The conflict with the Taliban was brought into sharp focus when Sam Kiley, one of th e world's leading war reporters, showed detailed footage of soldiers he had taken during the six months he spent with the British Army in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.
The film at Sam's talk, on September 17th, showed soldiers under attack, as well as returning fire at the Taliban, and revealed how a deadly roadside bomb was isolated and made safe. It was a rare chance to witness the daily operations in such intimate detail because footage of this length is hardly shown on television, with the main news bulletins usually only showing short sequences.
Fergal Keane, the BBC's celebrated programme-maker, has described Sam as a "legend for his sometimes insane bravary" and his courage was displayed in the way he managed to keep filming whilst a rocket-missile exploded just yards from where the soldiers and himself were standing.
Sam, a veteran of over 30 conflicts across the world, described movingly the amazing bond between the young soldiers (with many still in their early 20s) and how they cradle ,like a child, a comrade who has been shot, talking to them whilst they are moved to a field hospital, or even the mortuary. But he was far from romantic about the nature of war, seeing it as a horrible and cruel experience where groups of people simply perpetrate terrible things on each other until one concedes. In civil wars, such as Sierra Leone, the modus operandi was to terrorise civilians into submission, with young boys cutting off people's arms with a machete as part of the terror, as well as mass rape.
Sam also showed some striking photos he had taken of soldiers in Afghanistan, including an American sniper with blood pouring from a shrapnel eye-wound (the same soldier had once branded his name on his upper arms, but the wound had merely congealed into a crusty mess, which was still visible.) Other images included a commander with an embryonic handle-bar moustache, grown as part of a competition; a group of young soldiers in a foaming field-bath and one picture of them all standing up, although tragically one of the men with a huge, warm grin had been killed just a few days after the picture was taken.
Sam was also unwavering in his criticism of some military leaders in their claims that operation equipment levels were woefully inadequate, in particular helicopters, with only four Chinooks in the field on average - and two of those were broken and non-operational. His next book will cover the effects of war on soldiers and how their return to Civvy Street can be so traumatic that many resort to drink and drugs to try and recreate the excitment of war, but many get into trouble and end up in prison.. Worse, many ex-soldiers - like so many Falklands veterans - can take no more of the depression and flash-backs and end up taking their own lives.
It was particuarly gracious of Sam to travel to Wootton because he was still editing on a Dispatches programme for Channel Four, which was due to be broadcast the following Monday, September 20th. The programme examines the finances of the Ministry of Defence and concludes that hundreds of millions of pounds is going to waste each year.
Sam's book of his experiences in Helmand, called Desperate Glory, sold well on the night, contributing to an oversall profit of £456, giving a total after twenty talks of just over £11,000.
Sam Kiley's talk was a gripping, graphic frontline account of reporting war. His soldier's-eye account plus the remarkable unedited film footage of a bomb disposal unit in action under fire in Afghanistan offered an absorbing insight into the professionalism as well as the confusion and fear 'in theatre'. Meanwhile his photographs brought home the soldiers' great tenderness and sense of humour in the midst of horror and brutality. It was a highly entertaining evening, and his book Desperate Glory, is proving to be a good read - Sarah Willcox, Wootton
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