ASH Smyth, a Mag­dalen Col­lege choral scholar, be­came a squad­die and fought in Afghanistan

ASH Smyth was a choral scholar and Egyp­tol­o­gist at Mag­dalen Col­lege. In­stead of be­com­ing an of­fi­cer, he chose to join the ranks

The Oldie - - NEWS - ASH Smyth is writ­ing a book about Afghanistan

Six­teen years ago, Amer­i­can and Bri­tish forces ar­rived in Afghanistan dur­ing the week I ar­rived at Mag­dalen Col­lege, Ox­ford. I didn’t give the war much thought – al­though the ‘War on Ter­ror’ was im­me­di­ately ev­ery­where. I had an Egyp­tol­ogy de­gree to get to grips with, even­song to sing (I was a choral scholar at Mag­dalen), hockey to play, girls to chase and booze to drink.

I was on a trip to Cairo dur­ing the fol­low­ing aca­demic year, when Coali­tion troops in­vaded Iraq. And then I taught in Sri Lanka, which had its own war. Later, I took a Mas­ter’s in the War Stud­ies fac­ulty at King’s Col­lege, London. But still I didn’t think of war as some­thing I would get in­volved in.

I am not what you might call nat­u­ral mil­i­tary ma­te­rial. ‘In­de­pen­dent-minded’ was, I think, my old head­mas­ter’s gen­tle eu­phemism. My up­bring­ing, too, hardly prepped me for it. As kids, we weren’t al­lowed toy guns, and we had a ban on TV and games that in­volved vi­o­lence. My brief time in the RAF cadets ex­pired when we were tested on the rank struc­ture. I don’t like pol­ish­ing. I left the Cubs as it clashed with choir prac­tice.

But once I had be­gun to earn a liv­ing (ha!) as a writer, I thought per­haps I could be a war cor­re­spon­dent – and so thought I’d bet­ter learn a bit about it.

At 28, I was al­ready too old to be­come a ca­reer of­fi­cer. It’s been done, any­way; the lit­er­ary-of­fi­cer thing. So I joined the Honourable Ar­tillery Com­pany (HAC), an an­cient and idio­syn­cratic Army Re­serve (then called the Ter­ri­to­rial Army) unit, in a mod­est Vic­to­rian cas­tle off City Road in the City of London.

An HAC field week­end will typ­i­cally in­volve more Phds than big guns. The HAC is the Bri­tish Army’s old­est reg­i­ment, founded in 1537 by Henry VIII. I’ve found one of our mem­bers de­picted in the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery; and the reg­i­ment once sup­pos­edly fielded an en­tire rugby team called Henry. In times of con­flict, many mem­bers have served their coun­try with dis­tinc­tion.

So, in Novem­ber 2012, I vol­un­teered for Op­er­a­tion Her­rick – the so-called ‘Fourth Afghan War’, from 2002 to 2014 – as Trooper Smyth (30075856), at­tached to 5th Reg­i­ment, a sur­veil­lance unit of The Royal Ar­tillery un­der the op­er­a­tional aegis of 1st Mech­a­nised Brigade. We were sent to ‘in­te­grate’ at Cat­t­er­ick in North York­shire, where the reg­u­lar sol­diers promptly dumped us in a dis­used block which stank of fish, six miles from the reg­i­men­tal HQ.

We did not have much in com­mon with the reg­u­lar sol­diers. The gun­ners called us STABS right from the get-go (‘Sad TA Bas­tards’). They looked, and be­haved, like kids. They lived to mas­sacre the English lan­guage (‘squad­dielalia’, as my HAC friend Harry called it), to an an­thro­po­log­i­cally fas­ci­nat­ing de­gree. They were all called Brown or Thomp­son. And they al­most all out­ranked us. It’s one thing play­ing trooper, part-time, in a reg­i­ment that thinks it un­gentle­manly to be a try-hard. Quite an­other in a unit where ev­ery­one else has just been made lance cor­po­ral.

I was thirty-one. Many of the reg­u­lar sol­diers weren’t far off half my age. The con­cept of my be­ing a writer was quite be­yond them. Most of them thought I was ‘on the dole’.

They are sus­pi­cious of any­one who likes to do things qui­etly and/or alone. Harry got screamed at for hav­ing his Kin­dle out while ev­ery­body else was on a smoke-break. They took a per­son sit­ting on his own as ev­i­dence that he des­per­ately needed some com­pany. I kept my­self to my­self. On the few week­ends I couldn’t get away, I made for a tea-room in the cen­tre of Rich­mond (100 per cent sol­dier-proof) or hit the char­ity shops.

Us part-timers were also con­cerned we might turn out to be less com­pe­tent. I didn’t worry so much af­ter I saw reg­u­lar sol­diers drop mag­a­zines out of their ri­fles mid-range, lose their mor­phine pen, or pass out at a memo­rial pa­rade.

Head­ing down the M1 to RAF Brize Nor­ton, I lis­tened to Han­del as loud as I could. My heavy kit­bag was full of books, and a tin Rodin’s Thinker from my fa­ther, with the in­scrip­tion, ‘What if the Hokey Cokey re­ally is what it’s all about?’

Bin Laden was long dead – and the Afghan war films al­ready in the cin­ema – by the time I touched down in Hel­mand. It turned out there was not a lot for us to do there. Dur­ing the ac­cel­er­at­ing Bri­tish ‘draw­down’, our sur­veil­lance role was essen­tially re­duced to base pro­tec­tion.

In the first week, Camp Bas­tion, in Hel­mand Province, came un­der rocket at­tack. But, af­ter that, things qui­etened down. I was shot at twice more, by my count. Us Re­servists twigged we were on the subs bench, stuck fix­ing bro­ken cam­era equip­ment six days a week in the ‘gun park’. I cut my losses, re­verted to in­tel­lec­tual type, and was drafted into the Ops Room. It took a day be­fore a gun­ner com­plained I’d told him what to do.

I read even more vo­ra­ciously than usual (all the ma­jor prophets of doom – Frank Led­widge; Max Boot; George Macdon­ald Fraser – as well as Cor­mac Mccarthy, for light re­lief). I took end­less notes (the army’s re­quire­ment that you keep a note­book is a use­ful cover). I made cof­fee, sorted post, put peo­ple and matériel on planes, and an­swered the phone. One day, it was the 5th Regt CO, call­ing to find out if my boss, a Cam­bridge mu­sic grad­u­ate, had once been in Mum­ford & Sons. (He had.)

I keenly vol­un­teered for things: duty driver; watch­tower; even a guard shift at the prison. Get­ting out of the Ops Room was still the high point of the day. I’d take any ex­cuse to drive down to the flight line, where the air­craft were parked, with top se­cret pack­ages or sur­veil­lance spares that needed a re­spon­si­ble courier, look­ing for likely types to chat to.

I had lunch one day with the ma­jor in charge of the trans­port con­tain­ers. Chap­lains, too, are usu­ally good eggs. The unique HAC dress regs – no reg­i­men­tal or brigade ‘flashes’, and a florid cap badge only worn by some five hun­dred peo­ple in the en­tire armed forces – made us look like spe­cial forces. Of­fi­cers chat­ted to us, while sol­diers treated us with use­ful cau­tion. A Pri­vate Brown once asked, out of nowhere, if I’d been to ‘col­lege’. I chose not to say, ‘Of course, dear boy. Mag­dalen Col­lege.’

Even­tu­ally, I got out – to Kabul. The first thing I did was send a postcard home, of Lawrence of Ara­bia (an­other Mag­dalen man who joined the ranks, as Air­craft­man Ross). ‘Made it,’ I wrote.

My new job in Kabul was sur­veil­lance. It wasn’t that ex­cit­ing – but at least there was some pur­pose to it. Camp Qargha, Kabul, 2013. Trooper Smyth, Honourable Ar­tillery Com­pany

No one was blown up on my watch.

It was a happy time. Keep­ing my­self to my­self, out and about, and be­ing, as near as damn it, my own chain of com­mand.

My favourite feel­ing was to come off a night shift (whole hours of alone time), eat, drink cof­fee and write a let­ter in the ris­ing sun­light. If bored, I chat­ted to the Sri Lankans who manned the kitchens.

I was in Camp Souter, Kabul, named in hon­our of Cap­tain Thomas Souter, one of the hand­ful of sur­vivors of the dis­as­trous Bri­tish re­treat from Kabul in 1842. I went to For­ward Op­er­at­ing Base in Shawqat, Hel­mand – a mud-brick cas­tle built by our mil­i­tary fore­bears, which the lo­cals, per­haps mis­chie­vously, said we should feel free to use again this time around.

Then I went to Camp Qargha in Kabul; and to Lashkar Gah, capital of Hel­mand Province, days af­ter Task Force Hel­mand shut up shop there, tak­ing the top brass back to Camp Bas­tion. I was briefly grilled by a colonel from the Ad­ju­tan­tGen­eral’s Corps. He was con­vinced I must be goug­ing the MOD for some in­flated City salary, when I was on a pri­vate’s pay (and very glad of it!).

I got close to in­ter­view­ing my over­all boss at the time, Brigade Com­man­der Ru­pert Jones (son of post­hu­mous Vic­to­ria Cross win­ner, Lt Col H Jones, killed in the Falk­lands War at Goose Green in 1982). It was felt, though, in the end, that this might pose prob­lems with ‘au­thor­ity’ – a pri­vate ask­ing a gen­eral what we were do­ing there.

I even ran into an ex-girl­friend – from Mag­dalen – work­ing her way up through the For­eign Of­fice. What she made of my tra­jec­tory, she was too po­lite to say.

I es­caped the lines one fi­nal time, to write an in-house ar­ti­cle on the closure of Pa­trol Base At­tal in Hel­mand. I never filed it. But for one great week, I slept un­der the stars, shaved in a bowl, and lived en­tirely on ra­tion boxes. ‘Fi­nally, some f***ing sol­dier­ing,’ I thought. I was on the last flight out of At­tal, be­fore it was ploughed back.

Dr John­son said, ‘Ev­ery man thinks meanly of him­self for not hav­ing been a sol­dier.’ I look back on my de­ploy­ment proudly. But I can­not say I’d rec­om­mend the squad­die life.

We landed back in Eng­land, at Brize Nor­ton. As the train pulled out of Ox­ford, I for­bade my­self to look back at the dream­ing spires.

Home front: Mag­dalen Col­lege, Ox­ford

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