Photograph by Finbarr O'Reilly, Story by Robert McCrum
That’s me. Major True. Major John Henry – “Harry” – True, if you must. In the desert. In combat, amid the fog of war.
You might say, at first glance, that I’m not everyone’s idea of a major, and you’ve got a point. I joined the army because I love my family and wanted to add something to the True family tradition. We Trues are soldiers; always have been. That’s what we do. My old man fought on Mount Tumbledown in the Falklands. His Dad was at D-Day. He never knew his father, who copped it on the Somme. I’ve seen his grave, one of a myriad crosses on a quiet green hillside in Picardy.
Before lieutenant True, whose name liveth for evermore, the family line stretches back through several inglorious Victorian engagements to the foot-slogger Harry True who served with Wellington in the Peninsula, and came home to Dorset with a flesh wound and a Goya wrapped round his bed-roll. Those were the stories I grew up with, True tales from the front line.
You will note from my stance that I’m not much of a military man, no square shoulders or ramrod spine for me. I’m really a poet, a soldier-poet. That’s what I told the family when I dropped out of Sandhurst. I don’t think they gave a monkeys, to be honest, so long as their boy was in uniform, following the ancestral colours, flying the flag.
Any old flag, it turns out. My kit here is US marine corps standard issue desert fatigues. That’s the truth about Harry True. The cool shades come from Spec Savers, and he might look like Lawrence of Arabia, master of his fate, etc., but he’s being run from CentComm somewhere in the deep South. Yessir.
When Harry True got his commission way back when, his first thought was What the Fuck. There was nothing to do but grease his .303 and kick his heels in Larkhill, parroting a ton of bullshit about hearts and minds while planning boy-scout projects in Kenya and Tanzania. But then it was full on: MOD bumph, PD 54s, logistics, extra kit, skeds and then we – that’s me and the lads – were off and on our way to the most beautiful country in the whole wide world.
Afghanistan, the graveyard of British military pride. What a country. Grit, rocks and sky-high mountains stiff with Mujahideen. Dad was there with special forces in the Seventies, before I was born, and he’d told mum all about how hairy it was, so of course she freaked out, big time. Me being a soldier-poet didn’t help any, either. She was full of this falling in a foreign field stuff. Once I’d served in Helmand under Operation Herrick, without a scratch, she calmed down, and became cool with the idea of her soldier boy leading his men into the desert, in the footsteps of Colonel Lawrence.
I love the desert. I love that razor-edge of light along the horizon at dawn and the dark blue steel of the desert sky before sunrise, and that first hint of the fiery heat to come. There are no half-measures out here. It’s all or nothing, a place of extremes. An inferno, or ice-cold. Terror or triumph. Eternity and insignificance. Your trivial self. That’s what you discover in the desert. Among all that dust and sand, you are just another mote, a speck, a nothing. At night you lie out under the stars wrapped in the blue and the dim and the dark cloths of night, and feel as shadowy and intangible as a dream.
When the sun comes up, the heat and the light cut you like a sword, and those dreams fade, but there’s always the freedom of the lone and level sands. My unit – my men, my lads – we loved the desert because out there we are free. Never mind CentComm, we could move at will, be ourselves and do as we please. Of course there’s danger, the most heart-stopping jeopardy, but that comes with liberation, too. You discover the most amazing things in the desert, meet the strangest people – tribesmen with I-phones, mystics, photographers, spooks – and see the oddest things. On one recce last year we stumbled cross this fully-equipped Soviet tank, a T-64, immobilised for lack of gasoline. On the same sweep through that sector we also found this temple with some amazing statues.
I’d hoped to write poems in the desert, but it’s too vast and weird for my imagination, and it treads on my dreams. Anyway, out here I’m in Shelley’s shadow. I met a traveller from an antique land. For sure, he understood about the desert, the place that equalises all mankind into dust and ashes. Ozymandias is the poem I kept with me on my last tour of duty. I got to know it by heart. The more pointless the mission, the more it spoke to me. It got so bad by the end that all I wanted to do was riff on those words and wonder where my soldier-poet had gone. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, the lone and level sands stretch far away. If I was a failed soldier, under American command, perhaps I was also a failed poet.
Defeat is only a notch above failure, but so is survival. In the circumstances, coming through slaughter can feel like an honourable part of the struggle. That’s what you see here. Major True, playing Ozymandias for the camera. Where am I ? I remember the co-ordinates like my birthday, but all I need give you are the letters I – R – A – Q, the place those guys in CentCom call Eye-Rack.
And there you have me, about to take orders down a wire at this forward observation post, wrapped in the fog of war. I am about to discover my tactical error. Bill the photographer who snapped this shot is dead now. So are half my men – my lads – but I survived. God bless America.
Robert McCrum is an associate editor of the Observer. For nearly 20 years he was editor-in-chief of the publishers Faber & Faber. He is the co-author of The Story of English (1986), and has written six novels. He was the literary editor of the Observer from 1996 to 2008, and has been a regular contributor to the Guardian since 1990.
Finbarr O'Reilly is the co-author of Shooting Ghosts (August 22, 2017, Penguin Random House), a unique joint memoir with retired a U.S. Marine Sgt. Thomas James Brennan. He was a 2016 writer in residence at the MacDowell Colony and at the Carey Institute for Global Good. He was also a 2015 Yale World Fellow. Before turning to writing, Finbarr was a Reuters senior photographer based in Tel Aviv, covering lsrael and the Palestinian Territories, and the 2014 Gaza war. He won the World Press Photo of the Year in 2006. Follow him on twitter and instagram @finbarroreilly