Wednesday, 28 October 2009

From dust-filled landscapes to coffins filled with dust: At War in Helmand with Sam Kiley

Last month, I attended the launch of Sam Kiley’s book Desperate Glory At War in Helmand with Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade, held at the Bloomsbury Publishing house in Soho Square.

It was a very cosy affair indeed. The reception room, akin to a lounge in a private residence intended for general business and leisure activities, was packed to the brim with war correspondents and army generals. And everyone was talking about their time in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo... countries which have become synonymous with protracted conflicts.

Love is a Battlefield: But the night is always young
As the alcohol flowed freely, some of the conversations became more lubricated and turned to more light-hearted issues, such as the Monkey Lady who lived in the Caribbean and spent her husband’s mis-fortune on nuts. Absurdism is always accorded a front row seat in matters of war, if not the protagonist role (quite like Camus’ Meursault in L’Etranger).

Sam’ s speech lifted the atmosphere further, with his self-deprecating jokes and witty repartee with his editor. Quite rightly, he dedicated the book to his wife - a vision of serenity in a blue dress - and to all the loved ones people leave behind when they go to war (cue a most sincere rumbling of Here Here from the room).

For those not familiar with the concept of Sam Kiley, he is one of the greatest and most controversial war correspondents of this generation: a legend amongst his peers, a seeker of truth and justice. A good egg with a good soul, who speaks on behalf of the forgotten victims and puts a spotlight on issues that are deliberately kept outside the news agenda.

He is also devastatingly handsome and a keen hat collector, as you can see from the images ("I'll have one in every colour please").

The quintessential dashing British war correspondent. The equivalent of the Athena poster man cradling the Sword of Damocles, as opposed to that baby (who's called Stelios Havatzias if anyone out there is interested).

Security for whom exactly?
I recently finished reading the book which is based on Sam’s time with Britain’s 16 Air Assault Brigade. I hasten to add that he was not embedded with them, a practice heavily criticised as being part of a propaganda campaign and an effort to keep reporters away from civilian populations and sympathetic to invading forces.

As well as being an insightful account of life on the frontline in Afghanistan, Desperate Glory: At War in Helmand with Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade is also a tale of how human bonds are lived out and died out against a backdrop of hostility, fear and uncertainty.

The blueprint for that story runs through the veins of our bloody history books.

That blueprint gives me some hope, because although war equates to death, misery and destruction and ultimately the failure of the human spirit, when the latter is re-born within that context, it emerges with an immediacy to place love and friendship at its very core.

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