Chapter 1: Introduction - Number One With A Bullet, I'm A Power Pack
Chapter 2: 1 - Never Overestimate Your Ability
It’s fucking trite, but it’s true - they really do get younger every year, and I just keep getting older.
Fucking youngsters. They make me exhausted. Some of them weren't old enough to wipe their own arses when I'd run into Grant on that road outside the recruiters, and now here they are, rubbing more time and love into their SA80 than they do their own cocks.
Now with boys, these shit for brains fucking fetuses who make me feel older than God, these boys who are older than Fraz and Kenzie - especially fucking Kenzie, the wet-behind-the ears cunt - would ever be. I've been in nearly fifteen years. It's been nearly ten since that one fucking IED, but sometimes I wonder if I'll ever stop living that one moment over and over again. Oh, sure, I've lost boys since then, but one never forgets mopping up the blood from your popped cherry, now does one?
"No, no, for serious - one horse-sized duck, or a hundred duck-sized horses?"
"How much of my kit do I have?"
"None of it?"
"Just you and the ducks. Or horses."
"Do I at least keep my boots? Because then the horses, no doubt."
"Yeah, but there’re a hundred of them. Could you kick that many wee heads before they trample you?"
"Smithy could, for sure. Kinneary’d end up trampled. Tiny hoofprints everywhere. So tragic."
"Hey, fuck you. I’d take the horse sized duck, and I’d ride it, and I’d make the fucker fly for me."
"Keep dreaming, sweetheart."
"Why is it when you call me sweetheart, it sounds exactly like when you call me fuckface?"
"Eh, boys, I think he's learning!"
"So what if it was the horses against the ducks?"
It’s the motherfucking grocery that does him in. He’s there, trying to convince himself it’s not beans he wants - beans that don’t even taste fucking right anyway - that he wants the fresh fruit and veg, never mind the pile of greens sitting at the bottom of his crisper, when he sees her. He’s not seen her in person before, not ever, but he’d be damned if he’d forget her face, forget the way the major’s face - the fucking major, of all cunts - the way his face went soft when he’d pulled up her picture on email.
"This was her promotion to captain, Cammy. Proudest fucking day of my life."
"Is it easier, sir? Having her in the service, too?"
"In some ways, perhaps. She knows what it’s like. She has her own troop. And I suppose I understand a bit more as well."
"How do you mean, sir?"
"I know what it’s like to be at home, watching her deploy. Watching her set off where I know she’ll be shot at."
And now here she was, in civvies, buying fucking beans. He wasn’t sure he wanted to say anything. And really, he didn’t. Not to her.
“Ma’am,” he said, instantly regretting it. “I’m sorry to disturb, but I served with your husband in Iraq.”
She brightened. “With the 42nd? Really? Well, Michael’s over in fruit and veg, furthering his delusion that he’s a salad man these days.”
It was fucking mindbending to be reminded the major had a first name. “I don’t want to be a bother-” he heard the footsteps before he felt a hand clap on his shoulder. He was ashamed at his gratitude for the forewarning.
“Cammy’s always a bother, isn’t he?” The major’s voice disturbed and soothed at the same time.
“It’s good to see you again, sir.” Cammy turned to shake his hand, felt a lump in his throat at the press of the major’s trigger callus against his own softer hand. It had been almost six months since he’d touched a rifle.
“How’s civilian life treating you?”
“Can’t complain, sir.”
The major grinned. “Oh, you can always complain, son. You were in the army.”
The past tense weighed heavy on Cammy.
Chatting in the grocery aisles turned into an invitation to dinner turned into after dinner whiskies by the fire, which made Cammy feel older than firing any weapon ever had.
“Sir, do you remember that conversation we had after Fraz and Kenzie and the sergeant...?”
“When you told me you’d not be joining us on our upcoming all expenses paid jaunt to scenic Helmland province in the spring? Aye, I remember.”
“You said then you thought you could see me staying, moving up.”
“Aye, Company Sergeant Major Campbell. I still think you could have done very right by yourself in her Majestey’s service.”
“Why, sir? Why me?”
“Well, you’d not fucked up your first tours too badly, could keep your head about your shoulders when things got sticky, and you’d keep - kept - coming back looking for more. That’s not quite as common a trait in soldering as one might hope these days.” They sat quietly for a moment. Cammy felt the whiskey burn against his lips.
The major caught his eye. “Mostly, though, it was the way those boys would look at you, look up to you, and what you’d do for them. What you did do for them, after the IED.”
“After Fraz and Kenzie and Sergeant Murphy died for absolutely no fucking reason at all.”
Cammy set his glass down very carefully. “What, no speech about how grand the cause is, how we might not be able to see it on the ground here, but overall there’s a strategic plan, and that suicide bomber on that road at that moment was all part of it?”
The major snorted. “That’s horseshit, and you and I both know it. There’s no getting away from politics in the army, and at certain points you can never quite be sure if it’s combat necessity or political maneuvering that’s dictating your order of battle.”
“And that’s what I can’t stand,” Cammy said, feeling the words burst from where they'd been buried deep in his gut. “It’s bad enough that people already have their minds made up over who you are and what you do as a soldier; that’s fine; I can live with that. I can even live fighting when we’ve got so much more firepower, so much more everything than the people we’re fighting. Sure, there’s Fraz vaporizing a donkey, but then there’s Fraz and the suicide fucking IED. That’s fine, I can still sleep at night. It’s Fraz being used to reelect some MP who can’t even find Basrah on a fucking map that I don’t get. It’s Kenzie being there in the fucking first place, when there was no fucking point to it at all.”
Cammy sat back down from where he had half-risen out of his chair, trying to breathe through the clutch in his chest. He picked up his glass again, forced the whiskey down through the tightness in his throat. “What? No denials? No telling me how wrong I am?”
Shaking his head, the major stood to fetch them a refill. “You know not, because you know you’re not wrong. It’s the second hard fact you have to reconcile with yourself if you’re going to be soldiering for the long haul. Sometimes there won’t be a good answer. Are you still willing to do what you do? What, in some cases, you are very, very good at? And if you are, why?”
“Why do you do it, sir?” Cammy'd be damned if he'd end up an officer, but he supposed it was possible an officer might have some acceptable advice.
The major eyed him, and Cammy knew he'd been seen through. At the moment, he didn't care. “Because I’ve been in long enough I don’t properly fit anywhere else. Oh, I could figure out civilian life again if I had to, but frankly at this point, I don’t want to. Someone’s got to do it, and I’d a damn sight rather it be me than someone who only sees numbers and troop strength, rather than actual soldiers.”
Cammy snorted to himself. You keep telling yourself that, sir, he muttered in his head. Still, the idea of someone who saw faces and names clung to him something fierce.
The sound of forks on plates was loud in the silence of the flat, and Cammy could feel it creeping down his spine, digging into his brain and stomach. Jesus, this had been a bad idea.
"It's so very good to have you back, Robbie," his mother ventured. "And for good this time!”
Cammy scraped a smile across his face and kept his fucking mouth shut, but she just. kept. fucking. talking. It would've been all right, it could've been all right, except she eventually said, "and I'm sure they'd have you back at the college, especially now you've got so much -" she positively relished the words "-work experience."
Cammy very carefully did not slam his fork down, but it was still loud enough to make his mum pause. "Actually, I've been meaning to speak to you about that. I'm not, actually. Back for good, that is."
"What? I don't understand?" His mum's face creased in confusion exactly the way he feared, confusion inevitably leading to disappointment, he knew.
He opened his mout to let her down again. "I'm going back."
The door slammed behind him, and he didn't care, he didn't fucking care. He wished he smoked. He headed down the street, toying with the idea of stopping at the pub, seeing if anyone else were around, but mostly he just wanted to walk. To be anywhere but where he was. His mum's flat was too fucking small at the moment.
It was all too small. Even Perth was fucking small. His mum might have been right; he probably had other options. He could do other things, but he'd grown accustomed to feeling like a small bit of a larger world. He could see a life for himself, a fucking career for himself, in the army.
Fuck, at this point, he was just trying to convince himself, and that was already preaching to the fucking choir. He was going back, and he wasn't planning on going anywhere again until they dragged him away, and fuck any of the cunts who didn't understand. It was his fucking life. He'd rather deal with the shit inside the army than out. Which was kind of fucking tragic, but his life was already kind of fucking tragic in places anyway.
Chapter 3: Interlude - The Kandahar Reel
For reasons that passeth all my understanding, the sound on this video only seems to work when viewed as a part of the playlist, which is set to autoplay. Authorial intent is for you to view some or all of one video, not the entire playlist. Unless, of course, you dig watching reels in a gym. Then have at it.
Written by two officers of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland, while on active service in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan in 2009, as a tribute to their fallen comrades.
The dance reproduces the use of helicopters, symbolizing teamwork and offering a helping hand to board. The “hands across” move represents the helicopter most frequently used by Black Watch soldiers - the Chinook, with its signature double rotor blades, with supplemental figures symbolizing the support from US Army Black Hawk helicopters with a single rotor. The figures are performed at 1.5 times the normal speed, as Black Watch soldiers are constantly asked to give 150%.
The reel is danced to Mr Jamie Forrester's Kandahar Reel or the Auld Reekie Band's Speed the Plough.
Chapter 4: 2 - Never Dive Into Murky Water
Afghanistan’s a different kind of cold than Scotland. In some ways, Scotland’s worse. Sure, it’s technically warmer, but there’s something about the cold and wet that gets into your bones and stays for months. In Helmland, it’s a damn sight colder, but it’s the kind that sucks the breath right out your lungs and numbed. I never thought I'd miss the desert, but - no, fuck it. I'd still rather be freezing my tonker off than drowning in my own sweat.
Plus, there are ever so much nicer ways to get warm. When you’re hot, the only option’s less clothes, and a certain point you run out of things to take off, not to mention the whole cost-benefit analysis of more exposed skin versus sand in some fucking awful places.
But Afghanistan, mmm. You time it right, you get sent over to Bagram for some of that NATO-led "international security force liaison," and there were some fucking American and Canadian lassies who were absolutely ripe for it. Even if you couldn't swing that, at least you were in fucking barracks for the most part, and that's a damn sight more privacy than a fucking tent in the middle of the fucking desert.
“Like, can we train the horses? Or are these just any horses?”
“Any free roaming duck-sized horses, you mean.”
“Yeah. Like that.”
“Smithy, have you ever seen a horse in real life? Or a fucking duck?”
“Actually, once I was near a pond, and there were these two ducks-”
Statements today from the Secretary of State for Defence may indicate homecoming for British troops in Afghanistan sooner than expected.
...while six months ago, there was a private push to keep force levels as high as possible for as long as possible, commanders have been surprised by the extent to which they have been able to draw back and leave the Afghans to take the lion’s share of the combat role.
"I think that the message I am getting clearly from the military is that it might be possible to draw down further troops in 2013," he said. "Whereas six months ago the message coming from them was that we really need to hold on to everything we have got for as long as we possibly can. I think they are seeing potentially more flexibility in the situation.
"Talking to senior commanders you get a clear sense that their view of force levels is evolving in light of their experiences."
Britons must get used to the idea that peace in Afghanistan will involve reaching out, Northern Ireland-style, to at least the moderate part of the insurgency, to try and bring it inside through reconciliation and integration. However, now that al-Qa’ida has been “eliminated” from the country, the question must be asked: are our troops to put their lives at risk for nation-building?
"We have to be clear why we came here in the first place. I believe very clearly that if we are going to ask British troops to put themselves in the firing line, we can only do that to protect UK vital national security interests. We can ask troops who are here to help build a better Afghanistan, but we cannot ask them to expose themselves to risk for those tasks. We can only ask them to expose themselves to risk for Britain's national security, which is what they signed up to do. The UK did not come here to defeat the insurgency. Britain just needed to help contain the insurgency to stop terrorists getting a foothold again.”
Choppers. The sound of choppers. It was drilled into his brain, overriding his own heartbeat. He could feel it thudding through his chest, like the bass at a concert only nothing like. There was always one moment, just before the chinook took off, where he was suddenly aware of all the things that usually faded into background noise, now drowned out by the thud of rotor blades: the heavy weights of his helmet and vest, the spot on the right right side of his chin that his helmet strap always rubbed raw, no matter how much he fucked around with it, the pressure of the SA80's sling against his chest, the slick spot on his pistol grip where he'd rubbed it smooth underneath the heel of his hand.
Even lying in his bunk, a full twelve hours after combat was over, he could still hear the choppers through the walls, still feel his gear pressing against him. It had been four days. Four fucking days of humping his kit, counting the breaths of every man in his platoon, awake or asleep. He could still hear Hobson screaming for his mother. He could still hear the silence after that poor cunt from the Welsh Guards stopped breathing - ears still ringing from the explosion, the silence was louder than the gunfire.
Cammy sat up, shoved his feet back in his boots, and crept out to where the rest of his boys were kipped. His head was too loud, so he would try to drown it out with the sound of sleeping soldiers. He could pick out Kinneary's hitching snore, Smithy's quiet muttering, and all the rest.
Four days, three fucking river crossings held, a fucking shitton of what someone would no doubt try to claim was poppy seed, and the largest air assault Cammy'd ever been a part of. What made his blood still rise, what made him flush and his heart beat in time with rotor blades, was knowing that he'd brought his boys out, seen them fight well, and he'd brought them all back alive. Tomorrow he'd claim he knew it all along, but in the night, unlaced boots rubbing his ankles as he lurked like a creeper over his squads, he knew he had doubted it every moment they'd been under fire, and he was grateful for every breath he counted.
Chapter 5: Interlude - They're On The Fucking Roof
Chapter 6: Interlude - It'll All Be Over By Christmastime
Jimmy's gone to Flanders, though he's no' the strength his father was
I'm sure he'll be worthy and that Jocky would have burst with pride
Chapter 7: 3 - Never Shout 'Help!' Unless You Mean It
Am I the only one? Oh, well. Of the group that originally bowed out after 2004 in Iraq? Well, yes, I suppose so. Jenkins and Shappey, they never left. But Nasby, Macca, Rossco, Stewarty? Yeah, they're all still out. Well. I say out. Macca's working in a mechanic's shop, always moaning that his kit's never as clean, as good as it should be. Some habits die hard. Rossco made it on to uni in Dundee, doing fuck all with computer games. First person shooters, I suppose, which is a laugh considering how crap he was.
Stewarty, though. See, he didn't come through all that well. Drowned himself year before last. His girlfriend's son, well, he came up behind Stewarty, wanting to surprise him. Stewarty didn't react too well to that. He's got - he had - the official diagnois of PTSD, makes him not liable for his actions for the first five seconds after a startle or something that sets him off, or some fucking thing, and the little bugger wasn't much more than scared a bit, shaken up, barely even bruised, but Stewarty couldn't handle it. Couldn't deal with "what he'd become," he said. Wouldn't do that to Sarah or the boy, not if he could help it. Shame they weren't married. She'd've at least got his pension at that point. And her boy, well. I don't think he thinks it's his fault anymore, but he did love Stewarty something awful. So which is worse? Growing up with a cunt who might hit you, all unintending, depending on how loud a noise you make or if a car backfires, or growing up without him at all? It's the sort of cheery question the army leaves you with. So, yeah, I suppose I can still understand why people still wonder at me coming back.
Me? I don't have a girlfriend, nor any kids that I know of. I have privates first class, getting younger every year. Snot-nosed, shit-stained cunts, every last one of them, and then I watch them grow up and get older than Fraz and Kenzie ever will be. It's only been fifteen years, like, since I joined, but in army years, that's a lifetime.
No, for serious. Fifteen years is a full life in the army. Fifteen years means you're Career. Means you're not planning on going aught elsewhere. Means you're fucking stupid enough to make the army your whole life. Oh, maybe not your whole life, but it's gonna shape the whole fuckin' thing whether you like it or not. It's like your fucking Siamese twin, can't breathe or piss or scratch your ass hardly without thinking about it, how it affects you, but after a while, you forget there was any way different. It's the hitch in your step that was always there.
Do I wonder what my life would be like if I'd stayed out? Sure I have, and anyone who says they've not is a fucking liar. That doesn't mean I've wished for aught else, not really, or regretted it more than half a dozen times a day. Because it's my life, you see, and I don't know how to walk without it.
It feels heartless in a way, but I'm really, really not in the army because of who was on the other side. It's really not about fighting, and that's what I've never quite been able to explain to anyone who hadn't already served. It's not that I don't give a shit about the conflict, or the war (or wars), or the people on the other side. I'm here because of my boys. And it's not some sort of narcissistic, altruistic bullshit, no. I'm here for the sense of being part of something larger, of all pulling together towards the same goal. And, yeah, it's a shit thing to not always be sure of that goal, of not always being able to trust the wisdom of those making the decision of where to go and what to do, but that's so fucking far above my pay grade, I don't even want to think about it.
So I don't. Not always. And maybe that makes me just as much a coward as someone who turns tail and runs from a fight, but that's what I do. And at least some of my boys are alive because of it. Not all of them. But more than if I wasn't here, I dare say.
"It’s like, like - what’s it fucking like? Indiana Jones! The first one! Where the cunt has the two swords he’s all waving about, and Indy just shoots him! What happens for real, though? Who wins?"
"So, like, a cunt is coming at me with a sword, and I’ve got my rifle-"
"No, no. No rifle. Just your pistol. The way Indy did."
"Jesus, now we know why you can never fucking pull. 'Just like Indy.'"
"Piss off. It’s a fucking serious question! There’re cunts with swords here! It could happen! Hey, sarge! Which wins at close range - pistol or sword?"
"It’s not fair, Kinneary; now you’re putting on all these restrictions and requirements. 'Close range.' The fuck does that mean? It’s not a good question if you keep changing it."
"Oh, so now it’s a good question, eh?”
"Shut your trap, Smithy, unless you're using it for something useful. And sword beats gun at twenty feet or less, damn near every time. Learn it; fucking love it; don't get within twenty feet of a cunt with a sword if you can help it."
"Jesus, Sarge, how do you know that?"
"Jesus fuck, Kinneary, how the fuck do you think I know? I've been over here two rotations now. And you want the flock of horses. Large birds, especially ducks, are aggressive cunts, but you could probably startle a flock with a fucking plastic bag."
"Sir, yes sir!"
"Sergeant Campbell, sir, what about the flock of horses against the horse-sized duck?"
"KINNEARY, MOVE YOUR FUCKING HUMP."
"Sir, yes sir!"
Two days after they'd returned to Camp Bastion, Cammy was stopped in the mess line.
"Rough hump?" It was the medic he'd last seen holding Hobson’s fucking guts in his hand, held him together long enough that he could get patched up.
"You don't say-" a flash of gold caught Cammy's eye "-sir," he finished.
The captain laughed and waved off his attempt to come to attention. "You came in with 3 SCOTS, yeah? You boys have had quite the time of it."
"And more of us will make it out, thanks to you and your crew."
That got Cammy a smile that shaved ten years off the captain’s face. “Glad to be doing our job.”
"Likewise." Cammy winced. "I mean. Not that." Glad to be killing, glad to be fighting, glad to be wreaking fucking havoc, glad to be watching his boys take fire, glad to be watching them come back missing parts of their bodies or minds or hearts - yes and no fucking no way never at the same time.
The captain laughed again. "I know what you mean." He clapped Cammy on the shoulder and ambled off, and Cammy felt something tight and warm clench in his stomach.
The captain did know what he meant, and Cammy didn't have to say a word. It was the thing he could never explain to his mother, that wasn't enough for Rossco or poor fucking Stewarty or Murray or any of half a hundred others who'd come and gone over the years. Cammy had a job to do, and he was fucking good at it, and what do you know, it made him glad to be doing something he was good at, even when he couldn't explain what it was, not to anyone who didn't already know, not with a hundred words.
From across the caf, he could hear the fucking duck-horse argument start up again. He grinned.