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Afghanistan: The Soldiers' Story (And It's Not The One You Hear On The News)

War reporter Ben Anderson talks to British and US serviceman in Afghanistan on the real story the politicians don't want you to hear.

Afghanistan: The Soldiers' Story (And It's Not The One You Hear On The News)

I’ve been travelling to Helmand, Afghanistan’s most violent province, for the last six years, spending weeks on end with single infantry units of the British, US and Afghan militaries. My aim was to make the men I was with forget why I was there and let me see what the war in Afghanistan really looks like.

I doubt that it’s possible for any reporter to have no impact on the behaviour of those around him, but I often came close, especially when things were going particularly badly or particularly well. When men around them were dying, an unexpected attack caught them by surprise or they finally managed to kill a sniper who’d been harassing them for days, the troops couldn’t help but be themselves, and there were many times when I’m sure I saw exactly what would have happened if I hadn’t been there.

I never carried a weapon and hadn’t completed the training the troops had. I probably wouldn’t have been able to save a life if someone was shot or blown up. There was also every chance that I might record them doing or saying something wrong, and report it (although few of them seemed to care about this).

But these differences also meant that they often saw me as a confidant. They could share things with me — fears, rage, insecurity, doubt or just intellectual interests — that they couldn’t share with their colleagues for fear of looking weak, stupid or disloyal.

As we scuttle towards the exit door, news reports from Helmand, where the majority of US and UK troops have been committed over the last seven years, are brief and inadequate. Every few days, another young man dies as the result of an improvised explosive device, or is gunned down by an Afghan soldier or policeman he was training.

We are rarely told the details, where the attack happened or what it could possibly mean. The suffering of Afghans is barely mentioned at all and usually only in terms of numbers, which isn’t a surprise. What is surprising is how little is known about what the British and American forces that have been fighting the war actually think.

The troops are usually portrayed as being likeable and dedicated, but simple and incurious. We’re expected to like them in the same way we like Frank Bruno or Scott Parker, admired because they keep plodding on loyally, when there is no chance of victory and every chance they’ll get badly hurt. 

The many conversations I’ve had with soldiers paint a very different picture. They are brave and love to fight, for sure. They can be brutal or show hatred for the people they’re supposed to be helping. But I’ve also met many who were smart, caring and willing to question what, if anything, they were actually achieving.

Of these men, not one glories in what they did in Afghanistan. They all lost comrades and innocent civilians were killed in their operational areas. These experiences dominate their thoughts; looking back, the thought they could have done something differently and prevented such tragedies overrides everything else. This is the war, in their own words.

“I WANTED BLOOD”

“I volunteered because I have always wanted to fight in a war, and there is nothing I hate more than radical Islamic extremists.”
Corpsman/medic, 26, US Marine Corps

“I wanted to make my dad proud.”
Soldier, 25, British Army

“I hoped for everything a soldier dreams of — taking it to the enemy and fucking him sideways. I wanted to be the guy who everyone looks at and thinks: ‘Holy shit, that guy was fucking mental, fearless and, most of all, a leader.’”
Soldier, 26, British Army

“The thing I wanted more than anything was blood! I wanted those people to pay! It took everything to not want to kill every military-age male that wore a black man-dress.”
Enlisted Marine, 29, US Marine Corps

“I volunteered so that when I became an old man I would know that I earned the luxuries afforded to me by such a welcoming and bountiful liberal society.”
Soldier, 29, US Army

“I hoped for what every 20-year-old hopes for before he goes to war: to come home with all his limbs, friends, and mental wellbeing intact and, of course, the opportunity to feel the warmth of a naked woman one last time.”
Enlisted Marine, 20, US Marine Corps

“I wanted to serve my country. I remain convinced that stabilising Afghanistan is the right thing to do. I have no doubt that not intervening would create a threat to our Western democracies.”
Captain, 36, British Army

“I can never forget when some of the mothers of the men I was in charge of came over to me and said, ‘You’re in charge of my son’s life, make sure nothing happens.’ Everyone says they want to kill someone, but in actuality their main focus is coming home alive.”
Squad Leader, 22, US Marine Corps

“I didn’t have delusions of single-handedly winning the war — I’m an airdrop pilot, that’s not going to happen — but I wanted to see some action and the chance to make things better. Turns out I would do most of my fighting against military bureaucracy and rampant incompetence. I thought my crew and I made a difference. When I came back for my second deployment things were pretty much the same but the bureaucracy and lack of mission focus had only gotten worse.”
Pilot, 28, US Air Force

"YOU CAN'T KILL AN IDEA"

“The Taliban are still strong because the local people are so weak.”
Enlisted Marine, 22, US Marine Corps

“This war could’ve been a lot simpler if we didn’t have all the political bullshit.”
Enlisted Marine, 29, US Marine Corps

“The Taliban are strong because the tactics they and other foreign terrorist cells use are cowardly. They can’t stand toe-to-toe and fight; they use IEDs and small coordinated attacks to slowly chip away at our resolve. They balance murder and intimidation with providing security and swift justice for Afghan people. They use religion, civilian deaths and honest mistakes made by the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] to gain public support. And I’m sure the locals know we won’t be there forever. The Taliban will.”
Former Sniper, 34, US Marine Corps

“They only know fear and survival.”
Enlisted Marine, 29, US Marine Corps

“The Taliban only survive because there is a lack of education. Their end state — an Islamic caliphate — is laughable: oppression of freedoms and submission of all to Islam. They are ignorant, cloven-hoofed idiots.”
Commanding Officer, 36, British Army

“They’re hard to fight. It’s rare you even see them. Most soldiers haven’t ever seen them.”
Soldier, 25, British Army

“It’s not only an organisation but an idea. You can’t kill an idea.”
Sniper, 25, US Marine Corps

“As soon as they look like they’re going to get it, they drop their weapon, pick up a pitchfork and they’re Farmer Joe for the day.”
Soldier, 25, British Army 

“It’s some Vietnam shit. Most of the time it was like we were getting shot at by bushes.”
Enlisted Marine, 24, US Marine Corps

“They get funding from Gulf states who support Wahabbist/Salafist Islam and from other countries keen to kick the West.”
Marine, 25, US Marine Corps

“[We’ve] singularly failed to admit and directly address the huge security, finance, training and logistical base of Pakistan. Afghanistan is a sideshow in comparison to where the real security threat lies.”
Officer, 32, British Army

“This war cannot be won in Afghanistan. It has to be won in Pakistan.”
Pilot, 28, US Air Force

"HONESTLY? I DON'T THINK WE'VE ACHIEVED ANYTHING"

“We have achieved exactly the mission I was given in 2001, to rout Al Qaeda and destroy their sanctuary in Afghanistan. After the past 10 years, the Taliban will be very hesitant to again allow Al Qaeda, or any other foreign terrorist group, to use their country as a base. We also achieved the removal of the Taliban as a credible controlling organisation and achieved some progress on women’s rights and infant mortality rates.”
Captain, 37, US Marine Corps

“We are teaching a country to stand up and run itself. We have improved the living there, and by establishing schools we have opened some doors for them to better themselves.”
Sniper, 25, US Marine Corps

“There is always something achieved in war. I’ve seen locals’ lives switch around just because of our presence. For me it’s not about the big political picture of whether or not we are changing the country. That’s not my job. I just go do what I’m told and fight on the front lines. But if I can change the opinions of some little child or a family or show how we are with a simple act of kindness, then I feel satisfied. I tried to help so many little kids so if they grow up and the people try to say Americans are bad, as long as I gave them a memory of how nice we were and how caring we could be, that’s all that matters.”
Marine, 22, US Marine Corps

“We’ve achieved a lot of dead, a lot of wasted lives, wasted money and the creation of a generation who all resent our finite commitment to their country.”
Officer, 32, British Army

“Honestly? I don’t think we’ve achieved anything. The reports coming from that country are so convoluted in false optimism I don’t know what to think. I know that people are dying every week, that the Taliban are still setting ambushes, jets are being reloaded, re-fuelled, and called in. It’s been 11 years and nothing feels any different.”
Pilot, 28, US Air Force

“It will never change. I fear a return to civil war will follow our departure in 2014.”
Captain, 36, British Army

“The main purpose of my deployment was to build the Afghan National Army and from what I saw, rank was bought, not earned by merit. Why should the US and Britain send forces there to help train and build their military when you can buy a position? You can be a private one day and a captain the next just by knowing who to deal with.”
Sergeant, 46, US Army

“Don’t get me wrong, there were a few good ones, but many of them lacked training, trust, integrity, cleanliness, and courage.”
Enlisted Marine, 29, US Marine Corps

“Uniting and securing Afghanistan under one president or government is about as likely as Christopher Columbus uniting all Native American Indians under one chief. They aren’t ready to take over. The reason is twofold. The large majority of the police and military do not possess the skill sets necessary; I tried to teach report-writing classes to cops who were illiterate. The other reason is that the majority of the population don’t want what we we’re trying to accomplish. They do what we ask or train them to do while we’re there. When we leave, or stop holding their hands, the country will be opened up to another takeover. I pray that this isn’t the case, but I fear the worst.”
Sniper, 34, US Marine Corps

“The security forces are having problems now while we are embedded with them. God only knows what it’s going to be like once the Alliance pulls out and no longer has an influence on how they do business.”
Staff Sergeant, 41, British Army

"THEY SMOKED HASHISH CONSTANTLY"

“In November 2001, my platoon was on patrol in a village southwest of Kandahar. I met a middle-aged man, smiling and waving. He looked friendly, so I asked him, through an interpreter, if there were any Taliban nearby. He responded, ‘Yes, I was Taliban yesterday, me and my whole family. Today, America is here, so I’m with you. Yay America. All I want is safety for my village and to farm.’”
Forces Recon Marine, 36, US Marine Corps

“I was hanging out in our hooch [hut] on a normal night near Musa Qala and I heard a single gunshot, followed by screams. I walked outside the hooch and was told that one of the Afghan National Army soldiers was cleaning his rifle and had accidentally shot himself in the leg. It’s a perfect example of the condition of many of our ‘allies’. It probably didn’t help that many of the Afghans smoked hashish constantly. You always had to watch your back around them due to the constant attacks from Afghan forces that had been infiltrated by the Taliban.”
Scout/Sniper, 25, US Marine Corps

“After weeks of training soldiers and policemen, living with them and fighting side-by-side with them, we had five soldiers killed by one rogue policeman. This happens every week or so now and I think the key point is that Afghanistan is a fucking mess! The more we train them and give them kit, the more knowledge they have for destruction when we leave. I speak for many soldiers when I say Afghanistan will be twice as fucked up when we leave.”
Soldier, 26, British Army

"THE WORST WAS BEING SHOT IN THE HEAD"

“The worst experience was hearing and feeling an explosion from an IED and listening on the radio that a good friend was a triple amputee and that the patrol was in a 360° ambush, and being helpless. That alone is enough to make you sick. Seeing 18-year-old boys crying for weeks afterwards is something that will never leave me and I’m sure it will never leave them. It scared the shit out of me. I puked before a few patrols after that — I was so anxious at the thought of the IEDs.”
Soldier, 25, British Army

“I had to respond to a multiple casualty scenario with the Canadians, southwest of Kandahar, where they had received 30 casualties from an A10 [ground attack jet] friendly fire incident, leaving many of them with limbs missing, stomachs unzipped, bleeding and screaming, while at the same time trying to keep security in what was an active contact.”
Officer, 32, British Army

“By far the worst experience for me was being shot in the head. That was a defining moment in my life. It was scary when it happened and I find myself thinking about that a lot. I have the helmet mounted in a glass box at my mom’s and some days it brings tears to her eyes when she thinks of that day. I can remember every detail, it’s so vivid.”
Sniper, 25, US Marine Corps

"THE PUBLIC HAS NO IDEA WHAT WE'VE GONE THROUGH"

“How can a society that for the most part has not sacrificed anything in the name of the global war on terror even attempt to fathom what the toll has been on the 0.45 per cent who served? In the Second World War, it was a collective effort: Ford factories built tanks, families were rationed, and cities blacked out because of the U-boat threat. Everyone was pulling together because they had to. Fast-forward to today. The military is portrayed as some disembodied arm of foreign policy: a mere buzzword in political debates.”
Enlisted Marine, 26, US Marine Corps

“I’m not sure they [the public] are aware there is still a war going on. Honestly, I’m not sure you can keep their attention long enough to explain what is happening. To judge by the news, and indeed by what people talk about day-to-day, it may as well not be happening. Close family members might grasp some of it. But until you’ve done it, I don’t think you fully understand it.”
Enlisted Marine, 26, US Marine Corps

“The public has no idea what we have done or gone through. America’s not at war, America’s at the mall.”
Enlisted Marine, 27, US Marine Corps

“Even after coming home injured and people reading about my story, I still have friends that would come up and say, ‘Hey, how was Iraq?’ I’ve never been to Iraq. People have asked me if we are out of Afghanistan already and it’s like, seriously? You have to come ask me? You should already know if we are out of Afghanistan by now or not.”
Squad Leader, 22, US Marine Corps

“They [the public] can never understand the visceral day-to-day business of fighting an insurgency where every step you take has the potential to change your life for ever; where you can take tea and shake hands with someone in the morning and find he’s shooting at you in the afternoon; where you fight for your mates but don’t want to get too emotionally close to them as you may have to repatriate their body in the days ahead. These are not emotions that affect many people who are watching events unfold on camera 6,000km away.”
Soldier, 25, British Army

"IT HAS CONSUMED MY ENTIRE BEING"

“I’m an outcast of society. I was asked to speak at a college in front of students. They had no idea what to think of me. I showed them pictures and clips of us being there. They just gave me a blank stare. One student even tried to have me relate what I did to a fucking video game. Seriously. I know I’m not normal from going to war. It has left its mark on me and now that the war is through with me I feel like I don’t have a place. Since I was 18, it’s all I’ve known.”
Sniper, 25, US Marine Corps

“I have been fighting (including in Iraq) for almost 11 years — my entire adult life. It has consumed my entire being. I don’t know anything else. I feel completely isolated from my society. I have no community. I have only the quiet pride of my own accomplishments and the love of my family. At the same time, this war has made me into a stronger person than I could ever imagine. It has given depth to my character and real purpose to my life — in training and leading marines, keeping them alive and returning them to society stronger and better. This war has cost me everything. It has given me everything.”
Captain, 35, US Marine Corps

“I wish it had never existed in my life. It’s made me a man no one enjoys being around.”
Enlisted Marine, 24, US Marine Corps

“It has cost me my hearing in my left ear, a relationship, sleepless nights and some of my best friends. That’s what war is to the individual who participates. It’s a blank cheque and you just write parts of your life away, but we all knew what could happen when we enlisted. Even so, nothing can prepare you for what it’s like when that first round snaps over your head.”
Sniper, 25, US Marine Corps

“I loved the general camaraderie, living like a tramp in some stinking hole and everyone outside wants you dead. But as brothers in arms, you stick together and become closer than anything you can imagine. It’s a special feeling. Oh, and so is getting on the plane and landing back in the UK with all my limbs — and cock and balls — intact.”
Soldier, 25, British Army

“I lost 18 months of my life and while most people support the troops, few give a rat’s ass about Afghanistan and see through the press statements given out by politicians trying to convince themselves, as well as a weary nation, that there is a reason for all the blood and treasure we have expended there — for the fourth time in 200 years — to no real effect.”
Officer, 32, British Army

“I wouldn’t change it for the world. I loved every moment of it and I felt so alive while I was there. I will never feel as good as I did when I was in Afghanistan. Ever!”
Marine, 22, US Marine Corps

“I mourn the men who didn’t make it home, but I celebrate the small victories: building a school, better hospital conditions and a thriving marketplace where people could go to forget the Taliban regime and get on with their lives. ‘De oppresso liber, res ipsa loquitur’ — to free the oppressed, the thing speaks for itself. Politics aside, we fight for each other. We go to war because we believe in something bigger than ourselves. I didn’t make friends out there, I made brothers, and that alone was worth it.”
Officer, 36, British Army

"IT TAKES A PART OF YOUR SOUL"

“Have I adjusted back to civilian life? Ha ha. Well, I haven’t openly threatened to kill anyone in some time.”
Captain, 35, US Marine Corps

“I came home wounded. One minute I was in a war zone, the next I’m home with cell phones and cities, all that good stuff. It’s a very rough adjustment. It takes time and it’s not easy. I try to keep in contact with the men I was with. That helps keep me sane. But I never got fully back to normal. The worst thing to hear from people is that you’re different. No one wants to hear that. It’s upsetting and makes you want to deny it even more. But deep inside you can’t fool yourself. We’ve all changed and will always be different.”
Marine, 22, US Marine Corps

“There are younger men and women who have seen too much up-close. They have had to get up every morning, lace up their boots and steel themselves for another battle. As one said to me, ‘Sir, six months is a long time when you think every day might be your last.’ I think some have become desensitised to killing. Some of my young soldiers have far too many ‘notches on their gun belt’ and I fear some may have even started to need the adrenaline of the fight. That needs addressing — and fast. Trauma management has improved dramatically over the last six years, but we are kidding ourselves if we think the stress of combat can be erased with a few counselling sessions.”
Commanding Officer, 36, British Army

“I made the mistake of not seeking professional help. I have no doubt that I suffered from PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] on my return. But I refused to acknowledge it. Eventually, with the help of my family and in particular my wife I am more or less there.”
Captain, 37, British Army

“I told myself I’m strong-minded and, no matter what, I’ll come home the same. I tried to convince myself of that a lot when I first got home. But the truth is when you go to war and you see the things we’ve seen, it takes a part of your soul and no one likes losing a part of their soul. It’s the hardest thing to accept when coming home and it’s what men have struggled with ever since war has existed.”
Squad Leader, 22, US Marine Corps

“I lost time with my family, time that I can never make up. It almost destroyed my marriage, I was so highly strung afterwards. My PTSD caused my family anger, anxiety and sadness.”
Captain, 36, British Army

“I’ve become desensitised. Going to war and killing bad guys is rewarding. For a warrior, training is practice and war is the game. It’s primal and I think over the past decade a lot of us have tapped into that. There is a difference though: I manage that ability and others allow it to manage them.”
Sniper, 34, US Marine Corps

“I was struggling massively when I came back, having flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive memories and I was very angry. I became withdrawn and hid myself away. I lost a relationship through it — I couldn’t tell my girlfriend about stuff. I’ve had two courts-martial since the 2007 tour and numerous charges due to ill-discipline and loss of control. I am still getting treated to this day for diagnosed PTSD. I am nearly finished with my therapy now and I am a hundred times better. I just felt like I had never left the place; post-2007, tours felt like where I belonged. Strange! I will be a civilian next summer, after 25 years.”
Staff Sergeant, 41, British Army

“I don’t think you can adjust back to civilian life. I know I can’t. I tried and it didn’t work. You can’t relate to the people. So instead of trying to adjust I went back to what I know and started working for a private security company in Iraq. I have a skill set for war. I don’t have the skills to be a teacher or an accountant. I know a lot of the guys feel that going to war and fighting is their purpose.”
Sniper, 25, US Marine Corps

“My theory is that those who try and adjust completely are the ones who have the most problems. It’s a round peg in a square hole. We have a set of experiences that no one in our generation has. To try and pretend you didn’t see combat and attempt to act like the rest of the population only makes things worse. We’re a warrior subculture in a liberal society. It is who you are and will be a part of you for the rest of your life.”
Enlisted Marine, 28, US Marine Corps