The Gulf War made my first year at Towneley High School uncomfortable. White lads taunted us Pakistanis with pictures of RAF Tornadoes in the newspapers, saying they were bombing us. The divide was clear: if you were brown you were on the other side. Not all the brown kids were the same; there were Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and they didn’t get on, but the whites came after us all. There was one black boy at the school. He was on the side of the white lads. So we cheered when RAF pilots were shot down and paraded, beaten and bloodied. Thirteen years later I was in Iraq.
I was nothing before I went to Iraq. I was a lad from Burnley who’d joined the army after messing up his A-Levels, a screw-up. I wasn’t the clean Muslim boy who was going to get married and have kids. I had tried to be, but I failed. The grammar school got me to university but by that time I’d fallen for the military. I would read manuals I’d borrowed from the army when I was meant to be getting on with Chemistry. I learned how to storm trenches, how to build bridges and how to blow them up, how to clean myself in a chemical war, how to soldier. I’d spend my nights at the gym and planning long running routes on Ordnance Survey maps, dreaming about running for miles. Thirteen miles a night would see me right. I had been a problem, but then I took responsibility for myself and joined up. I’d look at others with anger, ‘Why can’t you sort your own life out instead of whingeing? Why don’t you grow a set of balls and get yourself in uniform?’ I’d look at the men in beards and think, ‘Screw you’. I was a statistic but the army made me more. The lads made me more than I ever could have been on my own, sat there trying to think my way out of the room. They opened the door, showed me the light, how to live, and they told me off for not drinking, for not having sex, for not living and they were – are – the best thing that ever happened to me. I was nothing and they made me.
It was hard to admit. People around the world were disgusted by the war but I wanted it, and it tasted sweet. I hadn’t joined the army to sit in a barracks. I had joined for war. You sign a piece of paper and swear an oath and they give you a uniform and train you and then you go to a war. If you don’t want to go to war, don’t sign the paper, don’t swear on your holy book, stay at home. Me? I wanted the test, I wanted the medal, I wanted the hurt, the pain, the fight – the time of my fucking life. Hallelujah. The helicopters, the tanks, the guns, the uniforms, the metal, I wanted it all. And for that opportunity I am grateful. Thank the Lord. Whether it was wrong was another matter. That was what soldiers described as being way above their pay grade. I wanted the war with everything I had. I wanted it to push through my eyes and flood my brain with itself. I wanted it to cut my hands, I wanted to feel it beneath my feet. I wanted it to infect me, touch me, be part of me, I wanted to be a soldier. There were times I wanted it to shoot at me so I could feel alive. I was bombed and the earth shook more around me as I drove towards Iraq and I pretended I was scared because the guy I was with was screaming. But I wanted it. Bomb us more, you fuckers, bomb us, take my Land Rover apart. I wanted to become a man. I loved wearing that uniform but sometimes I didn’t feel like it was real.
They said it felt like a film but it was the other way around. Films were made of this. Of us. We were making the material for films in the future, but we acted like we were in the films we’d watched. The two became one. They said it felt like a film, and sometimes it did, with the tanks on the sand, the helicopters in the air and me standing there in the desert with miles lost into the line where the sand becomes the sky. I was an actor in my own film. It didn’t feel real. I was acting like I was scared but I was excited and I knew there were times when I might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I might have died. But I didn’t. These were new things we were feeling and learning and I wanted them. I was there and I tried to care about the people 4,000 miles away in the UK worrying about me but I couldn’t – I got my war. And I’m sorry sometimes and I feel stupid sometimes but I wanted it so much. I did, I wanted it with everything in me, I wanted to be that man, I wanted to be that actor.
If a man is looking at you through his sights you might say that the bullet he sends your way has your name on it, especially if he moves his sights around your left chest pocket trying to put the bullet through it. He squeezes the trigger and in less than a second you drop everything. In that time between the bullet leaving his barrel and leaving you, in that less than a second, you finish everything. You’ll not be any more. You’ll be a name carved into a memorial, a headstone, you’ll no longer need to see your friends, answer the phone to your family, pay your bills, you’ll be nothing to some, everything to others but you will not be any more. But if that man doesn’t have a rifle but a mortar tube and is sitting far from you and drops a mortar into the tube and it fires towards you because he knows you are in the area, well then that mortar doesn’t have your name on it. You are just an area on a map he’s been told to bomb and the mortar thumps out of the tube and fires high into the air past the birds until it runs out of steam and starts to drop. You are nothing to him, nothing to the mortar. Mortars look like tear drops. The heavy fat end rights it in the air and it starts dropping on you. And you know it is coming because it whistles, as if the air thinks it fair to give you warning. Here comes the metal.
When they were coming in we’d shout ‘INCOMING!’ We wouldn’t see them in the air (the white in the sky can hide so much). We wouldn’t see them, not little black specks, not little full stops, not little black tears raining on us. We’d hear the whistle after the first one because by then we were listening for them but the first we would know that it was raining would be someone shouting and by that time the ground would be being torn with mortars banging into it and we would take cover. The point on the end of the tear drop would have the detonator in it. The point would hit ground and the explosive train would make sure the high explosive in the mortar exploded highly and the metal casing would rupture and hit and tear into people, tear their skin and the metal wouldn’t care where it went, into heads, through skulls, into brains, eyes, ears, across noses, into mouths, through cheeks, biceps, into hands, legs, calves, feet, into faces and friends. Into your open screaming mouth the metal would go and you would eat death and it would leave the back of your head with your life on its metal plate and the quickness of it all would be a mercy. Into vehicles, tents, the metal would fly through the air cutting through everything it could before it would calm down and sat on the desert. Just another piece of metal someone might kick one day or pick up and feel and put in their pocket or never come across and the desert and the wind might hide it forever. It would be hot after the explosion then cool in the night and warm in the day, the metal that ended you.
You might be lucky, but you might get scared and go into yourself and not fight as well as you could, thinking about where that metal could have gone. The Iraqis sending these mortars over didn’t know our names and they didn’t want to know them, they wanted numbers for how many of us they had killed. The first time they came down on me I was driving and the ground to my right shook. The ground shook and my vehicle trembled and the soldier next to me shouted ‘Fuck!’ There was no first thought that came to me. I was excited but I didn’t think ‘this is exciting’, I was just excited. I had what I wanted. And they got close and the sand sprayed around and I kept driving because there was nothing else to do. I was an excited soldier in a war, being bombed. There was a rhythm. They’d be put into tubes by the Iraqis and fizz into the air and fly until their hearts stopped beating, all of them in the air followed by others just fired into the air, in waves but only so high, as if hanging there to wait their turn to strike but it was at the moment when they’d lost all they had in them to rise with and they’d died but they didn’t finish, they died and then they dived screaming so fast at us with the sand ready to catch them and together they played their song, bang and boom. Kept playing. Bang and boom. The sand was the drum skin and the metal rain played again and again. The sand threw itself everywhere at the crescendo but wasn’t allowed to rest as another note came in, bang and boom. They kept coming like the sea doesn’t stop coming to the shore as the earth breathes. I was twenty-five years old and I was finally doing something, a soldier, and there was something so seductive about it all. I fucking loved it.
It was after this that I saw the Iraqi woman who looked like mum. Mum was sat back in Burnley worrying about me. I had told her that I was in Cyprus, but she knew I was in Iraq, so I wrote the letter. Mum tried a little English when she could, but she couldn’t read it and I couldn’t write Punjabi, I could only speak it. ‘You’re in England now, speak English’, the kids had taunted us. When we new Pakistanis got home from school we’d show off in English and try to teach our parents a little, and they would look at us and their faces would say ‘is your own language not good enough for you now?’ I’m British, mum, I speak English, look how big I am, look at your little big boy in a war being a man. If I could have called her and heard her I don’t think I could have stopped myself crying. I didn’t want to hurt her like that. So I wrote a letter. I was a soldier and this is what I was meant to do. I was supposed to be bombed and see beauty in it. But for what? To hunt Saddam? To find weapons of mass destruction? For the freedom of the West? No, for myself, I wanted to be bombed, wanted even to die a British soldier.
I wasn’t alone. I wanted to be at times, no family so nobody to cry if my dream went wrong. We got bombed and we died and our families picked up the weight that had been on us. It happened to the Iraqis too. I understood that when I saw the woman who looked like mum. She was brown. She didn’t smile at me but had she done I would have thought about mum too much. She had no reason to smile at a boy in a uniform with a gun in her town. A brown boy. What was I doing there? We were banging into them too, dropping our own mortars and pushing them around. Why were we here? The Iraqis didn’t know and neither did we. They thought we’d come to save them, and when we saw them we wanted to. We had mission statements but there was the bigger question. Why? Nobody knew why but we knew something: we were here and we had guns and we were told to do something and that’s what we did.
Stood around in uniforms we could have been back in school, we even smiled for pictures. Some of us looked too young to be doing this job but we did it. We did it for our own reasons. Nothing noble, nothing mysterious. Some of us couldn’t get jobs anywhere else. There were some that surprised me, men smart enough to be doctors but who chose to soldier. What were they doing here risking their lives? I think their reasons were the same selfish reasons I had. I wanted to see life at its loudest. I wanted the scream of the planes and the pounding of the bombs. Some of them needed life at its most basic. Huts in the sand, water and food.
At times I didn’t miss home. At times I wanted to be the man with the gun in my hand until it killed me. But then I thought about mum. I said I was sorry about the pretending to be in Cyprus. I told her that I was in Iraq and that I was at a war. I left out the parts about being bombed and feeling disconnected from the truth. I was being bombed and was excited. Others were scared, but were they acting like they were scared because that’s how they saw their role or were they really scared? I didn’t know who was lying any more, and it made me smile, it was all a silly game. There was nothing we could do but keep driving, keep following orders, keep moving. We could have stopped the vehicle, turned off the engine and got out and held each other until the firing party got our coordinates right and made us into bits of meat or we could keep on driving and hope for the best. Some found God between those mortar strikes and for others He faded. The Iraqis fired all the mortars they had and then went home and hid. The Americans said they wouldn’t be able to hide for long because we were coming to kill them but after seeing that Iraqi woman, I felt weird about it, I was no longer fully connected to the programme. She looked like mum.
And then when I mixed with the Americans and they talked about killing I felt I was wearing another skin and sometimes it slipped on the shoulder or left creases in my back which I felt and I had to shuffle around to get back in line. They received intelligence that some of the mortars were from Iran and said they were next and how dare they get involved? How dare they? We were in someone else’s country, with our uniforms and our guns and they were fighting back which was wrong, said the Americans. They should be fighting us by our rules. Who and what was right? Us? With our guns and our laws? Our way? Of course the Iraqis fought us, and of course they got weapons from where they could, even from a country they’d fought for eight years of my childhood. Nobody was all right in all of this. I was right to help the Iraqis I met along the way but I was wrong for coming because I wanted a war. I was wrong to lie to mum. One of my brothers would have had to read the letter to her and say that I was okay. I was three miles from the border now. I could run that in under eighteen minutes.
The Iraqis had dug long slit trenches on the border, filled them with oil and set them alight. Hot oil bubbled and waited for us to come. We could see the air fill with black billowing smoke. One night they didn’t bomb us. We sat close to the border and the air tasted of oil and it turned the tea nasty as we sat there passing time between each other. Until then the bombing had been occasional, but then the air campaign started. That night the desert was black and we couldn’t make out where the ground stopped and the sky started. The Yanks let us play with their night sights which would make the cold desert a fuzzy green thing. We could have been on the moon. We watched soldiers patrolling in the distance but it was hard to see the horizon and then we saw it and we didn’t need night sights, we knew where it was because a large candle flame rose from it. Basra was burning.
Basra was burning and soldiers stood up and stared at the fire. Some laughed and slapped backs but it took them a while to get to doing that. It took time after we realised that the only light in the sky was a city on fire before we understood what we were part of. In that fire people were dying, burning, but it wasn’t that which had got to us. It was the only light and it was miles in front of us and it seemed huge. I took a photo of it which I had developed when I got back home and that candle flame was the only thing you can see on that grainy picture. So others started slapping backs because that’s what they were meant to do. But there was something empty there as well. Like the Colonel had promised to us at our passing out parade, we were making the history that people read about in books. This was the history we were writing; we were burning cities.
The Americans had promised that this would be a new kind of war. There would hardly be any fire fights; they would bring Iraq to its knees through awesome fire power. We believed them. That candle flame looked so soft from where we were but we knew that to be in it would be hell. Yet we knew, too, that in war you slapped backs when cities burned, and laughed and whooped. We burned a city, made it a candle flame. The Americans didn’t want to fight, they didn’t want to get too involved. This was in and out. If anything stood in the way, they’d bomb it and slap backs and call each other ‘man’. That’s what happened. The Brits were quiet at first, trying to find the words but then the Americans showed us how and we felt them on our backs, okay we’ve got it, and we slapped backs too. Mostly we didn’t know what to think so we took the slaps on our backs and smiled, we were with them. The candle flame burned through the night and we got back to making tea and talking. We felt their power as much as the Iraqis must have done. But then I saw that Iraqi woman when I got over the border and she reminded me to be my better self. Mum told me she cried and prayed and watched the news every night. She said if I had died she’d have only needed to cry once but I kept on living. She watched to see if my picture came up on the TV and it was this that made me think how wrong I could be. I told her I was going to Cyprus to protect her but that was wrong. When I saw the woman who looked like mum it made me think about them, the Iraqis.
Was her son firing mortars at me? Was he in Basra when the Americans made it a flame in the night? Did she have a television? Good luck to him, I thought. I didn’t know him and had nothing against him. Good luck mate, wherever you are, you’re gonna need it. Or was she on our side? Was her son one of those born in the wrong place and the wrong time? Scratching with her hands, scratching at his body and at the ground. Where are you, God? How have you forgotten me? I don’t need jets that can fly so fast and so high and guns so big and so loud, I need hands to still me from scratching at him and help me dig his grave, help me pick him up, help me wrap what’s left of him, to hide the marks and the cuts, help me bury him, my stupid son. I wanted none of this. When I stood near the woman and she looked at me I would have done anything for her, I would have pushed other soldiers away from her, I would have stood in front of her, I would have protected her. But when I heard stories about Iraqis that had died elsewhere, I didn’t care so much. The detachment was like someone had slipped a piece of paper between my thoughts so they couldn’t talk to each other and get to reason any more, they just heard that some people died and that would be it, that was as it was, people had died. The same happened when I heard about soldiers on our side, until it was someone I knew. Until it was Luke.