking officer to be killed in Afghanistan.

In many ways the most upsetting part of the book is the MoD’s behaviour before and during the inquest. Solider witnesses were pre-briefed (with the intimation of a certain degree of intimidation) by a Lt Col Kemp. In the event the author concludes that the inquest provided a very partial account of the true series of events leading to her son’s death. Whilst one expects that, because of her professional background, Margaret Evison would grasp the medical aspects of the episode, it is surprising the degree she comes to grips with the soldiering and technical aspects of the saga.

 

What is one left with? A narrative that confirms the strong bond between and a good officer and his men; that delineates how alpha male characteristics of the Army struggle to be reconciled with the emotional needs of the families of those serving; that the establishment closes ranks like a tapped mussel closes its shell, when faced with evidence of its own mistakes; but above all this is the account of the loss of a fine young man, and the struggle of a grieving mother to understand whether his death was necessary.