Politics & Policy

God and Man and the Hell of War

Toby Harnden takes you there.

‘War is chaotic and gruesome, as well as, on occasions, noble and heroic,” journalist Toby Harnden writes in his book Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan. The book is the story of a Welsh Guardsman in Helmand province in Afghanistan in 2009. “The account,” he promises, “will bear little resemblance to what you will have read in the newspapers, heard politicians describe, or tried to glean from the upbeat progress reports of generals.” The book follows the raw reality of these men’s lives, deaths at war, and the hell some of them continue to combat. Harnden, who is the Washington bureau chief for the Sunday Times of London, talks about the book and the men and war and its aftermath. — KJL

 

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Who are the “dead men risen”?

Toby Harnden: The book’s taken from the poem “Ypres,” written in 1917 by Laurence Binyon, who is better known for his “For the Fallen,” which contains the passage that is a staple of Remembrance Day services and was read out at each repatriation ceremony at Helmand’s Camp Bastion and at each Welsh Guards funeral in Britain:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

Ypres 1917 was one of the first battle honors earned by the Welsh Guards, who were formed in 1915. After the end of the First World War, Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, wrote of the wounded men left in the swamps of Flanders. He recalled a soldier telling him how “as the light of dawn paled over those gray fields of slime he saw blood-stained figures raising themselves out of the pits like dead men risen from their graves.”

I first saw the phrase when I was in Helmand in September 2009. It was tattooed onto the stomach of a Welsh Guardsman at Checkpoint North, an isolated patrol base. He was a member of IX Company, which had been commanded by Major Sean Birchall, who had been killed in action a few weeks earlier.

Birchall’s mother, Maureen, had sent him a book of First World War poems, and he seized on “dead men risen” as a way of fostering an esprit de corps in the company, which had been hastily cobbled together at the last minute before deploying to Afghanistan. IX Company was resurrected after being put into mothballs at the end of the Second World War. Birchall decided to highlight this, emphasising to his men that they were the successors of the Welsh Guardsmen who had fought more than 60 years earlier. “The company commander said we were dead men risen and the boys latched onto that,” Sergeant Jack Owen told me. “It was like we’d been reborn all of a sudden, out of nothing.”

For my purposes, “Dead Men Risen” was a perfect title because it encapsulated the notion that the Welsh Guardsmen of 2009 were the reincarnated versions of their forebears from the two world wars and the Falklands war of 1982, when they had lost 36 men, most of them burned to death on board the troop ship RFA Sir Galahad. In a wider sense, it speaks to the universality of the experience of conflict. Wars come and go but the men who fight them are essentially the same, as if they are dead men risen from the graves of those who went before them.

The title also refers to the three officers who were killed in 2009: Birchall, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, and Lieutenant Mark Evison. Each of them left behind testimony about the Afghan war that resonated after their deaths, as if, personified by their words, they were rising from their graves. Birchall highlighted the inadequacy and treachery of the Afghan security forces; Thorneloe railed against poor equipment and inadequate manpower as well as a flawed British strategy in Helmand; Evison’s diaries revealed that his platoon had been dangerously isolated and unsure of its mission. In the case of Thorneloe and Evison, what the things they had been so concerned about led to their deaths.

In addition, there were seven Guardsmen whose Viking tank toppled into the Shamalan Canal in June 2009. The vehicle was overloaded with kit, and they were trapped inside as the water enveloped them. One reached for a sonogram of his unborn daughter and a photo of his wife, clasping them to his chest as he passed out. Two found each other’s hands as they flailed in the darkness, clasping them together in an act of comradeship as — they were certain — they died. But then someone managed to pull the door open and all seven were saved. They thought they were dead but lived to tell the tale. So in a sense they were dead men risen too.

 

Lopez: What’s the most important thing you’d want anyone to know about the Welsh Guards in the Helmand Province?

Harnden: In the gardens of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where I studied modern history, there was a bench commemorating a former student. Russell Crockford, who’d rowed for the university, had been killed in a car crash in Australia in 1981 at the age of 23. The plaque on the bench read simply, “He did all he could.”

Ultimately, the Welsh Guards did all they could, and you can ask for no more from a soldier. That’s what I’d want people to know. They were overstretched, scandalously under-resourced, and sent to fight at a point in the Afghan war when one strategy had failed and another was being adopted without the political will necessary to give it even a chance of success.

Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Antelme, Thorneloe’s successor as commanding officer, summed up the lot of the British soldier when his men had returned home, comparing them to the Americans: “They do have all the kit. They do have all the resources. They’re part of a superpower that is geared for war. We’re part of a small country that isn’t sure whether we should be at war or not and you’re the guys who have been thrust forward into the front line.”

I remember Major Giles Harris, a company commander who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his bravery and leadership, telling me late one night as we sat in the dark on a dusty base that he had his doubts about what difference the Welsh Guards had made, but when fighting you were virtually compelled to believe you were making a difference: “We almost have to, to make it bearable. You can’t do something like this and analyse it all the way through and think: ‘Actually we got that wrong.’ You just can’t. It takes so much emotional investment. I’m not saying we lie to ourselves but there’s an element of telling yourself that it’s all right and it’s going well, just to keep going.”

Antelme had as much combat experience as almost any British soldier at his level and had served in Iraq under General Stanley McChrystal when he led Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and was awarded a DSO (Distinguished Service Order). Harris, decorated in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is now commanding officer of the Welsh Guards, which celebrated its centenary this year. (For a British regiment, it is relatively young.) At the lower levels, soldiers basically got on with the job in hand and, as I say, did all they could.

For me, the soldier who epitomized this the most was Lance Sergeant Leon Peek, who took over command of Evison’s patrol after he had been mortally wounded. An emotional, fiery Welshman, Peek was what you might call a rough diamond. He had only half a right ear; the rest had been bitten off in a pub fight. While out in Helmand, he was facing charges resulting from a drunken brawl back in Wales after his seventh arrest in as many years. From the former mining village of Tonyrefail in the Rhondda Valley, he was fiercely proud of being a Welshman and a soldier. He had “Made in Wales” tattooed around his belly button and on his back a reference to 3 Company, known as “the Little Iron Men” in the regiment: “Little Iron Man Till I Die.” His father was a heroin addict, and Peek was raised mainly by his grandparents. If he hadn’t been in the Army, Peek would probably have been in jail or dead. But out in Helmand, he not only fought as if he were possessed, but he became a leader.

When Evison was shot, Peek told himself: “I’m not going back into that base until I make sure every one of my men is in there safe. Even if I die doing it.” Fighting for the men alongside you is, of course, a staple of war, after survival the most elemental motivation. Everything around Peek was going wrong. He screamed over the radio: “Boys, we’ve got one casualty, no fast air, no helicopters, no Mastiffs [armored vehicles] and no gun,” he said. “We’re in the s**t and we’ve got to get out of here on our own.” One of Peek’s men was shot, but he did get them all back alive. He was the last one to reach the base.

After returning from Helmand, Peek punched a former soldier in the sergeants’ mess and was busted down to lance corporal before being medically discharged from the Army on the grounds of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He verdict on the war was bleak: “We achieved the square root of f***ing jack s**t out there.”

 

Lopez: To what extent is their story typical of U.S. and British troop time in Afghanistan?

Harnden: In some respects, Dead Men Risen is a universal story of the nature of war, and people will recognize constants from other conflicts. I was repeatedly struck when delving into the history of the Welsh Guards of remarkable incidents in Helmand that had very close parallels with things that had happened in the World War I and World War II.

At the same time, what happened to them was extraordinary. Thorneloe was the first British battalion commander to be killed in action since the Falklands War in 1982. I had to go back to the Korean War to find a British battalion that had lost a commanding officer, company commander, and platoon commander. The summer of 2009 marked the peak of British casualties in Afghanistan, and the British were essentially holding the line for the arrival in Helmand of the U.S. cavalry in the form of 20,000 U.S. Marines — twice the number of the entire British force.

I don’t think any U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan had to fight with as little as the Welsh Guards had.

 

Lopez: You write that “war is chaotic and gruesome, as well as, on occasions, noble and heroic.” What is some of the noble and heroic you’d like to make more known?

Harnden: There are so many things. One of the most noble things was also extremely gruesome. After Thorneloe and Trooper Josh Hammond were killed, their corpses were evacuated by helicopter. The problem was that they had been literally blown to pieces, and in the chaos some body parts were left behind. The British had too few helicopters to come back for the body parts. It was at the height of the Afghan summer, and temperatures were soaring.

Three officers, wearing flashlights on their heads in the darkness, went into the decimated Viking to clean it out. One of them was Captain Terry Harman, a white-haired former enlisted man in his mid 40s. He told me: “There were fingers, two feet, a rib,” he remembers. In addition, there was the commanding officer’s right leg, which had been ripped off by the bottom of the vehicle as it was peeled back like a bean can. I’ve smelt death before and I’ve seen people get injured but I still have nightmares about what was behind that door.”

For some reason, there were no body bags available. The body parts were put into boxes. Despite Harman’s entreaties, for the next three days no helicopter was sent to collect the boxes. Operation Panther’s Claw was raging, and it simply wasn’t a priority. Harman wrestled with the dilemma of what to do. He could bury the body parts, but eventually the Welsh Guards would have to leave and the Taliban might well take back the ground. Burning them was an option, but that would be seen by the Guardsmen, and the psychological effect could be devastating.

In any case, Harman reasoned, it was important for any family to have the remains of their loved one returned to them. Concerned about decomposition, Harman decided he needed to keep the parts as clean as possible before they were collected. He told me: “So each night I took the body parts down to the canal and washed them, quietly and discreetly with nobody there.” The nobility of that act of love and respect for a fellow soldier still brings tears to my eyes.

Remarkable bravery became almost routine. When Guardsman Christopher King was blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device) he stepped on, a number of his fellow soldiers went into battle shock. King had been scouring the road for IEDs using a metal detector, but it was known that the Taliban had perfected “low metal content” IEDs that could be impossible to detect without ground-penetrating radar devices, which U.S. and Australian forces were using but the British — typically — did not yet have.

The platoon commander needed to get a team together and, using metal detectors, go forward to look for the body and clear the route ahead so the patrol could continue. One soldier broke down in tears and had to be carried back to a vehicle. Another began wobbling and moving almost in slow motion; it was clear he could no longer function properly. Guardsman David Griffiths, a machine-gunner on one of the vehicles, saw what was happening and shouted down to the platoon commander: “Sir, do you want me to take over?” He then jumped down, picked up a metal detector, and walked along that road, knowing that at any moment he could be blown to pieces by an IED that he had almost no chance of detecting. Griffiths got no medal for that act of bravery, and neither did so many soldiers who stepped up, even when they didn’t have to.

 

Lopez: How did war make some men “more godly” during their tour?

Harnden: I became quite interested in this subject. Soldiers can often seem a godless lot, particularly Britons, who, after all, hail from a country that is essentially post-Christian. But then there’s the old cliché about there being no atheists in foxholes. The Welsh Guards had a chaplain, Captain Deiniol Morgan, a native Welsh speaker. He quietly baptized one Guardsman who, having narrowly escaped death, told him that “it all makes sense now.” Guardsman Simeon Howells was a practicing Christian. He told me: “I prayed a lot and I do believe I had God on my side out there. In fact, in my heart there’s no doubt about that.”

One night at CP Paraang, Howells felt his Javelin tube lurch to one side. A bullet, fired by the Taliban fighter from the murder hole Howells had been observing, had gone straight through the Javelin sight. About 15 minutes later, Howells fired a missile into the murder hole, killing the fighter. “I prayed pretty hard that night,” he told me. “Well, it was more thanking than praying.” By the end of the tour, he had killed 13 Taliban.

Others sought solace from the chaplain even though they didn’t consider themselves religious. Trooper Patrick Murray (a pseudonym) was casevaced back to Camp Bastion with battle shock. He had been a close friend of Trooper Josh Hammond, who had been killed with Thorneloe. Afterward, some soldiers were sent to the vehicle “graveyard” at Camp Bastion to collect some radios. While they were there, they looked behind the black sheets put up to hide the carcasses of vehicles hit by IEDs. Murray went in and found the rear cab that Hammond and Thorneloe had died in. “It was like somebody just punched it from underneath and bent all the metal up inside,” Murray said. The vehicle had not been properly cleaned, and there were still traces of blood and other material.

Murray spent the next six weeks in Bastion and was sent to see a psychologist and Morgan, the chaplain: “The psychologist asked me about my family and growing up and stuff and then about Hammy and what happened when the IED hit Scotty’s wagon. I’m not really into God and wouldn’t normally go and see the padre, but he was better. He made everything sound so much clearer. He’d been out on the ground as well so he knew what it was like.”

Chaplain Morgan had indeed been out on the ground. He was at Checkpoint North when the body of Major Birchall was brought back and had visited command post Haji Alem after the death of Lieutenant Mark Evison. Then, Lance Sergeant Peek tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to man a GPMG (general-purpose machine gun). Morgan spent time discussing faith with Rupert Thorneloe, who was a Roman Catholic who had become a more active Christian since his second marriage.

Before the tour, hundreds of small wooden crosses were blessed in Bangor Cathedral before the tour and distributed by Morgan. Many Guardsmen wore them beneath their body armor.

 

Lopez: What did the impact of war on a mind, body, and soul look like from a chaplain’s eyes?

Harnden: Morgan was painfully thin by the end of the tour and was deeply affected by what he had seen and heard. He found dealing with those who had battle shock harder than memorial services and repatriations. “There’s something awful about seeing a great young guy for a time quite literally a gibbering wreck,” he told me. “It’s like a freezing panic. You ask a question of somebody who is in that condition and the answer bears absolutely no relationship to the question. There’s very little you can do but hold their hand saying you will be OK and you’re safe.”

 

Lopez: “Some left limbs there; all lost friends, comrades, at least one commander. Years from now, some may lose their minds to the horror of what took place there.” How can we best help that?

Harnden: In the broadest sense, we need to learn about what our troops went through, recognize their sacrifice, and value both what they have done for us and the skills and qualities they possess. This does not mean regarding soldiers as victims to be pitied — far from it. All were volunteers, and the vast majority who saw combat regarded it as an honor.

One Guardsman told me that his experience of taking cocaine before he joined the Army did not compare with the high of taking aim at a Taliban fighter and watching him die through a night sight. After his first experience of combat, Lieutenant Dave Harris wrote in his diary: “The whole experience was absolutely awesome. During the actual contact the guys were laughing and smiling, enjoying it.” Antelme told me: “Guys often don’t tell their wives and girlfriends that they enjoy this stuff. It’s exciting. It’s almost a dark secret.”

But there is no doubt that war takes a toll on the mind and the soul. It affects different people in different ways. Unlike the guardsman who experienced a high when killing through a night sight, Guardsman Darren Booker was haunted by what he did. Cradling his baby daughter in his home in Wales, he told me about three Taliban fighters he killed with a shoulder-launched Javelin missile. “I somewhat regret it now. I know I shouldn’t, but they were probably fathers. There were body parts just everywhere. Just makes me think I’ve taken somebody’s dad away.” After he returned home, he didn’t leave the house for a year, exhibiting signs of hyper-vigilance — looking out for snipers in windows and IEDs on the street — as well as suffering flashbacks and depression. “I’d just be like a zombie walking around on my own upstairs. I was going to hang myself.” When I asked him how Afghanistan had changed him, he responded: “I wasn’t the same person.”

Not everyone gets PTSD, and it manifests itself in different ways, but it is treatable. We need to remove the stigma of it and view it as what it is — an invisible wound.

 

Lopez: Who was Lance Sergeant Dan Collins?

Harnden: Dan Collins was a 26-year-old section commander in Helmand who fought with great bravery. Already a veteran of Bosnia and Iraq, he never flinched or faltered in combat. He was twice blown off his feet by IEDs, hit in the body armor with one bullet — it left a huge bruise on his bag — and grazed on the leg by another. He seemed to lead a charmed life in Helmand and, after being patched up at Camp Bastion, would return to the front line even though no one would have questioned him if he’d opted not to.

I first met him back in Aldershot on his return — he’d been with a fire support group away from the main body of Welsh Guards. He was an extremely impressive young man, and I remember feeling almost jealous of him. I spent ten years in the Royal Navy and never saw active service. Here was a man who proved himself in battle, cheated death, and had a fine career ahead of him.

But Dan couldn’t live with his demons. He would wake in the night screaming, “Dane! Dane!” reliving the death of his friend Lance Corporal Dane Elson, who stepped on an IED. He told me of a recurring nightmare of seeing the blinking eyes of a corporal who had died in his arms after having three limbs blown off. Dan began to refer to Helmand as “hell.” He began gambling and drinking himself into a stupor. That led to debts and feelings of shame. He was diagnosed with PTSD, but the treatment he received was woefully inadequate. To get treatment for an hour, he had to drive for three hours into England and then another three back home to Wales.

After an argument with his girlfriend on New Year’s Eve 2011, Dan packed up all his belongings and left her house. He dressed in his camouflage uniform and a bandanna he had worn in Helmand and headed to the Preseli mountains in Pembrokeshire. He had camped there as a child, when his Army kit, bought from the local market, was his proudest possession.

After parking his Ford Escort, he laid out photos from Afghanistan on the dashboard and propped open a copy of my book (which I had signed and dedicated to him as “one of the heroes of Helmand”) on a page with a picture of him and Dane Elson on the eve of Operation Panther’s Claw, a few days before Elson was killed. Dan walked more than a mile into the woods, set up a bivouac shelter, and slept in it overnight. On New Year’s Day 2012, he recorded a farewell video on his iPhone. With tears streaming down his face and the sound of rain in the background, he said: “Hey Mum, just a video, just to say I’m sorry, OK? Ever since I’ve come back from hell, I’ve turned into a horrible person and I don’t like who I am any more. This is why I’m doing what I’m doing, OK? I know it’s selfish but it’s what I want and what I need. I can’t live like this any more. One thing I’d like to ask is could I have a full military funeral if that’s possible? That’s how I’d like to go. Mum, please don’t get too upset. You’ve got to understand this is what I want. I’ve tried all the help. There’s nothing seems to be working, OK? I love you, OK, and I’ll see you, I’ll see you up there in a few years, well hopefully not a few years but you know what I mean. I love you. Bye-bye.”

He then dialed the emergency services, giving the operator his name, rank, and service number. “I got shot twice in Afghanistan and I got blown up twice,” he said. “I lost a lot of friends and I should have died out there and now is my time. There’ll be a body up on the Preseli mountains and it’s me.” Dan then climbed onto a pile of slate he had pulled out of a wall and hanged himself from a pine tree.

 

Lopez: Has the PTSD situation made you question the war?  

Harnden: I think we should always question war. But it has not made me anti-war or against all wars. What happened in Iraq and Afghanistan has made me acutely aware of the cost of war, borne principally by the tiny sliver of our population that fights it. Of course, I remember my friend Rupert Thorneloe. Trooper Jack Sadler, killed in Helmand in 2007, used to wait for the bus to school with my younger brother. I can still see the image on the eve of the battle of Fallujah in 2004 of the intense faces of Captain Sean Sims, Lieutenant Edward Iwan, and Command Sergeant Major Steve Faulkenburg standing around a large map as the final planning was done. All three were killed over the next few days. Specialist Jacob Martir was killed in Sadr city shortly after I’d been embedded with him there, also in 2004.

As the two wars continued, I became more and more aware of the mental costs of repeated deployments. Having kept in touch with soldiers I’d been embedded with, I was able to see the struggles some of them had adjusting to civilian life or even just life back in barracks.  

I visited the spot where Dan Collins died as part of a BBC Panorama documentary I filmed in 2013 about PTSD and suicide. I still have a piece of slate that Dan removed from that wall. Before I went to Helmand, I was something of a skeptic about PTSD, but after seeing what happened to Dan I have no doubts about how real it can be. That it will be one of the costs of a war needs to be factored in when deciding whether and how we should fight it.

 

Lopez: What was so traumatic about Helmand in terms of after-affects?

Harnden: All wars are different and have their own particular horrors. I think for the British in Helmand — particularly in 2009 — it was the threat of the IED and the fact that neither the vehicles nor the detection equipment were adequate. Going on foot patrol was a form of Russian roulette. Added to that, the fact that the Taliban knew the terrain intimately and could use it to their advantage, plus the shifting tribal loyalties and the use of civilians as human shields, all added to the sense of uncertainty as to where the threat was coming from.

When I was in Helmand, I spent a lot of time traveling around with Regimental Sergeant Major Daz Chant, the senior NCO (non-commissioned officer) of the incoming Grenadier Guards, who were replacing the Welsh Guards. Shortly after I returned, Chant was shot dead by an Afghan policeman, along with four other soldiers. This was the start of a wave of “green on blue” attacks, in which Taliban sympathizers wearing the uniforms of our Afghan allies would turn on our soldiers. It underlined the sense that death could come at any time from almost any source, and I think it had a profound psychological effect on the troops.

 

Lopez: What do you want everyone to walk away from your book knowing about Rupert Thorneloe?

Harnden: That as well as being a remarkable officer who could have risen right to the top of the British Army, he was a dedicated family man who sacrificed everything for his country. I still wince when I think about his death and how if one thing had changed that day he would still be alive and two little girls would have a father.

Lopez: Iraq is a disaster. Can we expect Afghanistan to get only worse?

Harnden: Almost all the signs from Afghanistan are extremely ominous. By the end of this year, we are due to have 5,500 troops left in the country. That’s already under review, but whatever happens, the number will be less than 10,000. To put that in perspective: In 2009 there were 10,000 British troops and 20,000 U.S. Marines in Helmand alone.

Now, there are no American or British troops in Helmand. Last month, Mullah Abdul Rauf, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who had pledged allegiance to ISIS, was killed by a drone strike, along with six comrades. So now we have ISIS operating in the void we left behind. The Taliban have already breached the wire at Camp Bastion and taken ground in Sangin. In 2010, when Helmand provincial governor Gulab Mangal was ask how long the British legacy would last, he replied: “Forty-eight hours. After that, anyone in the Afghan government will either have fled or be hanging from the nearest tree.” That is now what is coming to pass.

The tragedy is that we seem to be returning to the pre-9/11 situation, in which the Taliban controls large parts of Afghanistan, giving Islamist groups a safe haven from which to launch attacks against the West. As with Iraq, wars don’t just end when we pull out and say we’ve ended a war. That may make a good bumper sticker, but it’s not much of a military strategy.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Basta La Vista, Baby

Dear Reader (And especially Martha McSally’s dog), As I often note, I increasingly tend to see the political scene as a scripted reality show in which the writers don’t flesh out the dialogue so much as move characters into weird, wacky, confrontational, or embarrassing positions. It’s a lot like The ... Read More
Education

Betsy DeVos Strikes a Blow for the Constitution

The Department of Education has issued its long-awaited proposed regulations reforming sexual-assault adjudications on college campus. Not only will these rules restore basic due process and fairness to college tribunals, but they also — given how basic the changes are — highlight just how ridiculous ... Read More
Politics & Policy

ABC News Makes a Serious Mistake

Today, across Twitter, I began to see a number of people condemning the Trump administration (and Betsy DeVos, specifically) for imposing a new definition of sexual assault on campus so strict that it would force women to prove that they were so harassed that they'd been chased off campus and couldn't return. ... Read More