James Jeffrey served in the British Army for nine years, from his commissioning as a second lieutenant shortly after 9/11 to leaving as a captain in 2010. He served in Iraq in 2004 as a tank commander with the Queen’s Royal Lancers, providing armored support to the 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, followed by another tour in 2006. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 with the headquarters of the Welsh Guards Battle Group on Operation Herrick 10, during which the regiment’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, was killed by a Taliban IED, the first commanding officer killed in action since the 1980s Falklands War. Jeffrey now works as a writer.
Tea Man of Al Amarah
The patrol went firm under the blazing sun,
Each of us taking a knee on a roadside that smoldered,
The radio’s burning weight grinding my back as
I licked sandpaper lips, sore and cracked.
He came from a small shack,
“As-Salāmu `Alaykum,” he said
Holding out a glass of steaming tea;
He wouldn’t be denied so instead,
With stiff arms I slung my rifle,
“Shukran gazeelan,” I replied in thanks,
Taking that small chalice, our
Nations’ covenant — not yet defiled.
The sugar swirled around,
A sweet cloud becoming a crystal ball,
Yet I failed to see ISIS (though didn’t we all)
And read how many lives obliterated in
Years staying hungry for sacrifice.
I sipped and he broke into a grin;
Delicious hot sweet liquid
Fell as monsoon-rains within.
Is he still there serving his tea?
While the Tigris and Euphrates glitter
In Al Amarah and other Iraqi towns,
Where sweet tea now swirls bitter.
Behind the butcher’s shop
The patriotic punter licks his lips
As the butcher beckons him follow out back:
“This way, sir, for the really prime bits”
Opening the door on the gourmet rack —
“Just in today — look at that fine flesh!”
He picks up a lean, tanned, young arm
Opalescent with cartilage, certified fresh
By the date on the tag from Nad-E-Ali Farm.
Beside it are more labelled limbs, arranged by size
A fine mixture – legs sawed-off mid-thigh
Others below the knee for compromise
Spoilt for choice, our discerning customer casts his eye
Over these products’ exotic origins:
Sangin, Garmsir, Musa Qala–imports from
New worlds of glory with operational medal wins
Claiming to stand with Goose Green, Normandy, the Somme.
The chopper is on the way,
That fine example of our benevolent capability;
I click the radio pressel, briefing
The pilot on the Afghan casualty.
Medics fret and fuss sincerely by the heli-pad as
The stretcher is laid beneath an old man’s shattered face.
On it the young boy is silent,
Hidden emotions leaving no trace.
He looks back at me impassively
But that cannot be so,
Because his bandaged right leg is
Blunted shorter, never to grow.
You have to hand it to the medics,
Their finished work is neat:
Where his foot should be, instead
A mummified head — what a feat.
He didn’t take painkillers, a medic says,
But still no tears — mouth closed, face set, awaiting
His next step.
The day finished and clambered into bed, —
My mind churned, groping for sleep
Then it came, a figure stood close overhead;
From whence, I knew not, perhaps a realm hidden deep,
Where vicious truths creep from crevasses that weep.
With covered head a shadow remaining still,
—Suddenly she gripped my wrist, delicate fingers firm,
Iraqi or Afghani? Frozen I couldn’t turn.
There was no danger just a tender chill;
Like Mary she had a question still raw:
‘Why did you take my son from me?’
I quickly opened my eyes before
Others gathered bearing that agonizing plea.
Marvelous way to die
You’ll hear plenty of tallies for bombs and metal bullets
But you won’t ever know about the real chart topper
For the numbers become rather excessive with
Such eager exodus from so many loins
As soldiers maintain an interest
In what is sadly out of reach by
Grabbing what’s closest at hand.
It doesn’t take much to start the simmer
A rare-sighted bra drying on a line or
Just the mind wandering to better times —
Then there’s not much left to do
But head to the ramshackle shitters
In the blazing sun and ignore the flies
And crack on with everyone’s favorite sin.
People talk about courageous loss of martial life
But what of these legions of milky souls spent
Some falling destitute to the sand others
More respectfully collected in tissues as
Eyes close in bliss, accompanied by a blessed sigh
—Such a marvelous way for them to die.
New packing list for your rucksack
you are left with all sorts of things to carry:
arguments at home or drunkenly by a taxi,
brotherly bonds strained to breaking point;
frequent urges to weep, random and unrestrained;
lack of sleep, setting an alarm clock knowing it’s a joke,
approaching a bed nervously just wishing to
get through one night and reach
morning without another leaden brain, sluggishly forlorn;
the medals in your palm — not knowing what to do
other than burying them at the back of a draw;
what looks to everyone else a leg or arm tucked out of view
taunts, instead, as an amputated limb;
minced meat and chicken on the bone just aren’t so tasty anymore;
while the death’s head keeps laughing at you.
The Last Supper
In memory of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, bomb disposal expert, killed October 31 2009, Afghanistan.
A supper when we shared a table
Secure beside the bomb blast walls,
The ketchup bottle a reminder of home,
Stands out from six months of scram.
I remember your humor, the polite bearing
Explaining that insane job with zeal—
Each day spending hours defusing bombs
Lying on dirt tracks, staring through sweat at wires.
I sat wondering how it must feel,
Almost asking the unquestionable:
Might it be a matter of time with the numbers?
Perhaps you’d already thought this through;
Yet you never deterred from protecting others
All the way to where you could not turn back
From the blinding hot blast demanding sacrifice,
Taking away the scruffy cheerful calm;
Leaving another picture in a mosaic.
The way the war ends
Medals colorfully strewn in a drawer,
A beret crumpled in a cardboard box,
Framed photos of martial exuberance,
—Scar tissue creeping down, down through the soul.
This is the way the war ends—
This is the way the war ends—
This is the way the war ends—
Not with a cheer but a lament.