I met an old school friend last week, the first time I had seen or heard of him since we departed for separate colleges in 2001.
I say ‘friend’ – we were never best mates, but I remember we always sat together in French (lower set), where we often bonded through a shared antagonism towards the subject and its teacher.
We arranged via facebook to meet in a pub in Leicestershire. It was my idea. I had many questions I wanted to ask him regarding his most recent period of employment – three long tours of Afghanistan.
It’s rarely a surprise to learn which of your school-friends ended up joining the military. Timothy was no exception. He was always braver and more athletic than the rest of us. He also displayed an early appetite for danger, choosing to impress girls by jumping off high walls and sliding on frozen puddles.
Nevertheless, I wondered if the experience had changed him as a person. Had his cheeky Mancunian sense of humour been diminished or otherwise affected by the terror of combat? I also had a more specific interrogation.
After he had finished speaking (at quite some length) about an intention to move to Australia, I could restrain myself no longer.
“Was it hard in Afghanistan?” I asked, preparing the way for my real enquiry.
“Nah, it was great. Just too fucking hot. Can’t be arsed going back though.”
“Were you frontline or..”
Oh, the hell with it, I thought.
“Did you kill anyone?”
A long pause followed.
He replied positively. It shocked me more than it had any right to.
My friend – the little boy who had tripped me in football practice, stole my pencil sharpener, accompanied me on afterschool detentions – had shot terrorists. The thought held me in cold hypnosis for the rest of our time together.
Murder is obviously a complicated moral issue; arguably the most complicated. The taking away of life from another person – especially for ideological reasons – pushes the human mind into direct confrontation with the fundamentals of existence. What is this conscious experience between birth and demise, what is the value of it, and have I got a better right to mine than another man has to his?
It was perhaps as recent as the 1960s that opposition to murder (for any reason) was standardised and made doctrinal. For the previous two millennia, occasional exceptions to the 6th commandment were reasoned as necessary for national, cultural and (in some cases) personal survival. The decade of love rebranded ‘peace’ as a choice. It was no longer a luxurious state of security paid for with dead soldiers, but a primordial global condition, achievable by goodwill and blotting paper.
Since then, this absurd way of thinking has become so entrenched that even advocacy of WWII is now considered controversial and the image of dead Nazis something to philosophise about, rather than gloat over. Those of us who resist the trend meanwhile are deemed morally suspect if not nakedly evil.
It will therefore be considered foul and unkind for me to admit that I enjoy hearing about a herd of Islamists being torn apart by RAF missiles; that I relish the idea of Waffen SS troops being beaten and starved by post-war Allied occupation forces; that I smile when I read of a rogue Ghurkha beheading a captured Taliban parasite.
And perhaps even that I feel immensely proud of you, Tim. I really do. Your work has done more for the world than you might yet appreciate. Forget the pencil sharpener.