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, Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe, was killed by a Taliban IED and became the first commanding officer killed in action since the 1982 Falklands War. Jeffrey now works as a writer and a journalist. Read his Veterans Day essay on al-Amarah here.
A fine officer
He graciously returns the salute;
‘Bless the boys,’ he thinks, ‘such a loyal bunch,’
Just like his two ladies in London,
Though he might address that next leave;
It’s a little unfair, a trifle ungallant, he frets —
But how, when he’s fighting for Queen and country?
Maybe he’ll get a DSO like old Uncle Charlie;
Been a fair few decorations for the lads, he muses,
‘Must keep up our side of course.’
He keeps emails and telephone calls tactfully peppered
With stories — downplayed, naturally — of fire fights that
Should recount well once back in the Officers’ Mess for drinks.
Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror —
Longer hair matted, some stubble he might leave,
Skin darkened and combat fatigues nicely worn in,
He can’t help contemplating:
‘God, I look the part.’
The tired donkey drew the apple cart toward the camp
Filled with fresh produce, but not apples those jumbling items —
Not an apple but a small hand,
Dainty fingers curled, beckoning to a salvation forestalled;
Not an apple but a small knee,
Its leg thrown crooked over another distorted little body;
Not an apple but a small, bloodied face
Shut forever to this gilded world, beneath
Dirt and masonry-dust congealed with body fluids
Becoming effluence gathered in nostrils, ears, pretty mouths;
Such small, undeveloped remnants filled the cart full.
The donkey swished its tail,
The apple seller stood sobbing at the front gate,
The camp guard gazed through sunglasses at six children’s fate.
Across Iraq, Afghanistan, and farther still
The hand of Cadmus has trailed
Beneath billowing red clouds
Sowing dragon’s teeth
From whence warriors and skeletons
Emerge, disorientated; birthed
Into their new state — forged hard for one end.
Into their midst was tossed a jewel, the
First of many to follow insidious:
Oil, national security, women’s rights;
All glinting with righteous decrees
From kingdoms deciding the fate of others in
Their future’s name — ever our centuries’ immortal sin.
Seventy-two tonnes of love
Colossal it rumbles through night-clad Babylonian streets;
Inside the hot humming turret faces press against
Rubber-mounted gunnery sights: night-vision creating a
Green pixelated world beyond armored walls;
Halting, just stillness — suddenly, movement, perhaps;
Enough excuse — switch flicked the turret whirls round,
Trigger pressed short volleys blaze white and red; the gunner’s
Finger relaxes; again stillness — the barrel hungrily
Swings side to side seeking miscreants but finds
Only a dark, deserted junction — Blue 9 — up above
Spectre Gunship Basher-75 circles in a holding pattern
Bristling with weaponry, coolly omnipotent, emitting
A god-like radio voice of Americana:
‘Standby guys, it’s gonna get hot down there’;,
It already is in the humid turret for the psyched crew and in
Al Amarah’s beds where families clutch each other, listening to
Tanks thundering across their thoughts, their hearts.
Bad habits die hard
Sure it can hurt when the cuticles begin to bleed;
Flesh raw pink and naked as another
Sliver of nail is stripped away, flicked to follow the rest;
Then file down the kinks and bumps — ignore the pain to install
Some order — at least there’s something to file that will grow
Back with everything needed in place, symbiotic,
Unlike those decapitated or torn
In two along the waistline like paper-men;
Or minus an eye-ball, a testicle, a hand, a lung,
Arms, legs, spleens, intestines, parts removed
As from an old marionette, a fraying string spitting.
Even the puppeteer’s fingers are getting tired,
Like his narration about expediency and a soldier’s service;
He doesn’t even notice the audience turning away,
Or, finally, all strings disintegrating;
Our marionette crumpling paraplegic to the floor.
Target! RPG man!
Dust cascades in memory’s arc
As heartless bullets twist in free fall
A dim silhouette is all
Remaining — recollection’s grim pockmark.
Our torrid meeting was chance circumstance
Motivations are hard to say still:
Pride, glory, sport — on automatic to kill,
Or lost among a nation’s intransigence?
Events unfolded flowing like gritty spit
Shouting, buttons pressing, turret turning
Judgments all the time deferring
Choosing a human life to attrite.
If from that dust cloud he turned back
And dashed round the wall lungs bursting
To remain like all for life thirsting
That would surpass any thrill of attack.