I’d dreamt of a desert place as a kid, that I’d travel to it and live there, but I never thought it would be like this.
The first time we invaded Iraq was in 1990, though I guess we must have, as a British Empire, invaded it previously. I was in Canada and not sure if I was on a Gun Crew with big Baz Prosser or not. That wasn’t an easy time, I can tell you. Someone announced that the Iraqis had invaded Kuwait. I knew that was on the border of Saudi Arabia, where my parents lived, but at the time I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t think there was much of a threat due to the size of the country and the amount of help and assistance it was getting from the global community. Still, the 6th largest Army had gone in to Kuwait and ransacked it like a bunch of Vikings. Might have been alright 1200 years ago, but not in this day and age.
Are we going to Northern Ireland or not? We had a tour scheduled for 1991 and as eggs is eggs and cheese is cheese the British Government would no doubt take military action alongside its bigger and more dominant bed partner, the United States. Margaret Thatcher had just resigned and John Major had taken over. It was likely that the Tory administration would kick arse. And that’s what they did, the build up seemed gradual, we began to see troops filter in to Sennelager as we carried on with our Northern Ireland training, envious of the task the Op GRANBY boys had in store. Though I gather later, after the war, we weren’t so envious due to the ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ Scandal.
Whilst in Northern Ireland we saw the whole fireworks and shooting match, televised, live and embedded, many of the reporters. It was a first for many of us to see this, though many of the older generation could remember the Vietnam newsreels. It was over as quickly as it began, troops were pulled back leaving the weakened, unarmed Kurds to revolt the Ba’athist Party. Naturally this never happened and a humanitarian crisis occurred during the 1990s.
People starved in the 1990s. The country was bombed on several occasions and it was only until 2002 that I remember, on a Tactical Targeteers Course in Larkhill, hearing that there were already studies being done on the bombing of Baghdad. No doubt, targets would have been categorised and numbered and put into a database, with munition types to take them out with, in a proportional manner (naturally). I’m not sure on the real reason for the invasion, but we were already in Afghanistan by the time of late 2002. I don’t think the British Army was capable of two Major Campaigns, especially ones, that required a lot of baby sitting afterwards. Both Afghanistan and Iraq, both required intelligent nannying and nurturing. One false slip, one wrong move or gesture and you set the game in motion. The jubilation in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq was shortlived, once the dust had settled and the population realised that the only stable, social structure they had, had been destroyed by the allies. There were uprisings in the summer of 2004 and fire fights ensued between the British troops and Muqtada Al’ Sadr’s people.
“Is Captain Day here?” Dell asked.
“Nah, he won’t be here till 4pm,” I said and looked at him. I looked at the bar, “Fancy a beer?”
“Rude not to mate.”
We both sat down at a Wetherspoons in some bar, in some airport, waiting for some transport to take us on some intelligence course in Bedfordshire.
“They’re getting fucking hammered, Dougy. There’s about 20 – 30 contacts a day over there.”
“In Basrah!?” I expected that sort of shit to be happening in Baghdad, not Basrah. But it was true, we were hearing of British Soldiers dying out there, being ambushed etc.
We spent an uneventful 2 weeks on an Intelligence Course which was just basically a Northern Ireland one dressed up in Desert Combats. You’d normally get your Special Forces here who were the much more the exploitative flavour rather than the combatative types. The means of correlating snippets of information, forming them up, pairing them and turning it into some meaningful sense and using it in a timely fashion is something Sun Tzu would have advocated. Nothing new here, though it did require you to employ your thinking caps and ask why certain things happened in a certain pattern.
So there were the three of us who would be SSR G2, the SSR stood for Social Sector Reform and the G2 was the Intelligence arm of the Army. I’m not sure what we were meant to do in that 6 month period and to be perfectly fucking honest, I still didn’t know by the end of it. We had an Ex-RMP, now AGC Lieutenant who would be our boss and there was Del Groves who’d just been promoted to Sergeant and was now my superior despite us being good mates. To put this into perspective, I’d spent more time in a room with Del than I had with my wife. I’d only been married 17 months by then.
From what I gleaned from the previous Captain we were to be rather devious and be sort of ‘Jamesy Bond’ types and exploit the Iraqis by being best buddies with them and working them to our advantage. This didn’t rub off well on our boss and to be fair the off-coming guy did seem like a knob. It felt that all his hard work done in 6 months would be for naught. As is the perils of 6 month tours. It took a while to build up a relationship with a District Police Chief and gain their trust. Just as this was happening the guy gets replaced by us and he’s off to the UK. What a fucking waste. We didn’t have that sort of influential power and we landed into a situation where we had to start from square one. We were to develop their Intelligence Cells in their Police Units and I can remember going to a Police Station with the off-coming Captain and getting photographed with a group of Iraqi police who’d just passed their Intelligence Course. They were proud as punch and all got a certificate – all Oxford University Graduate style it seemed. This was to be shortlived as this vital link, i.e. the Captain was about to fuck off. And to be perfectly honest Iraq would turn to chaos anyhow in 2006 and we would all be out of that place soon after. The Captain was shaking hands and hugging an Iraqi instructor he had personally employed to teach these police. It was all emotional, not.
I remember booking an escort duty to go to a Police Station in the ‘Al Shabiyaah’district or something like that. It was on the map and had a perimeter line around showing the jurisdiction of this station. It was December 2004, I think, and I needed to check up on the stations to see how they were doing. On my way out I remember seeing a girl who had been in the Intelligence section in Osnabruck, very pretty, slightly tanned and obviously working for the Agent Handler units who were based in Chicksands now so that was a step up for her. I didn’t acknowledge her, it was like a spy game I suppose, I just blanked her and I don’t think she ever noticed me. I was on my way to the Interpreters office, through the corridors that had once been a Hotel in Basrah Airport. That was Divisional Headquarters on the left, carry on, turn left, another 30 metres passed the Iraqi fixing the Air Conditioning unit and bingo.
It was a largish office and we had civilians and a couple of squaddy ‘terps’. One of the guys who was coming with me was an Artillery man and had this lovely Cornish Accent. He looked about 50 and could have been anyone’s favourite Grandad.
I remember we had to do this test to see how good we would be to soak up another language. There were a select few from the Regiment and we sat this test. We got the results back and I got 86 out of 100. Woody got 95, that fucker was a prodigy. Woody and I were selected from the Regiment to go to Beaconsfield and do an 8 week Basic Arabic course. It was here I met the old Artillery guy who was doing the Diploma which was about a year long. To be perfectly honest the course did my head in, but the piss ups were magnificent in that place. High Wycombe, 5 miles away, was a notorious and riotous place for a piss up. There was many an evening I’d stagger back to the camp on a Saturday afternoon with a bag full of beer and about 5 packets of crisps.
I turned up to this police station like the US president and I was shaking everybody’s hand and asking the top dog how it was going? Fine, he said, but they had no fuel. Where was the fuel? He asked. How the hell should I know? I said, and left him there non-plussed. We’d took that stability from his country and now this policeman was asking me where was the fuel. Could you blame him? He should ask Tony Blair and George Bush where the petrol was. The grandad terp and I mounted the Mobile patrol and we fucked off back to the APOD (Air Point Of Departure).