“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.
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.
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