The dust in Helmand is unlike any I’ve ever come across before. As soft as talcum powder, it floats on the air like smoke, coating every surface. Even the leaves on the trees have the soft brown veneer which seems to be the dominant colour in this part of Afghanistan. The land near to, and irrigated by, the River Helmand is called the Green Zone, and it is, compared to the desert just a few kilometres away from the water. But the dust doesn’t let it feel very green.
In the summer the crops stand higher than a man and the fields are a maze of confusion with visibility reduced to just a few feet in every direction. It’s a haven for the enemy, dashing in to fire on the soldiers who lose all their numerical advantage when they can’t see each other. A rifle is not the ideal weapon amongst the crops as it is designed to hit targets hundreds of metres away in a very flat trajectory. To counter the hidden enemy the army has had to re-introduce shotguns onto the front line in order to blast as much metal into the air in a broad spread as quickly as possible. Shotguns were last used in the anti-personnel role in the jungles of Malaya in the 1960s. Modern technology will never trump a timeless, simple solution, and a shotgun in the steady hands of a cover man stalking through the green zone is certainly that. Crude, but effective; a soldiers’ answer.
It’s winter now and the crops have gone; advantage us. The rules change and the enemy retreats behind his Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs, the inaccurately named road-side bombs. Inaccurate because they can be anywhere: roads, paths, walls, streams. They took on an almost mythical, boogie-man status, at once invisible, indiscriminate and unbeatable. For a couple of years we allowed them to dominate us and we wavered, unsure of ourselves as an army and as a nation. Make no mistake IEDs are killers, brutally effective. The US Marines had a terrible day recently when four soldiers were hit by IEDs, all surviving but losing eleven limbs between them. Eleven. One of our soldiers stepped on an IED yesterday but it didn’t explode properly and only broke his ankle. I wonder how he’s feeling today.
IEDs shook the army more than any issue I’ve ever seen before. But cool heads steadied the ship. We learnt to deal with this threat, to stare it down and give confidence back to our people, out there every day placing one foot in front of the other. IEDs are made by men; the attacks planned by men. And men make mistakes. We’ve learned from our enemy, we understand him and think like him, grudgingly respect him. So we turn his mistakes against him and are better able to defeat him, and his IEDs. And we do, everyday, finding more than go off, and those that do explode do so mainly against our armour that, finally, is up to the job. We’re not there yet, but IEDs are no longer the phantoms they once were; they fear us now. That’s a good way to finish the year. We won’t make a big deal of Christmas. A time to celebrate will come, but for now the focus has to be on the job. The generosity of the British public in the parcels and messages they send out to us is humbling. So we’ll pause, briefly, then crack on. But I do wish you all a very happy Christmas and New Year.
This article first appeared in the Bildeston Bugle in December 2010.