What’s the connection between Helmand Province and Richard the Lionheart? Cyprus.

War – who are the winners?

BBC 3 showed a film this week about a British army company in Helmand Province – the Duke of Lancasters, nicknamed the Lions of England. They all had midland accents. Even the officers had a touch of the north west to them.

The story was about a three day operation when the company was sent out behind enemy lines to distract the Taliban so that a supply road, called Trident, could be extended.

I often notice, when arriving from Dublin, at Birmingham Airport, that this is where the army recruitment posters start together with a proliferation of Hero posters which ask for support for injured soldiers.The midlands is where the soldiers are drawn from. Unemployment is high there.

These men – young, handsome, experienced in warfare, both brave and fearful, their mouths full of sexual expletives – called the Taliban the enemy. By being there in this alien desert land, they believed, they were defending their country – the United Kingdom.

I once asked a former soldier – now a police detective in his forties who had been stationed in West Berlin – how the army managed to persuade soldiers that whoever they were fighting were the enemy. He explained that the main idea instilled in the soldiers’ minds is that of comradeship. Bonding. Whoever attacks one of their comrades is the enemy. As simple as that.

The operation leaves two men injured – a captain and a soldier. When the captain’s ID number is relayed back to base, the commanding officer fails to recognise it and asks for it to be relayed again.  He never, he explains, checks officers’ numbers. We can guess because, statistically, officers are less likely to get injured.

After this, with two men injured, the tempo rises when the Taliban get  close to the what the presenter calls the compound but which was once, I suppose, someone’s home. The Taliban start coming at the soldiers on motorbikes. Yes, that’s right, motorbikes. The British have helicopters, the Taliban motorbikes. If it becomes hand to hand combat, the officer says, this could be really dangerous because it would then be an even fight. Those were his words – an even fight. All’s fair in love and war and that’s dangerous.

I don’t know anything about warfare but I learned that Chinook helicopters are used for transportng soldiers and wounded men back to base but they are big, cumbersome and therefore vulnerable creatures. So, to rescue one of the injured men, in the middle of a sandstorm, the Chinook was guided in by an Apache helicopter which is better equipped with instruments and thus able to fly in sand storms.

The man is got out, under fire, and both are flown back to hospital in England where they later die. They were both young.

The captain’s sergeant looks sad and puzzled, not sure if it has all been worthwhile but knowing it’s got to have been.The captain’s father, a brigadier, breaks down and cries but says that his son died defending his country, the United Kingdom.

The company will return to Helmand in 2013 and then, in 2014, everyone goes home. That’s the plan anyway.

One thing of interest to anyone who has an eye for history: when the company withdrew from Helmand, they were flown to their base in Cyprus.

823 years ago, in 1189, the English king, Richard the Lionheart, based himself in Cyprus before sailing for Jaffa on his way to recapture Jerusalem from Salah ed din, the Kurd. He failed. In war, you win some, you lose some. But you hang on to your base in Cyprus, just in case.


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