Some soldiers are meant to join the elite forces, become spies, and swing through windows shouting and shooting. Some aren’t. That we’re all equal is one of the greatest lies ever told. Kids are told they can become anything they want to, and then they learn the hard way that they most definitely cannot.
Daniel James wanted to be a spy. He’d been the right-hand man to the head of the British Army in Afghanistan as a translator. But he wanted more. He invited the general out for salsa dancing. The general said no. He demanded a promotion. The Army said no. He used black magic to protect soldiers. They called him crazy.
Daniel James, whose real name is Esmail Mohammed Beigi Gamasai, decided to teach the Army a lesson. He contacted the Iranians while serving in Afghanistan to hand over sensitive information. He left messages telling them he was at their service and made up code words. The Iranians may have thought it a trap.
Doing specialist work in the military has its allure. I was attracted myself and learned what it takes. Specifically, I learned I don’t have what it takes.
I’d been in the regular military for a while and wanted more of a challenge, so I applied to do what’s called “arduous work.” A muscular black guy who looked like Mike Tyson’s bigger, angrier brother stood in my way. Let’s call him Jack, against whom I’d be “milling.” The military describes milling as “60 seconds of ‘controlled physical aggression’ against an opponent of similar height and weight.”
We were told this was definitely not boxing. There would be no ducking and weaving, and only blows to the head were allowed. Up until that point, Jack had been a friend of mine. We’d helped each other out. We’d laughed and joked together, but now it was make-or-break time. He had a very matter-of-fact look on his face. The instructors liked that. He looked like he would tear me apart. I thought it was funny. Jack was meant to be “of similar height and weight,” and he was—to a truck. The referee brought us into the middle of a makeshift ring as baying soldiers sat on benches all around. I looked Jack straight in the eye and saw nothing; he had glazed over and was ready to kill me. To start the one-minute bout and to start the audience roaring helpful tips such as “fucking kill him” or “rip his head off,” the training officer would ring a bell.
I readied myself. I imagined knocking Jack clean out, the instructor’s favorite fighter laid out on a gymnasium mat, eyes closed. Worried soldiers would fan his face while desperately trying to find a pulse. Then they’d look back at me shaking their heads. The stretcher would come in. Forevermore they’d call me “Killer” in the regiment. People would avoid me at lunchtimes. They’d give me a wide berth in the corridors. And so I readied myself. Jack was going to get knocked out.
I never got to hear the whole of that bell. I think it was on the “n” of “ding” that Jack’s gloved fist hit my nose with force. Jack then delivered a few more expert blows, one of which managed to punch my head guard around so I was now trying to see through the earpiece.
It was at this moment one of the instructors took pity on me and halted the fight. I thought it was over, but no: “A display of moral courage, aggression, guts and determination is required.” So I was to be sent back in after my head guard had been corrected. Unluckily for me, a South African instructor who hated me more than he hated the Taliban was in my corner. He barked, “What the fuck are you doing in there?” I replied, “Fighting, staff!” as if I was still very much up for it. That was the “guts and determination” part. “You call that fighting?!” he barked again.
At that moment in time, seconds before he threw me back in with Jack, I couldn’t give a crap what anybody would call it. You’d probably call it survival, but I don’t think that would have gone down well with the South African. He fixed my head guard and somewhere in his heart of stone something cracked. He looked me straight in the eyes softly; at first I thought it was compassion, but he was only looking for early signs of concussion. He didn’t find any. His eyes hardened, as did his grip around my head. He leaned in and shouted, “Now kill him!” and pushed me back in the ring. Kill him? I knew the South African had a sense of humor. I survived the last thirty seconds, after which the referee raised Jack’s hand. Jack was elite forces material. I was on my way back to my unit. After that day, I never heard from Jack again.
People such as Jack—and there are Jills, too—find themselves doing interesting and arduous work.
Daniel James is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence, after which I’m sure his services as a spy/salsa teacher will be much sought-after. Earlier this month he was asked to pay back his legal fees, which are around a quarter of a million pounds (over $400,000). Luckily, Daniel was caught before he could do any damage in Afghanistan.
He was caught by real spies—people like Jack.
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