Now that the wheels are falling off our latest foreign policy adventures so fast that even the most purblind can’t ignore it (although they can still deny it: Afghanistan will be a better place because we intervened. Oh yes.) Mark Frankland’s quietly amazing Afterwards becomes ever more relevant and heart-breaking. My own Killing Time at Catterick tried to show the bleak reality of being called for a soldier in the world today, Frankland’s shows the aftermath. It is about men who have been there. Men whose lives have been destroyed.
It is not a novel, and it does not duck the one key truth that so called ‘anti war’ people always stumble over – that many, maybe most, servicemen (and women) go in with their eyes open, and enjoy or even love their years of service, accept the possibility of injury or death, and miss it when they leave. I know this, from many family realities. I know men who sit in the gutter begging who’d do it all again.
Men do sit in the gutter begging, men drink themselves insensible at every opportunity, men live on the streets in shaming droves when friends and family can no longer bear to have them dossing on their sofas or beating up their mates. Look the figures up yourselves. The proportion of the nation’s homeless who once fought for the Queen is astonishing. And now we’re making them redundant in crazy numbers, and advertising for part-timers to sit and wait their turn to be blown into red mist, because they cost far less. Civilization as we know it.
Afterwards is not a novel, as I said. But the way Frankland reconstructs the stories he has been told is literary, poetic, entirely convincing. The stories themselves come from three ex-soldiers who spoke to him at exhaustive length for a Scottish charity called The First Base Agency. One of the men wanted to be anonymous, two were prepared to let the world know who they are.
The first chapter is entitled Willie. This is the start
When I was 18 I became a soldier. I don’t suppose I really thought about how long I’d stay a soldier. Well, you don’t at that age do you? Five years? Maybe ten? As far as the paperwork is concerned, I stopped being a soldier after nine years……I put my gun away on the rack and started out on the rest of my life.
A normal life.
That was twenty six years ago. Long, long years. And the stupid thing is that I am still a soldier to this day. If you ask me what I am I will answer you in a heartbeat:
I’m an Argyll.
Willie went to Germany to face the Red Menace across the Iron Curtain. (Germany was great. Day after day of getting plastered and mucking about.) And then he went to Belfast.
I was just a lad. Not an excuse, just a statement of fact. I had become a part of the ultimate team where we dealt with danger and boredom by getting drunk all day every day. A team that moved like ghosts through the dark streets of a strange, dark city where sometime we tripped over guys with no throats and no heads. And if we hadn’t laughed we would have cried. So we laughed at the stupid stuff. And maybe you can imagine the kind of hate that was in the damp Belfast air back then. It was a hate that had been hundreds of years in the making. And in the middle of all this festering hate was a bunch of pissed up young Jocks with live weapons.
It gets worse, much worse. As it does for the other two men whose stories Frankland tells.
Bury it deep. Wipe it clean.
Make it go away.
But it never, ever goes away,
Every night every night every night every night every night…
And so I drink.
The stories are not the same, and range widely over Britain’s modern dreams of global importance. But the one thing that does not change is the way we treat our ‘warriors’ and the heartless contempt with which we tend to view them when they can no longer fight, or don’t look so good slumped in vomit or in wheelchairs. As Frankland says in an afterward: ‘If Governments decide to send our soldiers into harm’s way for what ever reason, they surely have an absolute duty to look after them once they come back home.’ The Government does not, and it makes him ‘angry. Really angry.’
He doesn’t really comment on the forward to the book, by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Alistair Irwin KCB CBE, President of Veterans Scotland, who writes: ‘I hope that Don, Trevor and Willie, the subjects of these stories, will not take it amiss if I assure those readers with no military experience of their own that these men’s recollections of life in barracks and on operations could not fairly be regarded as a generally accurate picture of the British Army at work and at play.’ I hope Sir Alistair won’t take it amiss if my response to that is ‘Bollocks.’
I can’t exhort you strongly enough to read this book. It should make you cry.
Afterwards is available in Kindle format
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