Recently, my feelings about Guards Man, and thousands of his colleagues, being out in War Zone have taken a turn for the calmer. With casualty figures still rising, this has come as a surprise, but a welcome one.
“You should read this,” said Speckled Lad the last time he came to stay. He’d pulled out of his bag a copy of The Junior Officers' Reading Club by Patrick Hennessey. “The description of Renowned Military Academy is absolutely spot on – and he makes it sound really funny. Not like the impression you get from my whinging.”
I turned the book over in my fingers, reading the blurb.
“But Blonde, you have to promise me...” I looked up at him. “Once you’ve finished the description of RMA, don’t read any more. Please. I really don’t want you to worry.”
“Of course,” I said. “Absolutely.” Obviously I had absolutely no intention of complying, but I wasn’t going to tell him that.
And so, over about a week, I curled up with the fantastically evocative, indisputably military prose, torn between howling with laughter, and bemusement that anyone could choose to put themselves through anything like that. And then I got to the section that the Lad wanted me not to read: the long and detailed accounts of the author’s tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. With slight trepidation, I got stuck in.
Initially, it was fodder for every nightmarish thought that crosses my consciousness in the idle moments. Whilst I’m getting to grips with the Army’s dark humour and nonchalant – some might say blasé – attitude towards the gritty realities of warfare, it was hard to read of young guys dying; less than ideal equipment; and the bizarre notion that when back home on R&R, getting Back Out There is almost the only thing soldiers can think of. But the more I read, the closer the penny came to dropping, and by the time I’d turned the last page, I felt I understood.
I never really will understand, of course – not planning ever to be in the situation – but I can now recognise that these guys have signed up to do a job, and it’s a job that they enjoy. I might get my kicks out of a snuggly blanket, a mug of Earl Grey and the remainder of the Christmas Lindor; but some people need the rush of adrenaline that comes with firing weapons and playing at war. An unpalatable truth, perhaps, but there it is.
It’s a job they’re properly trained and (sometimes) properly equipped to do. There’s travel, excitement, and a sense of comradeship that few of us are ever likely to know. They know they have the love and support of family and friends, and are spoilt rotten due to the (possibly misplaced) intense sympathy that’s engendered by fear and the unknown.
And whilst absolutely none of this means that I’m going to stop sending blueys and packages full of cake at every opportunity, it does mean that I sleep easier at night – and for that, I’m hugely grateful.