BARNEY Campbell’s moving debut novel, Rain, is about more than war, it’s about the legacy of conflict and the personal cost of serving your country
Barney Campbell still thinks about Afghanistan every day. Psychologically he reckons he’s not been badly affected by his tour of duty five years ago, but what he experienced, what he witnessed, what he did, occupies his mind a lot. It might be a sound or a smell that triggers a memory. They’re not flashbacks, he’s not traumatised, but active duty in a far away land is a defining experience. “I was in the lift at work,” he says. “A woman got in and a bit of metal on her handbag hit a bit of metal on the lift. It reminded me of the way the magazine of a rifle sounds when it’s put into the rifle itself. It’s not a flashback, it’s just a memory. It can be the same with smells. I was on holiday in Italy last week and the smell of the flowers in the evening reminded me of the smell of flowers in Afghanistan. The memories are never bad.”
Campbell’s debut novel, Rain, is an exploration not only of life on the frontline in Afghanistan, but also the personal struggles of a young officer, Tom Chamberlain, as he negotiates his own desire to see active service with his awareness that the mission he will serve is morally complex and extremely dangerous and will put unrivalled strain on his relationships with both family and friends. Written with real authority and authenticity, it’s clearly a deeply personal book for Campbell and one for which he had a clear agenda.
“I got back from Afghanistan and I realised that there was a gap between those who’d been away and those who hadn’t,” he says. “That gap, left unbridged, can be very damaging to relationships. On the one hand, you have a soldier or service person who’s been away and might, perfectly understandably, be afraid to talk about what they’ve been through. On the other hand, you have a family member or friend who has a fear of asking because they don’t want to intrude. That gap left untreated or unbridged can, after two or three years, result in catastrophic relationship breakdown between husband and wife, mother and son, father and daughter, or even just between friends. And all it is, is a question of understanding.”
Campbell’s ambition for his novel was two-fold. Firstly, he wanted to try to explain to the British public how proud they should be of the young men and women who served their country in Afghanistan. Secondly, he wanted to tackle the silence which often surrounds active service, to somehow provide an insight into the experiences of those who see active duty on tour.
In the novel, Campbell uses the direct experience of his characters both on the frontline and also at home, to flesh out the way in which soldiers can become alienated not only from their family and friends but also from the wider society the values of which they are fighting to spread. He also uses letters sent between soldiers to illustrate the frustrations of their role and remit being misunderstood or simply ignored by a society distanced from any real understanding of what they’re trying to achieve.
“The deal of active military service is that on the one hand you get incredible excitement and a real sense that you’re doing something that’s worthwhile and on the front pages of the newspapers every day as it was in 2009/10. You make intense and long-lasting friendships and you have some very funny times. The flipside of that equation is that some of you might not be getting out of there alive and some of you might not be getting out of there whole. Horrible things happen. It’s utterly brutal. That’s the equation, that’s the deal you make. I was fortunate enough to come through OK, but there were great friends of mine who didn’t. That’s a tragedy but it’s the nature of the equation. I know it’s brutal to boil it down in that mathematical way, but that’s how I see it.”
Out of the 12 soldiers Campbell led, one had both legs blown off and two others had injuries which were less serious. In the wider group Campbell’s troop was part of there were four deaths and 10 serious injuries. “Out of a hundred or so it was quite a steep casualty rate,” he says.
He has only praise for charities such as Help for Heroes and the Army Benevolent Fund. They are, he says, doing great work, but his concern is that what is required is long term support. He is, he says, unusual in terms of ex-military in that he doesn’t want to bang on about how rubbish the military is. “I’m really impressed with how the MOD is supporting wounded soldiers and planning for their futures, augmented by these amazing charities. But it’s a mission that’s going to have to last 30 years. Looking after the prosthetics of a 21-year-old is going to mean they will have to be adapted for when he is a 55-year-old. These injuries are long term, for life.
“What bombs and bullets do to human bodies is disgusting. To pretend otherwise would be misrepresentative. Life changing injuries is the euphemism but the fear of a double or triple amputation was constantly not in the back of your mind but in the front, every day for nine months. You would talk constantly with your friends about whether it’d be better to die or to live, that was a conversation you’d have again and again. And then to some people that is what would happen and you think constantly, that could have been me.”
Campbell grew up in a military family. His father served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. For the first 12 years of Campbell’s life, he and his two sisters, grew up around Europe travelling with the Scottish regiment before the family settled in a house near Peebles. Perhaps it’s unsurprising then that he himself joined the Army after university, being commissioned into the Blues and Royals, with whom he served for five years. But when he left university in 2003, he wasn’t “slavishly following” in his father’s footsteps. “I was very aware of the Army’s flaws,” he says, “very aware of the difficult time it gives families and very aware of the huge strain on families when a soldier goes abroad.”
In 2006, three years into Britain’s involvement in Iraq and with activity in Afghanistan just starting, it was obvious that anyone who joined up then would be going away. “I found that very exciting,” he says. “That’s the kind of thing a 23-year-old thinks. I’m 32 now, would I make the same decision? Maybe, but possibly not. When you’re that age you’re that much more buoyed by adrenalin and the world situation at that time promised you a very challenging and exciting time and that was really enticing. I don’t want to come across as some gung-ho, let’s just do it for the sake of doing it type. It was much more deep-rooted and I had a sense that it was going to be a real challenge.”
Five years on, as the Middle East lurches spasmodically from crisis to crisis and the rise of Isis begs the question as to what military intervention has achieved since the first war in Iraq, listening to Campbell’s conviction about the purpose of the mission and his pride over the role of British service personnel is at times jarring. It’s not that his personal beliefs are anything other than convincing – the five months he spent preparing for tour and the seven he spent in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010 – added up to the proudest year of his life. It’s just that when we’re more accustomed to hearing about the plight of soldiers wracked with PTSD or learning to cope with life as a double or sometimes a triple amputee, it’s easy to forget the individual stories that lie beneath any military campaign, stories of bravery and courage, of course, but also the more quotidian stories of doubt and confusion. His novel demands that we don’t forget about the young people who make up the backbone of any military campaign.
He doesn’t shy away from the complexities of conflict either – Tom is ambivalent about the mission, the role of the army in interventions in countries such as Afghanistan. But by the end of the novel he is quite clear about where he stands – he’s proud to play a part in the effort to help the Afghan people. It is exactly how Campbell feels. “I’m very, very proud,” he says, “and I will go to my grave with a real, quiet, solemn pride about what we achieved out there. But it would have been a complete distortion of the truth if I hadn’t put in bits where Tom is doubting himself. It would have been ridiculous to pretend that’s not what we thought at times. You’re in the middle of this very full-on emotional experience and you’d have been a complete moron not to have, at times, questioned what we were doing. To have gone into Afghanistan in a very unthinking manner would have been ridiculous. I was constantly amazed and impressed by the emotional sensitivity shown by my very young soldiers, guys and girls of 18 or 19 who’d left school with no qualifications to their name and who’d probably been playing truant since they were 14. Yet there they were in Afghanistan, earning £19,000 a year, behaving in a manner that people twice their age would have been proud of.”
The Army is, according to Campbell, the most wonderful institution in Britain apart from the NHS. What he loved about it was working in an environment in which the team is greater than the individual. “From the outside it looks quite odd,” he says. “It looks as though it is big strong men with biceps the size of my thighs, covered in tattoos, a culture or bullying and machoness. But I found the Army was an amazingly diverse and incredibly tolerant workplace. There were men and women from all over the Commonwealth, all shapes and sizes, but because you were doing a very difficult job together it was an amazing, collaborative environment. It could be surprising, tender and gentle. I know that sounds really counterintuitive, but I remember being constantly amazed by my soldiers and how kind and nice they were.”
He arrived in Afghanistan as a Lieutenant and in the final months he was promoted to Captain. “That was a slightly automatic promotion. If you weren’t a captain after two-and-a-half years it was because you were a major idiot.” He left the Army as a captain in April 2012. The decision to leave was made for a variety of reasons, none of which were particularly negative he says. Really it was about wanting to challenge himself in different ways. He’d been in and around the Army since he was born in an Army hospital in 1983. There was a sense that he’d “pushed his luck a bit” and it was time to do something else.
The adjustment wasn’t straightforward. He describes himself as being “completely berserk”. “I slightly suspect I believed that the world owed me a living. That’s certainly not the case. If someone came to me now who was looking to leave the army and asked me for advice, I’d say listen pal, look at how I did it and don’t do it that way and you’ll be fine. There was an arrogance, or if not arrogance where pride meets arrogance about basically what I’ve done is incomparable to anything else so I give me a job I can walk into. But actually you’re five years behind your peer group. You’ve got to go back to the stage that they were at five years previously. And of course, that’s hard to take. It’s a bitter pill. But the fact is the experience you’ve had means that although you’re starting from rung one on the ladder, you accelerate up faster than you ever would have without the experience you’ve had.”
Campbell has been living and working in Paris since January. He’s with a small firm that consults on infrastructure – bridges, roads, hospitals – across Europe and America. Writing is, he says, a hobby, an activity he’s happy to fit into “the margins” of his life. That said, novels two and three are already planned. “I can’t wait to get stuck into the them,” he says. “The next one is going to be centred on a journalist who’s been covering the Arab Spring.” So no more soldiering, that story is told. “I don’t want to sound blasé but I really believe that had I not written Rain I would be as fine about Afghanistan as I am now. It helped me to digest a bit about what I’d done and what I felt needed to be said about Afghanistan, but it wasn’t a process of catharsis without which I couldn’t have coped. I wasn’t exorcising demons because I don’t have demons from tour, I just have a lot of interesting thoughts about it.
“If someone, anyone, comes up to me and says that Rain has helped them to understand their son or their sister or friend, that to me will be mission complete,” he says. “It will all have been worthwhile.”
• Rain by Barney Campbell, published in hardback by Michael Joseph at £16.99, is out now