Defusing the Iraqi conflict
Few Britons have any idea of what our troops actually do in Iraq. The media’s coverage is generally limited to casualty reports, abuse claims and the odd, ill-informed screed about soldiers having the wrong equipment.
In four years no British media organisation, including the BBC, has bothered to establish a bureau in Basra. This lack of information makes Chris Hunter’s extraordinary Eight Lives Down all the more welcome and important.
But even if the ordinary travails of British troops in Iraq were wellcovered, this gripping memoir would be a revelation. After all, it’s by and about a man whose real-life job involves choosing between the red and blue wire so familiar in James Bond films – only on a daily basis.
Chris Hunter is a veteran ‘ammunition technical officer’ (ATO) or counterterrorist bomb-disposal expert.
During the first two months of his four-month tour of Iraq in 2004 ? a tour that coincided with the most intense period of the war in Basra ? his team was called out 45 times to disable various improvised explosive devices (IEDs), including remotecontrolled rockets aimed at Britain’s main Basra city base.
You might expect an account of disabling bombs to be repetitive or overly technical, but Hunter’s is neither. Each incident is fascinatingly different and edge-of-the-seat dramatic, and Hunter recounts them with vividness and clarity.
When he walks up to a dusty box by a highway with wires trailing off into a distant slum, or up to a car weighed down by explosives, he goes into his ‘other world’ ? he becomes a soldier with the concentration of a Zen monk and the manual dexterity of a surgeon.
Back at base, Hunter looks for patterns in the way that bombs are made and laid. At first his main opponent is a Sunni bomb-making gang, who are happy to slaughter scores of Shia civilians along with Coalition soldiers. Then, in the spring of 2004 comes the Shia militia uprising. They increasingly receive high-tech help from Iran and even Lebanese Hezbollah in using devices such as mobile phones and electronic car keys to detonate bombs by remote control.
Soon Hunter himself becomes a target for assassination: ‘They are out to kill the golden-haired bomb man in Basra,’ he’s told. Bombs are planted near schools and hospitals just to get Hunter out into the open and a sniper’s sights.
But it’s not all bombs and IEDs. Hunter also vividly describes full-on infantry combat, when on only his fifth day in country his convoy is ambushed on the main road. It’s one of several attacks on British troops after Piers Morgan’s Daily Mirror published obviously faked pictures of British soldiers abusing a prisoner.
The book reveals other uncomfortable truths. It turns out that the biggest handicap for British troops has been a lack of air cover. Often, when Hunter’s team disarmed a bomb, militiamen spied on them from rooftops.
On one occasion he was able to call helicopters in, prompting the watchers to flee. Mostly no helicopters came because it was either ‘too hot’ or none were available. Yet there were pilots twiddling their thumbs at base, and helicopters sitting unused at home in the UK along with other needed equipment.
Hunter is not a professional writer and the book is written in plain conversational soldier-speak peppered with military acronyms (there’s a glossary at the back), obscenities and cliché. Sometimes it feels as though he’s trying too hard to create a dramatic arc out of the question of whether his marriage will survive his tour.
But unlike much military nonfiction there isn’t a dull or needless paragraph. The action is relentless – Hunter saw more of it than most.
Indeed, as he was called out daily to different parts of the city, Hunter is probably a better informed guide to the war than more senior officers or the ordinary infantryman on patrol.
You also get a rare picture of professional soldiers at work: how they get on with each other and on with their jobs under huge stress.
There’s illegal drinking. There’s infuriating laziness on the part of rear echelon support troops. There’s absurd interference by senior commanders ‘too busy reminiscing about past conflicts to think about present and future ones’. There is compassion for the Iraqi people that the ‘bring-the-troops-home-now’ crowd could learn from.
You also get a powerful sense of just how amazingly filthy and run-down Basra is, even by Iraqi standards, despite promises of British aid.
Eight Lives Down is essential for anyone who wants to understand this war and the Army in general. It should be compulsory reading for Messrs Brown and Cameron and every single bureaucrat at the MoD.
In any case, it is almost certainly destined to be the British military classic of the Iraq war, and a book that will be read long after this conflict is over. Chris Hunter had already given extraordinary service to his country – and to civilians of Bosnia, Colombia, Afghanistan and Iraq – in one of the most dangerous military jobs. By writing this book he has also done a service to his profession, and created an enduring monument to his comrades.
JONATHAN FOREMAN has been an embedded correspondent with British and U.S. troops in Iraq.
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