The war is over. At least the US and the NATO have had enough of it and are finally pulling out of Afghanistan. The nature of their withdrawal is still unknown. The country continues to slip into chaos. And the exodus of troops has prompted a blitz of tell-all books — experts, war veterans, journalists, all penning down their experiences exposing the hidden truths of the latest cycle of violence that has engulfed Afghanistan.
Having just read and reviewed Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy and Abubakar Siddique’s The Pashtuns, to be honest, I felt that I had had my fill on the Afghan conflict and wouldn’t be able to digest another book.
But Christian Hill’s Combat Camera sparked my interest. What drew me in was Hill’s unique stand on the war. Having previously served in the British army, he found his way from city radio to head of a British “Combat Camera” team. A team comprising war veterans with media experience brought in to tag with the troops and report from the frontline — embedded journalism at its extreme.
While Gall, a journalist, wrote from her experience of reporting on the conflict and Siddique used his tribal roots and research to explain the local sentiment, Hill, through his easy style of writing, riddled with sarcasm, serves as a fly on the wall among the troops to bring a non-military, human perspective of the British forces in Afghanistan.
“Like everybody else, I was wearing a Mark VII ‘bullet stopper’ helmet, a full set of Osprey body armour (fitted with chest, back and side ceramic plates), two tiers of pelvic protection — consisting of anti-microbial boxer shorts and a soft Kevlar garment known as a ‘combat nappy’ – designed to safeguard your genitals in the event of an IED blast… But even if my limbs got blown off I knew I would still have a fighting chance with the surgeons back at Bastion… Only one of the youngsters on the riverbank was unimpressed with our patrol: a boy of around seven pointed a catapult at us. Apparently he had something of a reputation, having slung rocks at soldiers on previous occasions. Our patrol sergeant walked over to him with the interpreter, calmly telling him to put it down. ‘If you ever use that catapult on us again,’ he warned, ‘I’ll tell your father.’ The boy lowered his weapon and hurried away.”
When I picked up the book, I imagined Hill describing scenes of him and his camera team pinned down, bullets flying overhead, crawling through a battle zone; however, he doesn’t do that. He describes life and death in Afghanistan, leaving the Hollywood stuff for the embedded journalists and war correspondents, who feel the need to report from the frontlines to tell stories.
What really hits home is the desensitisation of war and the heat, 45 degrees and at times, no air-conditioning. He describes doctors rushing to watch a gory multiple amputation of a soldier ripped up by an IED and life at an armed base swinging back to normalcy after an explosion, but all the while he keeps the human connect. Through the characters he meets, the graffiti on the bathroom walls at the base camp as well as the reaction of his peers, he brings out the fears, rivalries, emotions, aspirations and politics that is involved in anything where hundreds of individuals are kept together. He also touches on the moral dilemmas of reporting from a conflict area.
It’s simple — as a journalist in a conflict zone, if you want access, whether it is from the armed forces or the militants, you have to toe a certain line. If you are critical or a rookie, chances are you won’t get access again. It, thus, becomes tough to tell the whole story, especially if you want to keep reporting on the region. So, selective reporting becomes the need of the hour (hence the need for a tell-all book, when you think it’s time to get out). Hill deals with this dilemma — he is reporting for the British military, his job is to show the positive side of its presence, to tell the folks back home that the expenditure, manpower and lives lost, have all been worth it. A tough task, especially when the rest of the media is interested in the strategic mistakes, death toll and heavy expenditure.
What was really unique and interesting was Hill’s breakdown of the Afghan forces and their interaction with NATO troops. He describes at length the Afghan way of working, something that does not inspire much hope in their ability to control the rapidly worsening situation, especially with the US and the NATO withdrawing. He delves into the rampant use of drugs among the Afghan forces, coupled with high degrees of stress, often resulting in what is called ‘Blue on Green’ attacks. These are attacks when, Afghan forces, under the command or tutelage of NATO troops, lost the plot and opened fire on their western counterparts.
“An Afghan pilot had walked into a meeting at Kabul International Airport carrying two firearms, following an argument moments earlier. He shot dead eight US servicemen, most of them Air Force officers, and a US contractor… He was badly shaken up, the Afghan pilot was a well-known figure who had just ‘flipped’ and started shooting. The Americans were armed, but they didn’t stand a chance. ‘In the lobby of the building where it happened, there is a picture of him on the wall,’ he said. ‘He’s shaking hands with one of the guys he killed…’ I stayed awake in the half-light. What they really thought about us, wondering what hope there was for ‘partnering’, and for this country.”
Usually the Taliban would claim credit for these attacks; however, that would be too simple an answer. The relations between the western troops and the Afghan troops is complex and possibly the West again has made a miscalculation.
Combat Camera is an easy read, providing an interview-based perspective on the conflict in a war-torn country. At a time when everyone is publishing their doomsday reports, Hill’s approach is refreshing, in the sense that he uses sarcasm, dry humour and bizarre incidents to report on serious issues. The book does become slightly repetitive and at times seems to not reach a climax or even establish a point, but I think that is the point. Conflict for anyone is a repetition of similar actions in the hope of different or similar results. When so many others are highlighting the miscalculations of the war at a policy or strategic level, Hill describes the people behind the action, their lives, their losses, their fears and struggles, successfully giving the US and NATO forces a human face.