So here’s a pop quiz question. There’s no definitive answer. We are residing in the world of subjective here. Let’s go. Where are the very worst few square yards on planet earth? Where would you go to find the very bottom storey of Hell’s basement? My nomination would be a place I have never been. It is a place I would never want to go near. And when all is said and done, who in their right mind would want to go anywhere near the children’s cancer ward in Fallujah? I Googled 'Fallujah Cancer Kids' to find the image above. It is a horrible, horrible picture. But I promise you it is as nothing compared to many of the images of that particular page. The simple word 'horror' doesn't begin to cover it.
Fallujah was front and centre of the rolling news a decade ago. The good folk of the United States were being asked to give GW Bush another four years and he was running hard on the ticket of being the toughest sheriff in town. Dubya claimed to be the man who had put the bad guys from 9/11 right back in their box. But the bad boys of Fallujah were anything but back in their box. They were getting right into Uncle Sam’s face. They were irksome. They were embarrassing.
They needed an ASBO and Dubya duly signed off on the paperwork.
The ASBO has the usual cool name. The Yanks always have a cool name primed and ready when they decide to rain the fires of hell down on the bad guys of the day. My personal favourite is ‘Junction City’ from Vietnam, 1965.
The Pentagon moniker for payback in Fallujah was ‘Operation Phantom Fury’
But there wasn’t much of the fury that was unleashed by the Marine Corps that was in any way, shape or form ‘phantom’.
It was very a real fury. There were 50,000 buildings in Fallujah before 'Phantom Fury'. There were 10,000 less when time was called on the operation. We had a walk on role in the form of the Black Watch.
But 'Phantom Fury' wasn’t just about flattening buildings with any old ordinance. The demolition men chose to make Fallujah look like a re-run of Berlin 1945 care of thousands of depleted uranium shells. I have no idea of the science that lies behind using depleted uranium in an artillery shell, but 10,000 flattened buildings suggests that it works pretty well in practice.
So Dubya dished out his lesson and duly got himself re-elected. The war in Iraq raged for another six inconclusive years before the West got fed up with being made to look stupid and we all packed up and left.
And Fallujah? Well Fallujah is now run by the long beards of ISIS. But they are by no means the worst of the fallout from the havoc wreaked by 'Phantom Typhoon'. The invisible legacy of pounding the city with depleted uranium is one of radiation. We drenched Fallujah with radiation and of course radiation is a thing that hangs around much longer than any mediocre President from Texas. Radiation will be with the poor sods who are doomed to live and breathe in Fallujah for the next twenty thousand years or so.
It means that babies are born with truly nightmarish deformities. The Fallujah maternity unit spawns the kind of human beings that Victorian circus owners once upon a time used to sell tickets for the voyeuristic public to gawp at. And babies turn into toddlers and toddlers turn into kids. All twisted and deformed. Human but barely human.
And the children’s cancer ward is full of these desperate aberrations.
It is like a real life version of one of those depictions of Hell that Hieronymus Bosch made his trademark.
Forgotten fallout from a forgotten war.
Last week I had my own contact with the forgotten fallout.
It started with a call from Kevin in HMP Dumfries. We’ve got a veteran with us. On remand. Things aren’t great. Could you come in to see him?
Sure. That is what it says on the First Base Veterans Prohject tin when all is said and done.
So I went. It was one of those January mornings of steel grey cold. Flurries of snow and a wind down from Ice Station Zebra.
You never know what you are going to get when you visit a guy in jail. As they took my phone and keys and checked my face against my driving licence, I had a picture in my mind. An eighteen year old lad on his passing out day at Catterick. A family in their Sunday best. A beaming mum and a granddad bursting with pride. Boots shining like mirrors and endless photos for the family album. And the lad the teachers had once said was never going anywhere had managed against all the odds to arrive. Smart as paint and sworn on the dotted line to do what his Queen required him to do.
But now the photos are faded.
And now the proud albums are at the back of the cupboard.
And now it is a chilled to the bone day and the electronic sliding door is opening and beckoning.
I’ll call him Mark because I am called Mark. I will change lots of details to wrap him in a cloak of anonymity. Let’s face it, he’s got enough shit on his plate right now without me adding to it by making him recognisable.
Kevin fixed too coffees and we waited for Mark to be brought down from the wing. When he came he had the broad six foot two frame of a second row forward and the face of a five year old kid battling through the first week at school.
How was the jail time?
And of course he never in a million years thought he would ever end up here. Like this. With everything just so wall to wall bad.
An empty page ready for notes. A pen and a yearning for the good old days when everyone was allowed to smoke through these kinds of meetings.
A childhood on a Scottish scheme in one of those small towns where they used to do industry. One of those small Scottish towns we now call 'Post-Industrial'. One of those small Scottish towns where youth unemployment never dips below 25%.
Come on Mark. Look at you’se. You’re a big strapping lad. Sign up! Get yourself into uniform. Buy yourself a ticket out of here.
And he did. He flew his pebble dashed nest for a band of brothers called the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Streets of teeming hate and a remit to keep calm and hold the line. And drink four litres of water a day. And never discharge your weapon unless the rules of engagement have been met to the very letter. And slowly but surely, the threads keeping his brain as his brain should have been started to stretch and snap.
Ten minutes of listening to his softly spoken voice was enough. Sure he was big enough and he had his share of tattoos. But he was one of those gentle giants. His cloth was never going be cut for the seething hate of Basra.
Back home and the nightmares started to kick in. So he went to the medical officer and the medical officer told him to stiffen himself and man up. I mean, for Christs’s sakes….
You’re a bloody Argyll man…..
And he slowly but surely started to make the wrong moves. He buggered off. Went AWOL. He legged it back home to the familiarity of the GP who had once upon a time seen him for a playground cut leg and an infected throat.
And his GP didn’t tell him to man up. His GP gave him pills to cheer him up and make him sleep.
The army were less than amused. The army wanted none of him. They threatened him with Colchester Military Prison and threw him out.
And all the dreams of that sun kissed afternoon of Catterick pride were consigned to the bin. All that was left was a collection of looping images from the dusty streets of Basras.
And Mark did all the usual things.
He drank way too much.
He got into fights.
He got jobs and lost jobs.
He ran through a list of anti depressants that just seemed to make him ever more depressed.
But his partner stayed with him and children arrived into the world. And the scheme where they lived was a place of feuding and gossip. Anonymous calls to the Social. Anonymous calls to the cops. And neither the social nor the cops liked the look of Mark because they had read all the stuff in the papers. They saw a big guy with Post Traumatic Stress. A headcase. An unexploded bomb. A clear and present danger.
The feuding neighbours soon cottoned on to this and more calls were made to bring out hyped up cops in vans all primed and ready to make like TV cops.
Pressure and pressure and pressure.
And every night sleep threatened a return to Basra.
What dreams may come.....
The walls closed in. Too much empty time. A claustrophobic life. And he couldn’t seem to stop arguing with his partner. And she was a little more angry with him every day. On and on and on and on and on……
He was piano wire taut,
And sometimes she was inches from his face and screaming at his weakness. His uselessness.
Sometimes he ran for the empty hills to sleep out and make a fire and take some comfort from the once familiar discomfort.
But that went against the way his brain had been wired by those clever electricians in Catterick. Because it is no good if a British Soldier runs away in the face of a threat. Where would that get us all? Nowhere. A regular human brain is wired by evolution to tell the legs run like hell if someone starts firing a gun at the head that contains it. We train the brain of an infantry soldier to ignore the common sense of all of those millions of years of evolution. We train the brains of our combat infantry soldiers to react differently. Turn the adrenalin of fear into the adrenalin of howling rage. Maximum aggression.
Attack the threat.
Attack it with all guns blazing.
Attack it with fixed bayonets if all else fails.
And of course a blazing argument with your partner is a threat. A huge threat. No house. No kids. No nothing.
Attack the threat.
Thankfully Mark just about managed to control it. His threats were truly murderous but he never carried them through.
The police were called and kid gloves were nowhere to be found.
There are four times as many incidents of domestic violence in households where one of the partners has seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan than in households where nobody has ever been to a war zone.
The threat gets attacked. We invest tens of thousands of pounds to re-wire the brains of lads from the pebble dash schemes to use the adrenalin of fear to achieve an unthinking rage.
So when the Sarge says charge, they change.
But we refuse to spend a penny when it comes to re-wiring the brain the other way. Back to normal. Back to everyday.
Instead we toss them out onto Civyy St like so much refuse and hope for the best. Only when things don’t turn out for the best are we willing to open up the cheque book. And then it is cops and courts and duty lawyers and remand cells and jail time and social workers and Childrens’ Panels and bail terms.
A few days after I saw him in the jail, the sheriff ignored the pleadings of the Procurator Fiscal and let Mark out on bail. I started out on a long list of nightmares to be sorted. Start at the beginning and take them one at a time. SSAFA for some bedding and furniture. Citizens Advice for help with getting some benefits.
He called me.
There’s a Children Panel. Will you come along. Well it isn’t really my thing, but sure, I’ll come along.
And I went along.
Another morning of chilling north wind. A high street of boarded up shops. Many more potholes than there used to be.
A government bleak room filled with government people. How much an hour were they all collectively costing? At least £300.
And my word, had they ever produced a lot of paper. Was this why the surrounding hills were so bare of trees?
They had compiled a list of 31 reasons why Mark should be kept from his kids. But the sight of me made everyone as as jumpy as cats. Because it is easy to make up accusations against a family on a scheme when everything is played out behind closed doors. It ain’t so easy when there is a fresh pair of eyes. It ain’t so easy when there is a nuisance factor from that First Base place where they are all too ready to pick up the phone to MSPs and journalists. And all of a sudden they wanted to get rid of as many of the 31 accusations as they could. And all of a sudden everyone wanted to make nice with Mark. And he found it hard to contain his anger at this transformation from them acting out like spiteful teachers into the epitome of a caring state.
They started out with reams of paper describing Mark as some kind of cross between Rambo and a rabid dog. But after half an hour they wanted to tear it up and to kiss and make up. And they were just so very chuffed to bits that he had found some help. And they assured him that they really, really understood how all the nastiness he had been involved in down in good old Basra city must have made things hard for him.
But they didn’t of course.
All they understood was that the big man with the frightened eyes couldn’t be hidden away in a filing cabinet any more. The quick fix option had been taken away by the unspoken threat of politicians and journalists being roped in.
And a tiny piece of forgotten fallout from a war we are trying as hard as we can to forget was suddenly not so easy to forget any more.
I am pretty confident that things will turn out OK for Mark. He is still young and he hasn’t allowed the nightmares to turn him into an addict. He's a good guy. I like to think that in a year’s time he will see getting banged up for a week on remand was the best thing that ever happened to him. Because in the jail was Kevin and Kevin was able to open a door onto some better times.
Let’s hope so.
But if it does, it will be the exception and not the rule.
It won’t be long before we have all but forgotten our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. There will be new stuff to hold our attention. And what of the hundred and fifty thousand men and women who walked those streets of violence and hate? Well they will also be forgotten. Just like we have forgotten those that once upon a time patrolled the streets of hate off the Lower Falls Rd and the Bogside.
Forgotten fallout from forgotten wars.