BOY SOLDIERS ON THE FRONTLINEAs well as the British military headquarters, Lashkar Gah is also home to the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the joint UK and US governments’ civilian department working with the Afghan government on economic development, reconstruction, governance and rule of law structures. Their existence is more comfortable than the military’s when it comes to accommodation, working hours or being shot at, but they generally serve longer than the military in Afghanistan, with all the privations that entails. A big advantage of being co-located with the PRT is that the company running the contract for feeding Lashkar Gah gets extra money from the UK government for the civil servants. As a consequence the food here is excellent and a world away from the ration packs the soldiers out in the patrol bases live with.I was queuing behind two soldiers who were passing through Lash recently, when one turned to the other and remarked, “how the other half live, eh?”. I smiled to myself. It’s important for the soldiers living with the increased threat out in the patrol bases to draw strength through adversity and consider themselves different from us base rats in our supposed Ivory tower. I’m happy to be thought of as a soft-palmed staff officer, at greater risk from paper cuts than the Taliban, as long as it keeps the blokes sharp out there, and the other half keep living.

Theirs is an austere existence: washing their clothes by hand (or cement mixer if they’re lucky) and using specially designed disposable foil bags stretched over a wooden shelf-like construction for lavatories, with one lucky fellow burning the lot each day. They shower infrequently – they are issued equipment to hang up and wash under, but have no means to heat enough water and rarely enough to spare anyway. Groin, feet, teeth, armpits, are the priorities when water is scarce.The kit we’re issued has had to keep pace with the demands of both the enemy and the climate. The issued underwear contains an anti microbial element to allow prolonged wear over a number of days and extra thick chemically treated silk layers to provide ballistic protection and minimise internal injuries or infection in the groin and stomach cavity from dirt thrown into the body following an IED blast. Armoured underpants sound like a joke but they work and are popular with the soldiers having been perfected through combat, which is both a good and bad thing.

The British public mainly have to rely on the media for news and information about the other half serving out here. We see a huge number of journalists flowing through Helmand and it is amusing, enlightening and disappointing in equal measure to then read their copy and their interpretation of events, especially when you know the individuals. Much stands in contrast to our own experience, with a propensity to favour the violent and graphic over a more measured and broad ranging approach. I have rarely seen reporting on political, economic or social developments – positive or negative – that dig beyond the obvious, despite these being important and accessible issues for all visitors to see. There are, of course, exceptions, and some really good reports that accurately and concisely highlight the little known stories that track the deeper currents of the situation out here. (Try Googling ‘Afghan Elvis’ and notice how different papers report the same event.)

A story was recently printed that read more like a Boys’ Own Adventure than a news report and as I was with the unit involved that day I could make a direct comparison with reality. I accept I may be inoculated against the drama of Helmand, but is it news that there are firefights, explosions and bombs dropping out here every day- it is a war after all? The journalist was asked why he had chosen the obvious story of destruction rather than taking the opportunity to report anything deeper or more challenging. His answer? “Reconstruction doesn’t sell copy.”

This article first appeared in the Bildeston Bugle in February 2011.

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