Our War


Forty years ago David Frost said TV was an invention that allowed us to be entertained in our living room by people we wouldn’t have in our homes.

Thursday night encapsulated the kind of choices our society makes these days.

On one channel, we had the familiar parade of tawdry, talentless wannabes trading their dignity for fame on Celebrity Big Brother.

Meanwhile BBC1 was providing a uniquely vivid insight into the bravery and fears of young British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan in the three-part documentary, Our War.

No prizes for guessing which one – to our shame – we were all talking about in the nation’s factories, offices and shops the next day.

It’s a pity that, having initially screened Our War on BBC3, that BBC1 screened the re-run at 10.35pm rather than the primetime slot it deserved.

Our War is prize-winning, historic television.

No war has been documented as thoroughly as the 10-year conflict in Afghanistan, with thousands of hours of footage recorded by frontline soldiers on cameras installed in their helmets.

Our War consists principally of uncensored material, released belatedly by the MOD, shot by the 1st Battalion Royal Anglian regiment when it was deployed to Naushad, a deserted town in the desolate outskirts of Helmand province.

Shaky and raw, the troops’ footage gave viewers a sometimes shocking, sobering, insight into what war is really like: the starkness of the army’s living conditions; the sense of blind terror of being under fire; the terrible impact of seeing a colleague killed.

You also saw – and felt – the warm, tough, emotional bond that soldiers create to get through it, a tie that the word ‘camaraderie’ doesn’t really do justice to.

Part one opened with an illustration of the type of letter a parent might receive a letter when their son is killed in action.
“I am going to tell you everything, in as much detail as possible,” Lieutenant Bjorn Rose wrote to Private Chris Gray’s parents. “So if you feel you cannot read this yet then perhaps save it for a day when you feel stronger.”

It was March 2007 when the platoon left from Brize Norton – 600 men, many in their teens, novices to war, nervously preparing for what became “the defining summer of their lives.”

Sgt Simon Panter typified the soldiers’ no-nonsense attitude.
“I chose to film it so that, in years to come, when I’m getting old and grey, sitting in my wheelchair, I can sit back and have a laugh.”

They were there to fight a war that had started when most of them were kids. Lance Corporal Matt Duffy heard about 9/11 on the school bus.
“The driver said ‘the twin towers have been hit.’ I remember thinking ‘what are the twin towers ?’ I hadn’t a clue.”

5 years later, he and his colleagues found themselves living in what were basically mud huts in the midst of a ring of enemy villages.

The only area the army controlled was the 500m surrounding the crumbling compound and Taliban reconnaissance fighters had easily knocked several man-sized “mouseholes” in the perimeter walls through which they could spy on and shoot at the troops.

On Friday 13th, 2007, platoons 1, 2 and 3 moved to attack the Taliban stronghold of Sorkani.

Weapons primed, in tense virtual silence, the men walked through what looked like a ghost town from a spaghetti western. Shutters flapped, doors creaked. In four hours they found nothing and had just been given the order to withdraw when as Corporal Christian Kisbey put it “a world of fire came down.”

1 Platoon had walked into an ambush. They were trapped in a maze of makeshift mud alleyways running through an incongruously pretty orchard.

Films like The Hurt Locker have tried but Our War conveyed what being under fire is actually like – the sense of panic and powerlessness of being in the midst of relentless violence. Against an invisible enemy, they exchanged fire in the dust, unable to see or hear properly. Explosions rang out that seemed to rip the earth apart.

The type of composed, organised response we see in films was impossible. War was essentially mayhem.

And yet for many of the men, their immediate reaction to their first experience of contact was excitement.

“Being in contact is almost like a drug,” Sgt Panter explained. “It’s good fun. Contact lets you know you’re alive.”

Then came the news that Private Gray had been shot, “a tiny wound” through a gap in his body armour.

Even though they were soldiers in a shoot-out, in a WAR, the troops’ principle reaction was shock. The next was also surprising, considering all their training and obvious courage: panic.
“Pick him you cunt !” roared Sgt Panter.

Four colleagues carried Private Gray away on one of the hammocks that double up as stretchers, but they kept tripping on the straps, tipping Gray’s body out.
“We hadn’t really practised getting people on a stretcher yet,” admitted fresh-faced Lance Corporal, Barney Scrivener.
”It was a nightmare to be honest.”

“If he dies because of you three I am going to hate for forever !” bawled their Sergeant.

Duffy gave Private Gray – his best mate – mouth to mouth – but he died in the helicopter.

Even though he was an experienced sergeant, you could see by his face Panter was clearly devastated. Back at base, Private Tony Cowley found he had Gray’s blood on his shirt.
“That’s when it really hit. Just broke down. I started crying,” he admitted, looking emotionally shot. He would later suffer from seizures, be diagnosed with epilepsy and discharged.
“I talked to Lucy about it. Once,” he fumbled uncomfortably. “And I got really upset.”

Others thrived though, galvanised by the death to make amends.
“We were all very aware that we performed badly in that contact,” admitted Lieutenant Rose. They exacted revenge, killing an estimated 22 Taliban fighters.
“Yes, I did enjoy it,” said one.

Most went back for more tours.
“I know it sound strange but getting shot at gives you a buzz I’ve never ever got anywhere else,” said Scrivener.

In a horrible twist of fate, on the same day he died, Chris Gray’s parents received a letter from him describing his life in Afghanistan.

His mum Helen read it to the camera.
“There’s no need to worry mum. It’s dead here… Can’t wait to get home and eat some banoffee pie.”
“That was his favourite,” she couldn’t help interjecting with a smile. “Everyone’s dying to get some trigger time…”

She recalled how, as a kid Chris always wanted to have toy guns.
“We said, ‘he’s either going to be a mass murderer or he’s going to join the army.’ I’m glad it was the army,” she tried to joke. “Well no, I’m not glad it was the army…”

Of course we’ve all heard about such deaths before but this was perhaps Our War’s most valuable, powerful achievement: it was pro-soldier without being pro- or anti-war. It made the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and their families human.