“What we never hear about the front line in Afghanistan”
Andy McNab’s Tour of Duty – The Telegraph
In his new documentary series, novelist and ex-SAS man Andy McNab talks to British soldiers on active duty. He tells Michael Deacon a story of unsung heroism
On Sunday, the number of British troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 reached 100. In Iraq, 176 have been killed. But Andy McNab, the former SAS soldier and now bestselling novelist, has a different take on the casualty figures.
“You look at the Falklands conflict – 255 guys were killed, but even more than that have committed suicide through Post Traumatic Stress,” says McNab, who commanded the Bravo Two Zero patrol in the first Gulf War, and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal. “So the problem will be magnified soon, purely because we’ve got more soldiers going through those experiences. Somebody needs to address that aftercare, because the suicide rate of people with Post Traumatic Stress is normally about 13 years [after the conflict]. So there may be a sort of time bomb ticking away.”
Andy McNab’s Tour of Duty: a re-enactment of a soldier’s active duty in Afghanistan
Like McNab’s books, though, his new TV series will convey the heroics of British troops in action. He has now written seven action thrillers [note: should be "more than ten", but unless his website will be updated this mistake will continue to circle] , including Bravo Two Zero itself and Crossfire, published in paperback last week. His autobiography, Immediate Action, has sold 1.4million copies in the UK.
“In the media generally, I think the military have been getting quite a hard time,” says McNab. So, for Tour of Duty, he interviewed soldiers about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan – and was impressed by their weaponry, their stories of bravery, and their general air of optimism. “Everybody thinks it’s all doom and gloom and all these lads are about to hang themselves and their boots are falling off and all that sort of stuff. It isn’t like that at all.”
Indeed, he believes that the UK has never had infantry with better experience or weaponry. At the start of the Iraq war, British soldiers were, he says, inadequately equipped – but that has changed. He admires the Osprey body armour system (“The Americans are looking at buying it because it’s so good”), the Personal Role Radio communication earpiece (“Every soldier has got one – we’re the only army on the planet to do that”) and the Warrior tank.
“I read the other day that everyone’s complaining about the Warrior not being armoured,” he says. “Well, I’ve sat in one and taken two RPGs [Rocket-Propelled Grenades] and they just bounce off. But the way it’s portrayed, it’s like these things are sardine cans. Of course they’re not.”
The infantry soldiers themselves are particularly keen on the Javelin surface-to-air missile, McNab adds. “They call it the Porsche, because every missile costs the same as a Porsche 911,” he says. “Everyone wants to fire it, so during a fire fight, there’s a list of people – ‘Right, you’re next.’ And you see guys going, ‘Yes!’ – because they’re getting the chance to fire £76,000 worth of missile.”
But McNab’s Tour of Duty was inspired by three rather cheaper forms of equipment: the laptop, the iPod and the video camera. A popular trend among British soldiers is to fit tiny cameras to their helmets, record videos of themselves in battle, and then put their footage to music on their laptops. They upload the finished videos to the internet, so that their fellow soldiers can enjoy them.
McNab was so impressed by the videos that he approached the Ministry of Defence and suggested he make a television programme to showcase the best. “But then I thought, ‘That’s just pure bang-bang – war porn’,” he says. “We needed to give it a context.” So the series features not only a selection of video clips but also interviews with the soldiers who made them.
He heard stories of “incredible bravery”, he says. For example, the rescue of a Danish soldier, lying wounded and out of reach in a bomb crater in the middle of a city; British soldiers saved him by stealing a bed from the nearest house, throwing it down into the crater, and using it to get to him. All while they were under fire.
But, while McNab’s new series will show us plenty of heroic British soldiers, it won’t show us McNab himself. Having worked in military intelligence in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, he keeps his face off television, and out of the papers, for reasons of safety. Even though it’s 10 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, he says it’s still not worth taking any risks.
“A lot of Apache pilots are doing exactly the same now,” he says. “The Apaches are taking a lot of casualties in Afghanistan, so they don’t want to show their faces because they fear reprisals here in the UK. I’ve had two death threats: one of them was a fruitcake, and one was deemed serious. So it’s just being sensible, that’s all.”
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