“I want you to shoot me,” he said.
He must have been joking. It was a struggle to drive, never mind listen to rubbish like this, but he was serious. I was following an American Humvee in the middle of a Kuwaiti night in 2003. Under the cover of darkness we made our way closer to the Iraqi border. The sky wasn’t clear, as the Iraqis were burning long slit oil-filled trenches near the border. Open a window and you could taste the oil in the air. Hot burning oil trenches into which coalition forces would fall—it sounded like hell.
“Promise me you’ll do it,” he demanded.
I really didn’t need this. I had to concentrate on a small light underneath the Humvee. Just follow that and I’d be fine. The problem was as the tires of the Humvee tore up desert I couldn’t see the light, as it was misted with sand. The other problem was I needed glasses. I had some on, but the night-vision goggles weren’t designed for the nearsighted so my frames were squeezed between my face and the metal frame. As my glasses pressed into flesh it hurt and the vehicle would shake now and then due to mortars. Very inconsiderate of the Iraqis, God, or whoever was orchestrating this great game.
“I don’t want to end up on the Internet,” he continued.
He was asking me to shoot him if it looked like we’d get captured. A surreal conversation but one soldiers had often, they called it a “promise” or an “arrangement.” There are no fancy vials of poison hanging around our necks, and try unscrewing a dainty little bottle while the mob surrounds your vehicle, baying for blood. Whoops-a-daisy, spilt a bit. The gun is easier and will probably be in your hand anyway. This soldier wanted to spare you and himself being dragged barefoot across some cellar and thrown into a chair. A camera in the face and a knife on the neck.
“If you don’t shut up, I’ll shoot you now,” I joked. He laughed and we spoke about his family.
Getting killed is an occupational hazard for a soldier. Preparing to die starts back in barracks. Soldiers talk frankly about this between each other while protecting their families from it, but these days it’s harder to keep the death hidden. With Twitter and Facebook, the digital revolution brings death to British shores instantly.
Before you set off to war, you box up your life. You label the boxes “Family” and “Army” in case you die. The Family box will have personal things you want your family to have. Your civilian clothes and pictures. The Army box is full of issued kit which the Army will try and reuse if it is serviceable, but it’s the one your friends will open for you. They won’t open your Family box. The Army box will hide all your secrets. Your friends will, without any judgment, flick through the porn you were into and smile. They’ll say nice things about you at the funeral. They’ll tell your family you were a great soldier and never that you had boxes full of fetish porn. They’ll destroy your darkest secrets or keep them for themselves.
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