You can’t guard completely against these horrors

We understand stress now, but the Americans are unlikely to have foreseen the Kandahar killings

No British or American soldier will understand or tolerate any man wearing their uniform who goes out killing defenceless civilians, especially children, as happened in Afghanistan on Saturday night. We don’t yet know what motivated this sickening killing spree. But the killer surrendering himself rather than attempting to cover up his actions or trying to escape does not suggest an act of pre-meditated murder or conspiracy.

That leaves some sort of mental breakdown. Thankfully few of us back home will ever have to face the hideous psychological pressures that pile up on British, American and allied troops in Afghanistan. Helmand and Kandahar, where this incident occurred, are at the heart of the Taleban insurgency. Coalition soldiers in these provinces live their lives on the edge, under constant threat of lethal attack, wherever they are and wherever they go. On patrol in the open, exposed deserts, the jungle-like farmland so suited to ambush or the treacherous streets and alleyways of the densely packed villages, they know that every step might easily be their last.

On patrol in Northern Ireland
On patrol in Northern Ireland

Even on the main arterial routes, subject to the highest levels of security, this threat remains ever-present, as the deaths of six British soldiers so devastatingly brought home only last week. And there is not much respite back at base, where the threat of high explosive missile attack is constant and where there is always the risk that one of the local security forces could suddenly turn his guns on you.

It is not in our nature to go willingly forward into this kind of danger, let alone to do so day in, day out for months on end. The only way that it becomes possible is by welding together individual soldiers into tight-knit teams, with every man dependent on the others for his life.

This teamwork has found its apotheosis in the British Army’s famed regimental system, where soldiers will often work, fight and live together for 20 or more years. Soldiers become as close, sometimes closer, than families. And when their mates are killed or maimed next to them, it hits them every bit as hard as if it were their blood brother.

Overlaid on this grim picture are the normal pressures of everyday life — family problems, financial hardship, relationship breakdowns. No soldier can escape such worries during his tour in Afghanistan, and often they are magnified by the enforced separation of a longterm military deployment.

Most soldiers, American and British, find a way of coping. Strong leadership, good training and the overriding desire not to let their mates down gives our Forces an extraordinary degree of morale, motivation and effectiveness in battle. Some do not cope — and it is
possible that the American soldier was among their number. But should someone have seen it coming?

We have advanced a long way since the First World War when soldiers were executed because of the effects of “shell shock”. These days all soldiers and commanders are trained to spot signs of stress in themselves and in their comrades. But detection of combat stress is far from a perfect science. People with stress and depression can be adept at covering it up, even to the point where the closest family members don’t realise anything is wrong.

The same applies in military units. I have known soldiers who one day appeared happy and well-adjusted; the next day they shot themselves with their own assault rifles. When I was a platoon commander in West Belfast, a young soldier whose close mates had been killed during the tour left his base one night and opened fire into a bar that he believed was packed with IRA activists and their supporters. His commander told me afterwards how astonished he was that this soldier, whom he knew like a son, would even be likely to contemplate such a thing.

I have known several soldiers on operations who showed signs of an approaching psychological danger point. More often than not a private chat with the right person or a quiet word of encouragement, a period of enforced rest, or a change of operational tempo, would avert a crisis. For some, more specialist help, either in the theatre of operations or if necessary back at home, would be needed.

Whatever led to Saturday night’s killing, the reality is that we will never be able to guard completely against horrific aberrations such as this.

Published in The Times, 12 March 2012. © Richard Kemp