I’m going to ask the Queen. I’m going to tell her what I know and ask her what is true, and if she winks at me, well, there will be trouble. This is me, Seamus Todd, born in 1955, ordinary soldier of the Queen and very little else, and this is my testament, which is honest, true, and factual. If I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, then I have left it out. There’s more than enough cheap talk and I don’t want to add to it.
I joined the army at eighteen. I done my twenty-two. I started off as a private in the Staffordshire Regiment and I worked my way up to color sergeant. Three tours of duty in Northern Ireland, then joined the landing assault as a battle casualty replacement in the Falklands.
I had the tip of one finger shot off in South Armagh bandit country on patrol, while another soldier was telling me a joke about three nuns out picking mushrooms. Wedding finger, left hand. Lucky for me the IRA sniper was a shitty shot. Also broke my leg in the Falklands, but this was in a game of football after we’d taken the islands back from the Argies. Slipped on sheep shit. That’s the only injuries to report out of all my combat experience.
When the Gulf War kicked off in ’91 it was just another posting for me, except that now I was well seasoned and babysitting a platoon of boy soldiers. It was my job to tell them how normal everything was. Most of my lads were pink-nosed puppies, boys of eighteen or twenty-one. I was their big angry daddy, and I looked after every one of them. They all said I was hard but fair. I stand by that. I looked after my boys, and they knew it. I told them: “Loyalty and a sense of humor is what I want, but you can fuck the sense of humor.” That always got a laugh.
War is normal. That’s why it’s a paid job. You don’t ask, Why are we in the Gulf? Why are we in Ireland? Why are we in some sheep-shit South Atlantic island that no one’s ever heard of? You don’t argue with the Queen. You form up. Move out. Press on.
We knew we were going to war long before Christmas that year. They haven’t told you but you hear the drum. I can’t explain. You’re on active duty and there’s a drum beat, an echo, maybe it’s your own heart beating very quiet, and it thuds on until something happens or until you’re stood down. Hear the beat, get the order.
With the heavy armor already at sea we were to be airlifted after Christmas so I was able to tell my boys: Shag your girlfriend and kiss your wife and get ready to go. It’s what I always said and it always got a laugh, too. But the family men, those of them with little sprats in the homestead, there was always a quick switch off behind the light in their eyes. Yeh, better get the lad that new bike this year. Yeh, better get that little gal a big teddy bear.
Within a few days the tinsel and the Christmas cards and the Brazil nuts were all just another check box on last year’s calendar and we were in the Saudi desert, lined up against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi cohorts to drive them out of Kuwait. Saddam was saying it was going to be the “mother of all battles” and his saying that put the wind up everyone. But that’s not how it turned out.
Now, the desert held no fear for me, but it wasn’t the kind of fighting I was used to. Street to street, house to house, urban shadow—that’s me. I learned my p’s and q’s in Ireland, and that education served me well in Bosnia when I was the blue hat, and before that over the bog fields of the Falkland Islands. Give me rough cover, coarse terrain, half a shadow, and I’m your man. But the flat trackless desert: not my arena.
Tanks for the desert is the thing. Line up your tanks. Get your air power to fuck over as many of the enemy’s tanks as you can before you roll him up. It ain’t complicated. But then when you do hit a settlement or defensive position you’ve got to have your infantry—that’s me—keeping pace with the tanks in armored Warriors so’s we can dismount and engage at the battle line, mopping up with bullet, grenade, and bayonet. That’s where I’m happy. Don’t get to use that bayonet very often but I do love to keep it shiny and sharp.
But what’s a bayonet’s length when for the first time since the First World War there was serious threat of gas and chemicals? We drilled and drilled and drilled, fixing those spooky chemical hoods in place. Stinking. Hear yourself heavy breathing. All your buddies bug-eyed, trying to see your face behind the mask. Get your jabs at the ready. That’s not fighting. But you got to do it.
And it’s the fucking boredom of it that can get to you.
We’d finished up the drill one evening and I was standing, dripping with sweat and getting my breath back from bellowing at the lads from behind the mask. The lads were dismissed and I was standing with my hands on my hips looking out at the sky over the flat desert sands.
“What you looking at, Color Sar’nt?” This was a lad called Dorky. Good lad but wouldn’t shut up. Used to follow me round like a little dog. Always asking questions: What’s this? What’s that?
“Come ’ere, Dorky. Look out there. What d’you see?”
“Nothing, Color Sar’nt. Nothin’ there. Desert, only desert, Color Sar’nt.”
“Look again, son.”
“Can’t see anything. Nuffink.”
“Look at that sky. You ever seen a sky that color?”
“Not Sar’nt, Color Sar’nt, you little toe-rag. What color is it, Dorky?”
“Pink color, Color Sar’nt.”
“It ain’t pink, you fucking muppet. Look again.”
A few of the other lads trudge by, clutching their sweaty chemical masks, wanting to know what we’re looking at.
“Dorky says it’s nothing,” I says to ’em. “Then he says it’s pink, but I says it ain’t pink. What color is that sky?”
“Lavender,” says Chad, a Black Country kid. “Innit.”
“No, ti’nt lavender,” says Brewster, a Liverpool scally, good lad in a fight. “Ti’nt lavender.”
Next thing there’s seven or eight lads looking into that nothing, trying to decide what color that nothing is. The truth is I don’t know what color it is. It’s the most beautiful sky I ever seen in my life and I don’t know what color to say.
“See that sky, lads? That’s why you joined the army. It ain’t just to have it out with the Iraqis. It’s so you’ll see miraculous things. Like that sky.”
And I walk away, leaving them scratching their heads. They don’t know if I’m taking the piss. I don’t know either. Though I do remember thinking: look at the sky now ’cos it’s gonna get dark.