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Chapter no 111

Spare

I WAS THE FIRST in my squadron to pull the trigger in anger.

I remember the night as well as any in my life. We were in the VHR tent, the red phone rang, we all sprinted to the aircraft. Dave and I raced through preflight checks, I gathered the mission details: One of the control points closest to Bastion had come under small arms fire. We needed to get there, ASAP, and find out where the fire was coming from. We took off, swept over the wall, went vertical, climbed to fifteen hundred feet. Moments later I swung the night sight onto the target area. There!

Eight hot spots, eight kilometers away. Thermal smudges—walking from where the contact had been.

Dave said: That’s got to be them!

Yeah—there’s no friendly forces out here on patrol! Especially not at this hour.

Let’s make sure. Confirm no patrols outside the wall.

I called the J-TAC. Confirmed: no patrols.

We flew above the eight hot spots. They quickly broke into two groups of four. Evenly spaced, they went slowly along a track. That was our patrolling technique—were they mimicking us?

Now they hopped on mopeds, some two-up, some one-up. I told Control we were visual on all eight targets, asked for clearance, permission to fire. Permission was a must before engaging, always, unless it was a case of self-defense or imminent danger.

Beneath my seat was a 30-mm cannon, plus two Hellfires on the wing, 50-kg guided missiles that could be fitted with different warheads, one of which was excellent for obliterating high-value targets. Besides Hellfires we had a few unguided air-to-ground rockets, which on our particular Apache were flechette. To shoot the flechette you had to tip the helicopter down at a precise angle; only then would the flechette fly out like a cloud of darts. That’s what the flechette was, in fact, a lethal burst of eighty 5-inch tungsten darts. I remembered in Garmsir hearing about our forces having to pick pieces of Taliban guys out of trees after a direct hit from flechette.

Dave and I were ready to fire that flechette. But permission still hadn’t come.

We waited. And waited. And watched the Taliban speeding off in different directions.

I said to Dave: If I find out later that one of these guys has injured or killed one of our guys after we let them go…

We stayed with two motorbikes, followed them down a windy road. Now they separated.

We picked one, followed it. Finally Control got back to us.

The persons you’re following…what’s their status?

I shook my head and thought: Most of them are gone, because you’ve been so slow.

I said: They’ve split up and we’re down to one bike. Permission to fire.

Dave said to use the Hellfire. I was nervous about using it, however; I shot the 30-mm cannon instead.

Mistake. I hit the motorbike. One man down, presumably dead, but one hopped off and ran into a building.

We circled, called in ground troops.

You were right, I told Dave. Should’ve used the HellfireNo worries, he said. It was your first time.

Long after returning to base, I did a sort of mental scan. I’d been in combat before, I’d killed before, but this was my most direct contact with the enemy—ever. Other engagements felt more impersonal. This one was eyes on target, finger on trigger, fire away.

I asked myself how I felt. Traumatized?

No.

Sad?

No.

Surprised?

No. Prepared in every way. Doing my job. What we’d trained for.

I asked myself if I was callous, perhaps desensitized. I asked myself if my non-reaction was connected to a long-standing ambivalence towards death.

I didn’t think so.

It was really just simple maths. These were bad people doing bad things to our guys. Doing bad things to the world. If this guy I’d just removed from the battlefield hadn’t already killed British soldiers, he soon would. Taking him meant saving British lives, sparing British families. Taking him meant fewer young men and women wrapped like mummies and shipped home on hospital beds, like the lads on my plane four years earlier, or the wounded men and women I’d visited at Selly Oak and other hospitals, or the brave team with whom I’d marched to the North Pole.

And so my main thought that day, my only thought, was that I wished Control had got back to us sooner, had given us permission to fire more quickly, so we’d got the other seven.

And yet, and yet. Much later, speaking about it with a mate, he asked: Did it factor into your feeling that these killers were on motorbikes? The chosen vehicle of paps all over the world? Could I honestly say that, while chasing a pack of motorbikes, not one particle of me was thinking about the pack of motorbikes that chased one Mercedes into a Paris tunnel?

Or the packs of motorbikes that had chased me a thousand times? I couldn’t say.

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