On February 24th 2003, I flew off to the Iraq war on an aeroplane full of porn. We had got on board at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. It was much like a normal flight – there were boarding passes and passports and weight restrictions on our luggage – except that, halfway through, we were told that as our destination was Kuwait, a Muslim country, porn mags were forbidden. This was like asking soldiers to give up their rifles. Many would preserve their favourite tear-outs in their waterproof orders books. They knew that they weren’t going to see their wives and girlfriends for six months and grumbled as the RAF personnel walked down the aisles, filling black sack after black sack with their stash. I was a 24-year-old Muslim, probably the only person on the flight who didn’t have any porn. But I certainly wanted some. The Gurkha in front of me had hidden his treasured supply under his seat. I tugged away at it. His boot pressed down firmly. One of the flight attendants clocked us and into the bin it went.
I grew up in a Muslim household in Burnley, a town in north-west England. My parents had come from Punjab in Pakistan in the 1970s and ran a corner shop. They thought they’d have a better life in Britain but I’d become disillusioned. I was bored with going to the local mosque after school each day, where the imam would literally beat the Koran into me. When my white schoolmates talked about “Home and Away” and “Neighbours”, I had no idea what they were on about because I’d been stuck in my religious classes while they were watching TV. And I was fed up with people spitting at me in the street and calling me a Paki.
I wanted a life of freedom and adventure. I would lie in bed, listening to Radio 4, dreaming of a world of possibilities. When the “Shipping Forecast” came on, I imagined being in a boat on the open sea. Becoming a doctor, as my parents wanted, might have offered one means of escape, but I screwed up my A-levels. If I had stayed in Burnley, I’d probably have ended up as a taxi driver or working in a kebab shop. So when a Royal Marines recruiter turned up at college and talked about the commando training and parachuting, my mum lost me to the military. I already had the taste for war from American films such as “Rambo”. The Sun front page during the Gulf war in 1991 that showed the British pilot John Nichol and navigator John Peters beaten up and bruised after being released from captivity in Iraq had got to me. They looked like real-life action heroes.
It took a couple of years in the Territorial Army and a half-hearted attempt at a chemistry degree before I went to sign up at the army careers office near the bus station on Yorkshire Street. I swore to defend queen and country, which seemed fair enough, but really I just wanted to go to war. My training in Winchester did nothing to disabuse me of my fantasies. In one lesson we were made to watch “Full Metal Jacket”, Stanley Kubrick’s film about the Vietnam war. I entered the Royal Engineers and on 9/11 I sat there thinking, “I’m going to go to war. This is fucking awesome.”Tragically, I hadn’t finished my bomb-disposal training but my unfeigned enthusiasm impressed a staff sergeant. “Can you speak Pushtun?” he asked me. “No,” I said. “Can you pretend?” he continued unbothered.
I never made it to Afghanistan as he wasn’t able to fast-track me through the course. Instead, I stayed in Saffron Walden. There I met Luke. He was short and skinny, so his nickname was, inevitably, “Massive”. He was a bundle of energy and one of the most popular members of our squadron, always urging others to spend a night on the town. I tried going out with them, but I always felt like an outsider, as I wasn’t drinking. At the end of an evening, I’d drive the boys home.
One evening, just before we were deployed to Iraq, I was woken in my dormitory. Through blurry eyes, I saw a black silhouette come through the door, lean his arm against a wall and begin to take a piss. “Luke,” I shouted, “what are you doing pissing in my room?” He looked up and said, with equal surprise, “Why are you sleeping in the toilets?” Then he came over and sat on my bed and asked why I wasn’t out with the rest of the lads. I told him I was a Muslim, that drink and sex weren’t for me. “You don’t want to die a virgin,” he said kindly. On the verge of being sent off to war, I realised I felt freer in the army than I ever would in my parents’ terraced house in Burnley with an Asian cash-and-carry at one end and a mosque at the other. My comrades didn’t judge me. They just wanted me to live my life.
When they dimmed the lights on the plane to Kuwait, the soldiers nodded off to sleep or talked quietly. I continued to stare at them, just glad to be in their company. Old-timers, who were hanging on to get their pension, were grumbling. Those with families looked nervous. But the younger soldiers like me, who were off to battle for the first time, were buzzing. This was going to be the greatest adventure of my life. Our training had made war seem so wholesome. We’d run across endless fields in Essex, laughing as we dived for cover on the cry of “down” and came up with mouths full of grass. We’d sit up all night in the foxholes we’d dug in the cold, hard Salisbury soil, making cups of tea because that’s what the British do to fill time. None of my buddies expected to die. I felt bullet proof.
We landed in Kuwait and were bussed to enormous hangars next to the airport, where we waited for our vehicles to arrive. Compared with the Americans, we were under-equipped and ill-prepared. Our camouflage was designed for the verdant English countryside. There wasn’t enough body armour to go round. When our Land Rovers showed up, they were still green. Someone found a carwash, filled it up with sand-coloured paint and hosed them up and down. At the same time, we were worried about the Americans’ propensity for friendly fire. To warn trigger-happy pilots, soldiers pinned enormous Union Jacks on their roofs and bonnets, which made me wonder why they’d bothered to camouflage their rides in the first place.
I was attached to the US Marines. Our task was to defuse mines, allowing the Americans to race up the road to Baghdad. It was clear they were ready. Every soldier had desert uniforms and night-vision scopes (we had to share ours around). They boasted that 900 shells had been allocated for each target and that a hill surmounted with an Iraqi observation post could expect to have 20 metres blasted off the top. Talk like this made them seem slightly unhinged but it also gave us confidence that the war would be a cinch.
Then there was the food. American rations were about three times the size of ours. They had peanut butter, ice-cream on tap and so much cereal that it seemed as if Kellogg’s was the primary sponsor of the US Army. All we had to offer was old-school memorabilia such as cap badges and stable belts, which we would trade for things we really ought to have been equipped with, like tents.
Over the course of five or six weeks, we inched towards the Iraqi border. As we got closer, the bombs began to fall. We presumed that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons, so we spent all day and all night in boots and thick charcoal-lined camouflage suits that would neutralise nerve agents. We got so used to these frequent attacks that at night, when the sirens woke us, we’d groggily pull on our gas masks and fall asleep again.
The more time I spent with the American soldiers, the more they appeared both ludicrous and inspirational. I met an overweight marine whose only job was filling up Humvees with diesel. He carried out his duties wearing four serious-looking knives strapped across his chest. I once asked him why he needed these. “I’m done with the hors d’oeuvres,” he said. “Bring me the main course.” The Yanks came into their own at roll call. On one occasion, a sergeant failed to get a response after calling out a couple of names. “Where are they?” he cried. “Where the fuck are they? If I was handing out blow jobs and pay cheques they’d be here.” We turned up at 7am each morning, just to hear what his banter would be like.
But the Americans also seemed committed and purposeful. They genuinely believed in service. Just before we invaded, we lined up with hundreds of American troops while a general walked up and down the ranks, asking each soldier his name, asking who was waiting for him back home and exhorting him to fuck these people up so we could all get out.
On the night of March 21st 2003, we crossed the border at Umm Qasr. We drove through the night without our lights on. Our mouths were filled with the taste of exhilaration and burning oil. The Iraqis had dug trenches, filled them with petrol and set them alight, in the hope that the white devils would plunge into them and be consumed by flames. This feature made them easy to spot and circumnavigate. Next to me sat a soldier we called Taff. He was anxious – he had left behind a wife and young son – and this manifested itself in his annoyance that I was so untroubled. As we drove deeper into Iraq, he asked me to shoot him if Iraqi soldiers rushed the vehicle. I refused and suggested that we would be better turning our weapons on the enemy. “Shoot me,” he insisted. “What would happen then?” I asked. “I’d have to shoot myself. Which is hard with a fucking rifle.” We argued back and forth until we realised the absurdity of the debate and fell about laughing.
Our first encounter with Iraqis came shortly after. A water bowser was trundling across our position from left to right. Instinctively, we suspected a suicide-bomber. Four of us leapt up and ran towards it: better that we were killed than our whole unit. We stopped as we drew close to them. I took off my helmet and body armour, handed my rifle to a US Marine. “If they come for me, shoot them,” I said and walked towards the people driving the bowser.
I had started learning Arabic in Kuwait. I could say “asalaam aleikum” and make basic small talk: “Is this a minefield?”; “Have you seen any insurgents?”; “I’m not going to shoot you.” You can achieve an enormous amount, I discovered, by reading expressions and drawing shapes in the sand and enthusiastically waving your hands. In this instance I worked out enough to see that the family didn’t want to kill us. They had lost their house in the bombing and we managed to find them shelter. (At other times, my basic Arabic was less clear: at one point a man thought that I was encouraging him to let his dog run across a minefield; fortunately, the dog avoided being blown up.)
The Americans ripped through the country, wired on rock music and pills. We moved more slowly, taking care to defuse or destroy the mines and booby-traps that were laid for us. On March 23rd we heard that one of the bomb-disposal teams had been ambushed. Two soldiers escaped and told how rocket-propelled grenades had easily punched through the soft skins of their Land Rovers. But two other soldiers were missing. One was Simon, a veteran, who I remembered holding a rifle in the air and telling us to keep ours clean, because “these are our passports home”. The other was my mate Luke.
Soldiers from the Black Watch regiment went out straight away, kicking down doors and shaking people up. The next day out on patrol, time seemed to slow down agonisingly. People grew fidgety. Lots of us had never been shot at before, let alone had a friend who was missing in action. Some began to check in on their comrades. “If they come for us, are you going to shoot at them?” one soldier asked me. When we got back to base, the disappearances were all we talked about. We were even more worried when we heard the Black Watch hadn’t turned up anything. By the second day, we were just waiting to hear that they were dead. I’d been told back in Burnley that only Muslims went to heaven but I hoped Luke would be able to charm his way in.
When my commanding officer told me to rally the troops, I knew it only meant one thing. The bodies of Luke and Simon had been discovered and it was clear that they’d been tortured. The last time I’d seen Luke was in Kuwait, as we stood side by side painting Land Rovers yellow. War had seemed like it would be fun and games. Adventure. Heroics. Now we realised it was real. And how vulnerable we were.
Luke and Simon were sent off on a warm night at an airfield in Kuwait. We went on parade. The padre – our unit’s priest – led a service. “The Last Post” was played and then the two bodies were carried on the shoulders of their friends up the ramp of the awaiting Hercules. I didn’t read many books at the time, but on the photo of Luke I kept in my diary, I wrote out a quotation from T.E. Lawrence: “We pay for these things too much in honour and in innocent lives.”
After the service, some Brits started chatting up a group of newly arrived female soldiers from America. A couple managed to impress them with their war stories and took them off to a jeep that was soon bouncing up and down merrily on its suspension. It was what Luke would have wanted. But this love nest, it transpired, had been made in the padre’s Land Rover. Those who drove back with him did so in a fug of stale sex and disapproval.
After Luke’s death, the war quietened down for us. We were based in Basra, in the south. The locals seemed pleased to see us and believed that we had come to sort out their country. The army had worried that, as a Muslim in a British uniform, I would be a target for kidnap and torture. But the Iraqis seemed reassured by my presence and the more comfortable they appeared, the more my superiors encouraged me to get out and about.
We would wander around the town without helmets and with our rifles slung casually on our backs. When we went to bed, we would tuck them into our sleeping bags. Not because we felt in danger, but to stop the gunmetal freezing in the desert night. In truth, we got pretty bored and some soldiers felt the need to portray their situation as more exciting than it actually was. One made us take pictures of him in implausible combat situations. In one photo he was running through the desert, brandishing his gun. In another, he appeared to be storming a building, though he was wearing a floppy hat and armed with only a pistol.
Others were spoiling for a fight. One soldier who became my friend, Scouse, had joined the Royal Engineers but what he really wanted to do was shoot people. A road ran past the warehouse where we’d set up our base and Scouse would sit there, gun in hand, itching to unload. On one occasion, he leapt up, cocked his rifle and aimed it at the road. “What is it?” I asked. “There’s a car on the road,” he said, eyeing it up through his sights. “Of course there’s a car,” I replied. “It’s a fucking road.” We convinced him to stand down. Scouse was fixated on potential car-bombers, but he was oblivious to the local boys who scaled our building while we slept and stole the tin off the roof. It was only when we woke up and saw the sky above us that we realised what had happened.
Even the casualties seemed to be getting jollier. My friend Higgsy was clearing a safe lane in a minefield. Someone accidentally set off a mine and the shrapnel hit Higgsy in the stomach. I went to visit him in hospital, expecting to see a traumatised man. Instead he was sitting up in bed, smiling. “How are you?” I asked. “Fucking wonderful,” he replied. Not only was he being invalided home but he’d taken out extra insurance before he deployed. Now he had enough money to buy himself a Mitsubishi FTO.
By June 2003, our tour was coming to an end and we were looking forward to getting home. While on the front line, it felt like the country was behind us. Thousands of supportive letters piled up, addressed to “A Soldier, Operation Telic, Iraq”. There were even rumours we would be granted a victory parade.
But we also knew that something wasn’t quite right. There had been so many protests before we went out. Even one or two of our own had been sceptical about the war’s motives from the start. We had no idea if it had been worth it. We didn’t feel like heroes and we knew that some people hated us. But we hadn’t decided to invade Iraq – we’d just done the best we could.
When I got back to Burnley, I told my friends about my experiences. They think war is shooting all day and getting bombed all night, and you don’t want to disappoint them, so you give them the edited highlights. But the truth was that I, too, felt I’d missed out. My war was less exciting than it should have been, even though I’d smelt and tasted battle, even though one of my mates had died. Saddam had been overthrown, but he was still at large and Iraq didn’t look like it was free. I couldn’t wait to get back out there.