Owning up to war

September 20, 2007

Since leaving them 20 years ago I have always wanted to film my old army regiment, the Grenadier Guards, on operations and I have just returned from staying with them in Helmand, in southern Afghanistan, where they have been involved in intense fighting.

It was not my first attempt at filming the Grenadiers in action. During the first Gulf War of 1991, I went to considerable lengths, disguising myself as a serving officer and crossing into Saudi Arabia illegally.  Though I met up with the Grenadiers I didn’t succeed in filming them and had to move on.

My second breakthrough was that working as a freelance video journalist for nearly 20 years I had always sought to retain the greatest possible editorial control over my work but never entirely succeeded. My video footage would invariably be edited by others and to their script, and acclaim, not mine. In Helmand I worked to fill my own weblog and, for the first time, I was solely responsible for my own work.

To write my blog from southern Afghanistan, to edit and upload my videos, I used an Apple Macintosh MacBook Pro computer and a Nera Worldcom 1000 satphone. Filming on a Sony Z1 with a smaller and older DV camera with a limited night filming capability, I was able to carry all of my own equipment.

Having not been out on a story for four years this was a real treat. I would have had to travel with several large and heavy aluminium boxes before to be able to film, edit and feed. I recall taking 16 heavy boxes down to Pristina in the spring of 1998, just to film and edit and not feed. I can’t now imagine what was in them.

I had all the tools and there was plenty to film. The hardest thing was to deliver anything at all while working alone.  I had to be journalist, cameraman, soundman, producer, video editor, satellite technician and programme editor. I also wanted to take photographs but found that it was just too much.

My weblog needed content and I realised that I was going to have to change the way I did things. I decided against talking to camera and authoring the stories, throwing the odd photograph of myself working up on occasion instead. It was going to take much too long to write scripts and put voice to my video anyway.

I would quickly cut some pictures and use one of my interviewees to explain it as best they could.  To provide the background information needed, and more, I would accompany the video with a written blog and cut longer pieces on my return.

I decided not to use cutaways unless they added to the film and to dissolve between cuts in interviews unless they were covered with good pictures.  “Noddies” were out. Always hated them. I found that living with the soldiers in their Forward Operating Bases, and having a military background myself, I was able to get a really good sense of what was going on and how they felt about things.

I was in the region during a recent friendly-fire incident and didn’t find a single soldier in Afghanistan who blamed the Americans for it.  They had used American close air support often enough, and close enough, to be concerned that the Americans might make it less readily available.

Though I had a military minder he did not impede me.  He helped me get around more quickly, being a master at organising helicopter rides, not easy as helicopters are in great demand there.  I was happy to comply editorially with operational security restrictions and do not believe that my work was adversely affected by doing so.

The one point on which we fundamentally disagreed was over casualties. There is clearly a view at the Ministry of Defence that showing casualties risks damaging morale at home. I had no difficulty with the idea that news about the dead and injured should be withheld until their next of kin were informed, but feel strongly that war should not be shown purged of all suffering.

It leads to the very thing that led me journalistically to southern Afghanistan on this trip: the disturbing distance between the fighting and the British people. I cannot personally reconcile the manner by which our country engages in war while managing to disapprove of it. I am concerned by the relatively small number of people in Britain who pay the price for our violence and how they are treated by the rest of us.

I remember the injured soldiers that were put at the end of the Falklands victory parade. A country that was more at ease with itself would have put them at the front. There has been much reporting about casualty figures from Afghanistan.  Certainly the fighting would be recognised by veterans of the Second World War. But the Taliban are not the Wehrmacht and the two wars, more than 60 years apart, defy this sort of easy comparison.

Modern medicine greatly increases your chances of living if you now get wounded in battle. During the Second World War more Commonwealth soldiers were listed as missing or killed than were evacuated as wounded. In southern Afghanistan today, if you have the misfortune to be hit, roughly nine times out of 10 you will live.

There is a very much larger chance though that you might live without a limb or two, your eyesight, or have to spend the rest of your days bearing some horrible disfigurement. There are hundreds of young soldiers who have returned from Afghanistan, and of course Iraq, whose lives, and those of their families, will never be the same.  Even further from view are the mental scars.  Will the people living rough on the inner-city streets of tomorrow be our scarred war veterans of today? Or will we start taking ownership for wars waged in our name?

You can read Vaughan’s blog in more detail at www.fromthefrontline.co.uk/blogs and you can watch his piece broadcast on Newsnight.