May 14, 2012
Another part of preparing to die is “Last Letters.” Soldiers write these to their families and say all the things they can no longer say in person. To some, being a soldier brings religion; for others it strips it away. But soldiers have very clear views on life and death. So letters are usually filled with words telling loved ones never to feel sorry, that these paths were chosen. That this soldier died doing what he or she loved, which was to be a soldier.
Aside from the boxes and the letters there was this rather uncomfortable conversation that many have. Soldiers talk through the actions they”ll take if the mob has become too big and is crawling over dead bodies to kill you and you only have a few bullets left.
Pre-war training is very realistic. I was driving around an English village made up to look like Iraq. Iraqi actors walked around the set, Iraqi graffiti told us to go home, and we wore body armor. The Directing Staff, or “DS” as they”re known, would wear high-visibility vests so we”d know not to shoot at them.
At one point, I was driving and suddenly a civilian van pulled in front of us. The DS turned up. He told me I”d crashed into this vehicle. The actors came out and started yelling about their car. I wanted to get out, but the DS told me I was unconscious. My co-driver got out to placate the Iraqis. While he did that, others opened my door. I reached for my rifle. The DS told me not to touch it. I was unconscious. Things got very serious very quickly. I was taken out of the vehicle as other soldiers were kept busy by loud Arabic shouts punctuated with “mister” and “dollar.” I wanted to kick and punch my way out, but the DS said to keep quiet. I was bundled in the van out of view.
The Iraqis then accepted British apologies, got back in their vehicle, and drove off as fast as they could. The soldiers got back to my Land Rover to discover my rifle still holstered but me missing. In the vehicle I was told I was off to see an Iraqi dentist who wanted to have a few words with me. I”m not sure if I would have survived had it been real. I”m not sure I would have liked my friend to have shot me. I”d rather he shot at them.
British soldiers still use the example of the two soldiers whose car was overrun in Northern Ireland. They practice these scenarios so we know what to do when it happens. So in this soldier’s scenario, the insurgents would overrun our vehicle, we”d shoot some of them, then with my final bullets I”d shoot him…and then what? Shoot myself? I didn”t fancy that one bit, so I said he could shoot me and then shoot himself since he had a greater motivation to not be on the Internet. This was only fair, I argued. He outranked me and said I”d have to shoot him first. We then talked about shooting each other and laughed about how difficult it would be. Luckily it never got to that. Of course it’s illegal and of course it’s murder, but when the stakes are high enough, this conversation seems rational.