Saturday, 25 September 2010

A sentry's dilemma

An idle curiousity in Aden and the British involvement there led me to the website Britain's Small Wars, which features many individual recollections from military men, such as this one from Kevin Webster, who spent 8 months in Aden as a 19-year-old member of the RAF:

One night, in a sentry box outside the hospital, I was gazing down at the Cold Store at the foot of the hill. Part of the brief was to keep an eye on the place, which was a frequent target for terrorist attacks. Suddenly, a figure appeared from out of the shadows below a block of flats. He was acting furtively, looking left and right. Then, two more joined him. They huddled together, and I saw the flicker of light as they lit up cigarettes. There was a curfew in place, and they knew they shouldn't be out there.

One of the men pointed to the Cold Store. He seemed to be looking for something in the folds of his robe. The signs were disturbing. Totally disregarding the orders we'd been given, I quickly snapped off the safety catch and chambered a round. I took aim through a link in the wire fence in front of the box. The Arab moved slowly towards the gates of the Cold Store compound. I could reach the telephone that connected with the Ops Centre, but the suspect might throw a bomb before I could call for help. I calculated the range, flipped up the backsight and set the wheel to 200 yards. Too far for him to hear any warning I was supposed to shout. This was no harmless paper target I was pointing my Lee-Enfield at, but a living, breathing human being. He might be completely harmless, just having a smoke with his mates. He might have kids. For the first time ever, I was pointing a loaded weapon at another person. A mass of thoughts raced through my mind - would I squeeze that trigger?

The week before, I'd been on patrol when a mortar bomb fell close to us. These people were not the kids I'd played war games with in the back streets of Bradford. All my training in the ground defence classroom, all my hours of practice on the range told me that if necessary I would have to shoot this man and had the ability to do so. Sweat began to run down my body in rivers. I thought about the oath of allegiance I'd sworn down at Hereford the day I got the Queens Shilling (or rather 30 shillings). Was this what it was really all about? Did this nameless Arab pose a threat to the defence of the United Kingdom and Colonies? What if I fired and they discovered he wasn't carrying a weapon, would I be court-martialled? What if I missed and he got his grenade over the wire?

It seemed like an age, but was probably something like less than half a minute, from the moment I slipped off that safety catch before the situation was resolved. At the end of the street leading to the Cold Store, the lights of a vehicle came round the corner. The headlights were very close together, which could only mean one type of vehicle - the ubiquitous Land Rover. The man in my sights turned and fled back into the building, along with his compatriots. Thank God for the British Army!

I unloaded my rifle and made a call to Ops Centre. Panic over. My hands were trembling as I lit up a cigarette. That was the best cigarette I ever smoked in my life. To the day I die, I will never know if I would have shot that man. I just thank the Lord I didn't have to.


James Higham said...

That moment does come and then the decision is made on the spot. I do think I'd have shot him.

Trooper Thompson said...

Maybe so, James, but I'd rather our military was made up of people who did pause and sweat, rather than kids who think they're on playstation.

I remember George Orwell writing about his time in the trenches in the Spanish Civil War. Having crept forward into no-man's land under the cover of darkness, he refrains from shooting a man because he's running off holding up his trousers, and something in that scene humanises the enemy, and he can't do it.