Thursday, May 20, 2010

Longing for a good Bordeaux

Captain Jeremy Hahn, an Armoured Vehicle Commander with the Royal Dragoon Guards, is based in Kandahar.

Sometimes the most innocuous of comments, in the most curious of environments, delivered by the most incongruous people, trigger pangs of longing and bouts of home-sickness or frustration. And so it was one balmy evening this week when I found myself in downtown Kandahar talking to a bearded Scotsman, who had been working in private security here for the last eighteen months. I was picking his brains for some local ‘knowledge’ and a download of insurgent activity. He was regaling me, in front of a map, with the various bombings, kidnaps, murders, fire-fights etcetera, when he used the phrase ‘and there was claret everywhere’, and suddenly I lost concentration and drifted into a Bordeaux-craving reverie.

Maybe for five minutes afterwards my thoughts turned to the produce of those clever little men of the Gironde and my excellent and kindly vintner, Simon Wrightson who gifted me a delicious Chateaux Beaulieu for a last drink before I departed a month ago. What I wanted at that moment, more than any other earthly pleasure, was to be sat in an English garden, with the Darling-Betrothed enjoying a bottle, or two, without a care in the world. Sadly the apparition quickly passed and it was back to the task in hand. Writing this has in no way slaked that thirst.

Getting a close-up view of the streets of Kandahar

When moving around Kandahar, either in our armoured vehicles or on foot, it is hard to travel more than a street without passing flowering oleanders, either long swathes or solitary plants. The majority are of the cerise variety which lines the byways of Tuscany and Umbria. It is a striking concurrence of the natural beauty of these handsome flowers and the urban degradation and bullet holes, that allows you to glimpse briefly into a world that might have been, had the region endured prosperity rather than war, hosted with a fierce and depressing frequency.

There has been much media coverage in recent years over an alleged systemic failure of our military/government/whoever to provide the Army with the ‘kit and equipment’ it requires in order to execute its missions effectively, and with minimum loss of life. There have been instances where coroners have returned verdicts of unlawful death and where people much more knowledgeable than I have criticised the equipping of soldiers.

I have nothing but good things to say about the equipment at our disposal in Afghanistan. It is all good quality, there has been no shortage of it, and as an end user it fulfils my needs and criteria for the job I am performing. The armoured vehicles that are my trusty steeds are excellent, offering protection, urban mobility, and a variety of firepower that is apposite to the situation and terrain. We have new helmets, ballistic eye protection, and personal body armour.

The night vision and thermal imaging systems are state of the art. We have other equipment which I do not understand as it has been designed by people in lab-coats, with all manner of science related post-nominals, who eat plenty of fish. But this stuff helps to stop bombs going off around you, and is the envy of the other members of the coalition force here in Afghanistan.

The view from my gun turret

I suppose the truth is, several years ago when I first deployed to Iraq I purchased bits of kit that I needed to supplement what I was to be issued. Now however, I have bought and brought nothing to aid me in my deployment. Further to that, since I have been here, I cannot think of anything I could have self-purchased that would have benefited me on the ground.

One of the most trivial hurdles to jump when on operations is that posed by the problem of getting a haircut. A quick fix solution would be to shave the lot off, but I am disinclined to burn the old onion anymore than is entirely necessary. Standards, both those of the Army and those of a gentleman dictate that growing the mop is also a non-starter. So I plucked-up the courage to go to a dingy place at the airfield run by dour middle-aged Russians.

My heart was in my mouth when I saw the only English words on the price list were ‘flat top $5.25’. Anyone who has seen any war-movie featuring the US marines will understand my horror. Keen not to be sporting a ‘jarhead’, I mentioned this, but the hairdresser spoke no English and so the upshot was I had no idea what was about to happen. My panic, much like my writing, was a lot of fuss about nothing, for, like every time I have had my haircut for the last thirty two years, the result has been astonishingly underwhelming. And this was no exception.


  1. I very much enjoy reading these witty, personal accounts of life in Helmand. You guys are legends.

    One thing I would add, as a journalist, is that part of the reason why the British Army now has all of this shiny new kit is *because* of the press coverage. The press has been involved in the improvement of conditions for soldiers since the Crimean War.

    Good to know that you've got the right tools for the job, though.

  2. This is an excellent post. The combination of humanity, culture and self effacing wit is wonderful. Specially with the "view from my gun turret" photo to bring a dramatic taste of reality. I'm only too pleased that none of my job briefings have ever included the word "claret". As used in this context. More from Capt. Hahn plse.