I remember clearing for mines around a young soldier who had just stepped on an anti-personnel mine. His broken body had been dragged him into the shade of a tree and the medic was gently tending to his injuries and bandaging him up. The injured soldier was a good tennis player and he had just lost a leg.
Another sapper, eating some bully beef out of a tin with a stick, ambled over to his injured friend. In shock and in pain, the injured man, understandably too scared to look at his injuries asked the sapper “Is it bad?”
His friend the sapper knelt down next to him and said: “Always look on the bright side – in future you only need to buy one “takkie” (tennis shoe)”.
This remark was made without malice or flippantly. It is the way soldiers talk to cope with the horrors they need to deal with. Living on the edge gives rise to a dark sense of humour only those who have been there can fully appreciate and even understand.
It therefore shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise to find some in the media complaining about recent photo of a French soldier wearing a skeleton mask. Wearing a mask or a scarf to protect one from the dust and debris is rather normal. The fact that his mask resembles a skull is part of the dark humour soldiers develop. It keeps them going.
Photo by Issouf Sanogo, AFP
What did they think he was doing in Mali – baking a cake for the extremists? The next thing they will probably complain about is the aggressive-looking weapons soldiers carry or that their uniforms frighten the enemy. Or maybe even that their weapons can actually kill people.
I am sure that if a company of soldiers wearing masks such as these appeared out of the dust, even the most hardened enemy will be taken aback and worried that he is being attacked by death itself. Which is exactly what should happen anyway.
The photo has resulted in a flurry of condemnation. Even a French military spokesman apologised and stated that the wearing of the mask was unacceptable and not representative of French military action. A hunt is now on to identify the soldier in the picture. Why on earth is that?
Similarly, there are those in the British media who are complaining about Capt Wales (Prince Harry to those who know him better) commenting on the fact that he had fired his Apache helicopter guns at the Taliban and had taken some of them “out of the game” – a common term used instead of “Hell, yes, I blew them to smithereens and there was blood and gore splattered over the entire area”.
Predictably, his frank comments – which do not in the least appear to have been boastful - drew a backlash from anti-war activists who, no doubt when their lives are threatened will call for people such as Capt Wales to save them and take the threat “out of the game”. Perhaps they will hope that someone will come along and “whack” or “slot” the threat to keep them safe so that they can continue to complain.
Even the extremists are complaining – and getting publicity - about his attitude to killing – something they certainly have no qualms about.
Now what did these good armchair analysts think he was doing in an Apache helicopter? Was he supposed to merely observe the enemy whilst they were firing at him or his friends on the ground?
Soldiers need to deal with the stress and fear that accompanies them every day of their lives when in a combat zone. They cannot grieve for their friends who have lost life and limb in a firefight – they need to get the job done as quickly as possible. To do this, they develop their own language to cope with the horrors they need to deal with, smell and witness. This language is littered with dark humour outsiders will not understand. To maintain some sanity in an insane world, they wear strange things, do strange things and say strange things.
However, war is not some game that is played according to gentlemen’s rules. The aim is to identify, locate, neutralise, annihilate, disrupt or destroy the enemy or break his will to such an extent that he no longer has the stomach to fight. If wearing a mask and using dark humour or saying strange things will speed-up the process of achieving the aim, then it should be done.
If the media and the politicians don’t like the way in which soldiers cope with their jobs or if they don’t like their humour or their sayings, perhaps they should go and do the fighting instead. We can then sit on the sideline and criticise.
To the soldiers out there, regardless of where you are, do not let the media and politicians dictate your humour and prevent you from “wearing a mask”. If that is what you need to do to cope or scare the hell out of the enemy and destroy him, then do it.