Harry Parker’s new book Anatomy Of A Soldier is a war story with a difference. Here, he recounts a terrifying tale from his time in Iraq
It is 2010. I am on a treatment bed in the military rehabilitation centre. I’m back to collect a new leg. A year ago I was on patrol in Afghanistan, walking across a field, when I stepped on a bomb. It flipped me over, amputated my left foot and caused injuries to my right leg that meant surgeons had to remove it. I have been learning to walk since then.
The new leg is being adjusted by the prosthetist, his torque wrench tightening bolts on the microprocessor knee that has just finished charging. I slide my stump into the socket, forcing air out through valves and until it’s firm. I pull my trainer over the plastic foot, and start to tie the laces. It reminds me of being a soldier. It seems a lifetime ago.
I am back in Iraq, four years earlier; before the rehab, before Afghanistan. I am pulling on my combat boots and tying my laces: left foot first; round the back, thread through and bow – twice knotted. Luck, and knowing a loose lace in combat could be fatal, means it is now habit I cannot break.
My platoon is all around me, each man going through his private ritual. Equipment is everywhere, piled on camp beds and propped against the walls: rifles and ammunition; boxes of grenades and bottles of water. We are dressing for battle. There are a few anxious jokes, some go for nervous pees, but we’ve done it all before, there’s a well-practised order to everything now.
Next I shrug on my body armour. I smooth the Velcro flat at my sides, the heavy plates pulling tight around me. Then my battered rucksack, everything pushed in the same as last time, so I can find it in the dark.
The kit disappears from around me as I attach it to myself. Gloves, goggles, night-vision system. I put on my helmet and push the chinstrap closed. Finally only the rifle is on my bed. I pick it up.
I’m heavier now. Every piece of equipment is designed to let me get close with and kill the enemy, or protect me when I get there. The act of putting it on has turned me from a naked, vulnerable man into a warrior ready to lead 25 British soldiers out into the streets of Basra. They are ready around me, encased in equipment and shadowed below their helmets, adjusting a last buckle or clip.
“See you out there,” I say to them, and walk out of our accommodation. The sky is an oppressive orange, polluted with the light of the city and oil fields burning out in the desert. There is our line of four ugly, flat-sided armoured vehicles. I walk to the front, step onto the tank tracks and climb up. I pass my rucksack down into the commander’s hatch and lower myself in. I check the general-purpose machine gun mounted on the top, swivelling it on its pintle and feeding the ammunition into the breach. I bend down and check the radios and drag on the headset.
Behind me, in the troop compartment, the fire-team is loading up – stacking kit and making ready their weapons, closing the rear door. In a few minutes I will radio zero and ask for permission to deploy. I’ll reach down to the driver sitting low in front of me, tap him on the helmet and the four 13-tonne tracked vehicles will rumble towards the camp’s gate and out into a city of two million people.
In the rehabilitation centre I finish tying my laces. I no longer have to put myself in danger, but I am still dependent on equipment. Now it forms part of my anatomy and gives me independence. I stand up and walk across the room, testing the leg. It is comfortable enough. The liner, which holds the prosthetic on, is chafing and my back is aching, but that’s normal now. I talk to the prosthetist and he makes alterations to the toe-angle and hydraulics. He says he wants to make a change to the socket and takes the leg to the workshop.
I lie back on the treatment bed, put my hands behind my head and wait. I close my eyes. On the other side of the room two soldiers are talking. They are on their first admission to the rehab centre. I haven’t seen them before. One is missing an arm, the other his legs. They are talking about Afghanistan. Their war stories are similar. Laughing and teasing each other, they reminisce about fire-fights, being pinned down and the time they couldn’t get a casualty out and the helicopter couldn’t land and they were surrounded and the air was filled with noise and shouting and they emptied magazine after magazine. I smile and think about my war stories; they are not so exciting.
I am back in Iraq. The four armoured vehicles of my platoon are driving into the city. The flats and shops, billboards and minarets, press over us. The city of two million people is deserted, but each junction and street is malevolent. There is movement – a disappearing shadow or flickering light – but it is hard to distinguish in the yellow gloom, and I stare at every inch of road and broken paving stones, looking for threats – for roadside bombs. A dog picks at a pile of rubbish and a stagnant puddle reflects the wonky streetlights and lattice of telegraph wires above. We are a noisy convoy, bristling with weapons and antennas, our tank treads clattering down the streets. The enemy knows we are out.
“Right, let’s go firm here,” I say to the driver over the intercom. The junction ahead is dark, my gut tenses. It feels too lifeless. I beckon to the team leader in the back. “Vulnerable Point ahead,” I say, “let’s clear it.” The vehicle grumbles below me as the team disembarks and fans out around us. I protect them with my machine gun, covering the rooftops and they patrol down the road, searching for suspicious wires or packages, and we inch forward behind.
We pass though the junction, between the shuttered shops and empty parked cars. We don’t find anything. I stop the vehicle and the team runs in to mount-up. We are on our way back now – we’ve seen little: a car, side lights on, ghosting over a junction a few streets away; one lone-male heading home after curfew, gone before we could question him. We patrol back towards camp, grinding around corners and inching over narrow bridges. Then we’re in a residential area. The buildings are set back behind walled gardens, their terraces lined with iron balustrades.
There is a bang. “What the fuck was that?” I shout. “Contact small arms!” Our armoured vehicle is still moving and I am trying to traverse my weapon across to sweep the rooftops. “What, boss, what’s up?” my driver is saying. I see a shape on top of a building and I elevate the barrel and try to lower my head to the sight, but the radio wire has looped over the hatch and jerks my helmet back so I am looking up at the sky. I press the trigger and my weapon fires one round wildly into the air and then jams.
“Stoppage,” I shout and try to free my helmet from the tangle, but it pulls forward over my eyes and I am blind. “Contact,” I say again, but the radio is tugging off. The team leader is looking up at me from the back. “What, where is it?” he asks. I am now behind my machine gun, trying to free the jammed weapon. “Up there,” I say, “I think… I’m not sure. I thought we were being shot at. A single shot – sniper maybe.”
The team leader looks through the sight. “I can’t see anything,” he says. My driver is laughing through the intercom. “It was the engine banging, boss,” he says. “God, a bit jumpy tonight, aren’t we?” The team commander is smiling at me, too. I clear the weapon, my heart racing, and pull my helmet straight. “Fuck,” I say, the adrenaline slumping out of me. “I could’ve sworn we were in contact.”
We roll back into camp, dust drifting from our tracks, and park up. The men turn off radios and clear out empty water bottles. My driver is doing his last checks. “You all right, sir?” he says. I nod. I am sitting on top of the vehicle and can feel the heat of the engine though my sweat-soaked trousers. The platoon trudges back to their beds and I stare up at the sky. Only a few stars are visible though the orange haze.
I sigh and reach for my weapon and equipment. Beside my commander’s hatch I see a fresh scar in the metal. At the end of the groove, under where the armour is crimped over, is a small grey object. I feel for it with my finger and thumb. I tease it out. It is a bullet, flattened against the side of my hatch. I roll it around in my palm. “Look,” I call after my driver, but he has already gone. I close my hand around the bullet and shake my head.
Anatomy Of A Soldier by Harry Parker is out now, priced £14.99 (Faber & Faber)
(Images: Harry Parker/Getty)