From Hollywood to Helmand: Living with the Scots Guards in Afghanistan

A gunner from Right Flank Company, 1st Battalion Scots Guards. Max Benitz spent time with the Scots Guards in Helmand province. Photo: PA /Army/MoD
A gunner from Right Flank Company, 1st Battalion Scots Guards. Max Benitz spent time with the Scots Guards in Helmand province. Photo: PA /Army/MoD
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Max Benitz played alongside some of cinema’s stars in a promising acting career. But he decided to give it all up to live alongside the Scots Guards under fire in Afghanistan and write a book about his experiences there. Here, he recalls his extraordinary time with real-life heroes

ONE of the things you learn in Helmand is precision. Precision in movement, as anywhere there could be a lurking bomb, but also precision in language. You learn the true meaning of words we perhaps use too casually back here: “hero”, “legend”, “crying shame”, “gutted”, “hate”. My diary from that place is terse, and written in a completely different language, the British Army’s, that one must master very quickly if you are to understand your surroundings in Helmand.

My job in Helmand was to interpret that language and the events I saw. I am a civilian, and set myself the task of understanding today’s conflict so that other civilians can gain a better insight into what really goes on over there. My qualifications to do this basically amounted to youthful self-belief, but also a genuine desire to help, in a small way, to bridge the gap between the military and civilian worlds.

My father had been in the Scots Guards, and I’d grown up hearing his stories and living in a house covered with images of them. They were due to head out to Helmand in April 2010 and I rashly wrote to the commanding officer, offering to write a book about their tour. He said yes, but the Ministry of Defence said I’d get nowhere near Helmand without a publishing contract in place. I expect they thought that was the last they’d hear from me – I was 24, unpublished and the world’s finances had just detonated – but a friend from The Scotsman, Rob Corbidge, suggested I try Birlinn publishers in Edinburgh. They e-mailed back within an hour and said yes.

That was when matters got interesting – the bluff had been called. The military set great store in confidence. If you say you will do something, then you have to complete that task competently. The fact that I was utterly unqualified to write a book was irrelevant to the soldiers. They are a superlative group of men, and welcomed my effort to understand who they are and what they went through, which is the absolute focus of Six Months without Sundays.

Most writers have interesting journeys to their first book and for me that journey began nearly ten years ago when casting directors came to my school to find a boy for a minor role in the second Harry Potter film and instead found a young actor to play a role in the blockbuster Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World. My brief flirtation with the film industry led me to explore what really mattered, and instead of drama school I opted to travel to Edinburgh University in 2004 to study modern history. It was this and the people I met that led me to travel to Afghanistan.

Time in Helmand is remarkably intense. The enormity of the experience consumes individuality and you very quickly become part of the group you’re with. It is also rather liberating in a way. Clearly, you have to worry about not getting killed, and especially about not putting anyone in harm’s way through your own stupidity, but long-term worries evaporate in the face of the risk. Previous experiences count for nothing against the nihilism of combat, and the inspirational men and women you meet in the worst of places.

The writer JB Priestley said that the British were at their best during the Second World War. Something of that spirit is present in Helmand today. It is more complicated than the usual “Our Boys” platitudes in the tabloids. There is a lot of fear and plenty of hate over there, and it is often a lot less glamorous than jumping out of helicopters and watching figures drop from your crosshairs.

“You lose the days until you lose track and it continuously rolls until one day the tour ends,” said Guardsman Christopher Gallacher, who is from Renfrew. “Everything feels like hard work. To get a shower you have to go and fill the bag from the well, leave it in the sun to warm up, take the bag to the block, hook up the bag and wash. Then you go and refill the bag and lay it out again.” This is the relentless, unglamorous infantry life men lead for six months in Helmand.

There are heart-stopping (and heart-breaking) moments, but most of my time out there was spent watching the Scots Guards try to get around the insurgency and to the Afghan people. They protected roads, upgraded mosques and built schools. Nearly every step was taken with a uniformed Afghan partner alongside – their resilience once Nato leaves will be one factor in how history judges this conflict.

For Sergeant Craig McAlpine, his first impression of his new Afghan National Police partners last May was that, “they were legalised Taleban”. During his tour, he and his men would have to learn to trust their Afghan partners, and try to improve their basic soldering skills. Partnering, for the Scots Guards, wasn’t about upending the Afghan way of doing things, but of working together to confront the insurgency. “What will the Afghans revert to when we leave?” asked Major Hugo Clarke from Sussex, “we don’t want them to revert to anything. We want to understand what it is they are of themselves trying to achieve.”

While trust and partnership could be won in battle, sometimes it was easier to play volleyball together, or just sit and talk, as Major Clarke did with his Afghan counterpart every night. Gradually trust came, and gradually the police there improved to the position where they could confidently lead their own patrols. By August, the Afghan commander in that area told me that, “they [the Scots Guards] are helping us and we work as brothers”.

That the core of the mission is stabilisation and the fact it is focused on the population does not detract from the dangers. Men dealt with risk in different ways. I was always amused by the perpetually self-deprecating argument that went on between the bomb disposal types and the infantry. After watching an explosive ordnance officer investigating and then defeating a device, the Scots Guardsmen would offer a genuine, “Cheers, pal, but you’re clearly absolutely nuts – defusing bombs, what’s wrong with you?” To which the technician would reply, “No, you infantry guys are nuts, running around and getting shot at out in the open.” Both sides would then shrug their shoulders and break out the cigarettes. There was, I suppose, a rationalisation of the “trade” you’d trained for.

Troops arrive much better trained than they had for previous tours – the training today is extensive and Afghanistan-specific. While I questioned the value of freezing in Northumberland in winter in preparation for a summer tour when the thermometer will head north of 50C, it has to be done. As the aide memoire carried in Helmand states: “If you need to read a guideline whilst under fire your training has failed.”

Years of training were clearly not a coping mechanism I could draw on. At first, every move outside a protected camp terrified me. After a while though, I thought of myself as existing in the “Jock Guards Bubble” – a protective layer of professionalism that would try its hardest to stop me getting hurt. The commanding officer had also ordered me not to get killed, and he wasn’t the sort of man you would want to disobey.

The level of sacrifice asked for from the soldiers speaks for itself, and the sheer grinding pace of daily life is moving to witness: sentry duty, the heat, and the heavy kit. Some days the soldiers build, some days they destroy. Some days they save life, some days they take life. One word that appears frequently in the days of interviews I gathered is “weird”.

The contrast with life in Britain was something Trooper Aidan Carter, Royal Dragoon Guards, mentioned when he returned from R&R in Keighley, Yorkshire. “For me, when you get home you’ve got all the luxuries. Tap water. You can run it all day when you’re in the kitchen, and you see people using their hosepipes on their cars. In Afghanistan, you throw a half-litre bottle of water outside and you’ve got two kids scrapping over it … it’s madness.” And it was the people that many come away from Helmand despairing for. “They’re sandwiched in the middle: the insurgents on one side, us on the other,” said Lance Sergeant Matt Hay from South Africa, “we’re promising, the insurgents are demanding.”

After seeing a local girl of three wounded grievously by a rocket propelled grenade, Guardsman Gallacher turned to me and said simply: “That’s not fair. You see things out here that will scar you for life and make you realise how lucky you are, sat at home in front of the telly.”

It is easy to come away from Helmand feeling terribly conflicted about it all. It has to be for something, in my opinion at least. I saw real progress being made. Admittedly, this came at significant cost to British soldiers, their Afghan partners, and the local Afghan population.

What is happening over there is certainly more interesting to live through, and I hope, more interesting to read about than hanging out on a film set with Russell Crowe – something I’d done in what feels like a different lifetime aged 17. Having met both types, the sort of people who win military crosses are much more impressive than the sort of people who win Oscars.

Helmand is the antithesis of the celebrity culture. The key difference, and why I prefer Helmand to Hollywood, comes down to the difference between reality and artifice. It is a matter of the stakes. And for the each and every Scots Guardsman who served last summer in Helmand, the stakes could not have been higher.

The following is an extract from Max’s book:

“IT HAD been hot for longer than anyone could remember. 500 metres up Route Orion, the road the checkpoint was designed to watch over, we swung east into the Green Zone. Over our right shoulders was Muktar Fort looking over the Helmand River and beyond that Lashkar Gah. In order to minimise the risk of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) we walked through springy grass and then ploughed fields taking a route a drunk might pick. The figure in the white robe watching us stood out against the mud compound walls. He watched for several minutes, and then disappeared into a nest of compounds to the north.

Ten minutes later we were walking through chest-high corn when Lance Corporal Stuart turned and said to everyone in particular: “Good spot fer an ambush.” As we left the corn we came into open ground flanked on three sides by compounds. Inevitably, we got shot at.

If you showed an Eskimo a rattlesnake he would not need to be told that the fangs pack haemotoxic venom capable of rotting your organs. He’d just know to get away thanks to that file nature gives us marked “avoid”. Getting shot at is similar. So rich and unnatural are the cadences of bullets aimed to harm you that you just know to make yourself low and small as soon as those first rounds skip around. “F*ck” becomes your favourite word until it ends.”

Six Months Without Sundays by Max Benitz is published today by Birlinn, £16.99