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War and words

‘Aggressive camping’ is how one of the characters in Andy McNab’s first play for radio describes his activities in Helmand province in Aghanistan.

5 August 2009

12:00 AM

5 August 2009

12:00 AM

‘Aggressive camping’ is how one of the characters in Andy McNab’s first play for radio describes his activities in Helmand province in Aghanistan.

‘Aggressive camping’ is how one of the characters in Andy McNab’s first play for radio describes his activities in Helmand province in Aghanistan. Last Night, Another Soldier… (Radio Four, Saturday) received a lot of advance publicity because of McNab’s reputation as a former SAS soldier whose books about his experiences at war have zoomed off the shelves faster than he can write them. His play focuses on a platoon of riflemen engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with the Taleban, mostly young, sometimes brave, and always doomed, either to die in battle, be maimed for life, or suffer from the psychological ravages of PTSD.


The language of war has acquired a lexicon that would have horrified Orwell. In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, which he wrote just after the second world war had ended, he campaigned against the way that the English language was being used even then to obfuscate meaning, distort reality, encourage the advance of ‘foolish thoughts’. Prose, Orwell writes, ‘consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house’. McNab’s script veered from the south London lingo of squaddies from Peckham to the euphemisms which anaesthetise us from war’s realities.

‘Take him down’, ‘Body bag’, ‘Poppy field’ — the words being used by the characters were at odds with their blood-curdling shrieks as they fought for their survival. This was not a play for the faint-hearted. Nor was it a play that sought to explain why our men and women have been sent out to do battle once more on the ravaged plains of Afghanistan. Last Night, Another Soldier… tried instead to take us to that battlefield and recreate the feelings of a terrified 18-year-old hiding in a maize field from the mob of ‘Tallies’ who have surrounded him and his comrades. What does it feel like to shoot a man in the mouth as he clutches hold of you? How do you push a bayonet into a man’s stomach hard enough to ensure you kill him before he kills you?

McNab has been praised for the way in which he doesn’t idolise war. But to write a drama about the reality of war without adding some other dimension is no longer enough. We’ve seen and heard so much of the horror through the 24-hour news commentaries, ‘embedded’ reporters and mobile-phone footage taken by the soldiers themselves while involved in running combat that we’ve become inured to it. To tune in to an artificial drama about something that is actually taking place as we listen is disquieting rather than instructive.

Late on Sunday night I caught by chance a few lines from a very unfashionable Victorian poet who actually said so much more than McNab for all his battle-scarred veracity. Mark Tully’s Something Understood (Radio Four) was this week dedicated to cricket in honour of the current Ashes series against Australia. Tully quoted Sir Henry Newbolt’s famous lines about the game, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game,’ written in 1897 when British troops were fighting in Africa. Newbolt was urging the soldiers to valour, but he also pins down with a poet’s precision what they were up against, ‘The sand of the desert is sodden red/ Red with the wreck of a square that broke,/ The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,/ And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.’ When poetry plays with language it can enhance the truth rather than distorting it — just as Carol Ann Duffy had done earlier in the week when she read her poem ‘Last Post’ on the Today programme.


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