Margaret Evison spent Easter 2009 with her 26-year-old son Mark, who was about to go to Afghanistan as a lieutenant in the Welsh Guards. They walked around her garden talking about death in a general sort of way; Mark was worried that he might make a mistake which would lead to someone else dying. ‘He did not discuss the possibility of his own death.’
A month later, she returned from the newsagents to see a casually dressed man outside her house ‘apparently loitering with some intent’. He explained that he was a major in the Army and asked if they could talk inside. Two days after that, Evison was being driven to Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham when an ambulance sped by with a police escort. Inside was Mark.
He had been shot while out on patrol in Helmand. The consultant — stuffy and formal — tells her that Mark’s brain stem is ‘probably gone’. She sits by his bedside with his sunburned feet strapped with flip-flop marks poking out from under the blankets. The next day they switch off the machines that have been keeping him alive. ‘I watched the spirit leave Mark in less than a second as his face changed and his lips tinged blue.’
In part, Death of a Soldier is a record of Evison’s grief. But it’s also an account of a mother trying to find out how her son died — and, more specifically, trying to get some answers out of the Ministry of Defence.
As she notes in a style that is all the more devastating for its dryness:
Surprisingly, I found that the great institutions of state, politics and the law were the smallest of all when it came to allowing understanding and the simple sensitivities of human life. Death is much bigger than any of us, but these institutions box it up as office routine.
In the weeks following Mark’s death, she reads his diary — which makes several mentions of how inadequate their equipment is — smells his clothes obsessively to summon up his presence and inches, falteringly, towards a kind of religious belief. As she does so, she realises that some things about the official account of what happened to him don’t add up. Why did it take so long for a helicopter to airlift him out? As a result of the delay, Mark bled until his heart was ‘dry’ just 30 kilometres from a sophisticated hospital base.
The more questions she asks, the more the MoD’s features harden against her. Invited on to Newsnight to talk about her concerns, she learns that the MoD have tried to stop her on the grounds that she’s angry about Mark’s death — and therefore, presumably, likely to be unhinged.
Margaret Evison clearly is angry, but it’s equally plain that she’s not unhinged. Nor, as far as I can tell, is she suffering from paranoia, persecution mania or any other delusional complaint. She is, however, puzzled, and the more she ferrets about, the more puzzled she becomes. At the inquest, the coroner decides not to call a jury, yet doesn’t offer any explanation as to why. He also fails to call a number of relevant witnesses and won’t allow camera footage showing the aftermath of Mark’s shooting to be admitted as evidence.
She never really gets to the bottom of what happened to her son — and in a way it’s this lack of answers that makes her book so powerful. Quite possibly, she acknowledges, there is no sinister back-story, no dark chicanery. Instead, there is just blunder and evasion. As she writes, ‘The muddle over Mark’s death seemed to reflect a more fundamental Army and political muddle over Afghanistan, as well as a muddle about itself.’
Of all the epitaphs that will be written about our presence in Afghanistan, this may turn out to be the most damning of all.