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A War Artist in Afghanistan

December 30, 2011

I haven’t put up many posts in the last few months as I have been busy getting ready for and then working as a War Artist in Afghanistan. Below is the first article I wrote for the regional newspaper, The Western Mail which was published just after I flew out.

A War Artist in Afghanistan.

Gathered outside a Nottinghamshire Hotel on a dark autumn morning. There’s a slight chill in the air but I’m warm after my dash from the station. I arrive at the gathering in time to meet the bus that the Cambrai Training Team have laid on to transport us to their training complex, set in the Reserves Training and Mobilisation Centre (RTMC) at Chetwynd Barracks, Chillwell, Nottingham.

The majority of the course is made up of media types. From local newspaper journalists to international magazine writers and from local radio presenters to national television crews. We all have one thing in common – we will all, at one time or another, over the next few months, be climbing onto a military transport at Brize Norton and making our way into the current theater of conflict for the British military, that is Afghanistan.

The training, although a necessary requirement for anyone hoping to be ‘embedded’ with the British Armed Forces, is not a simple box ticking exercise. It is quite simply a matter of life and death and as such the type of course where you find yourself paying a lot of attention. It’s spread over two fairly long and very intensive days, covering such topics as living conditions – each person having a space just large enough for a camp bed, a chair, their personal kit and just about enough room to swing their legs out of bed; Military vehicles and how to travel in them – ‘clunk click every trip’ has a new meaning when the vehicle your in risks being flung into the air and rolled many times by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) every time it drives down the road; enemy tactics such as suicide bombers and the use of those IEDs; land mines, military communications equipment, check point drills, combat first aid, helicopter drills and fitness tests. There’s more but I’m sure you get the gist.

After a brief introduction from Squadron Leader Mike Bracken, SO2 Media Ops (Planning) from the Ministry of Defense Directorate of Media and Communications, we find ourselves in a room piecing together the body armour they will have us wearing most of the time over the next two days. Standing there in the constricting stiff waistcoat that contains two heavy kevlar plates placed front and back and slightly to the left to cover the heart, as well as weighty helmets on, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s thoughts stray slightly to the question of “Why am I here?”

Why was I there? Yes, I’ve said already to get the vital training required for a prospective tour with the armed forces. And I suppose I am, like many of the others on the course, now writing for a newspaper about my experiences. This, however, was not my primary goal. I am not a journalist or a reporter. I am in fact an illustrator, an artist – what was I doing here? And what were the other three artists on the course doing there? Why would the army want artists tagging along and possibly getting in the way of their soldiers?

To answer this question we need to look back into the history of both art and conflict. For where there has been conflict there has always been art. There are examples of ‘War Art’ amoung the cave paintings of prehistoric man such as those found at Cingle de la Mola, Castellón, Spain that date back as far as 7000 BC. From then to now there have been artists risking their lives by accompanying the armed forces in an attempt to capture and illustrate the conditions,both physical and psychological, of war. Leonardo da Vinci travelled with the armies of Cesare Borgia in 1502. One of the first recognised war artists in Britian was Robert Ker Porter who accompanied British forces and witnessed actions in Portugal and Spain during the early part of the 19th Century. When it comes to newspaper reporting a French artist, Constantin Guys, became a graphic reporter for the Illustrated London News and reported from the Crimean War in 1855 by sending woodcuts back from the front.

This is all very well of course but surely since the invention of the photograph, which has been used to report on wars as early as the Crimean, why on earth would the army want to send artists to the front line and commission paintings? Which, as we can see, they are still doing to this day. Surely there can be nothing better than a photograph to show the true realities of conflict? Or can there?

There are, and have been, many people who believe that art is the only way to capture the true aspects of warfare. People such as Kenneth Clark who founded the War Artists Advisory Committee at the beginning of the Second World War. A committee that went on to commission work from hundreds of artists both at home and on the front lines throughout the war. It was felt by Clark, and the government of the day, that although photography was an excellent way of recording the war, photographs could not capture the subjective ‘feel’ of the war in the same way a painter could. And so we find the tradition of the war artist well and truly entrenched in the psyche of the military to this day.

During Operation Herrick 15, the latest tour in which UK military personnel are taking part and which has just begun, 20 Brigade, currently the lead formation of British troops in Helmand province, Afghanistan, are taking four war artists to spend time on the front line. Graeme Lothian, an experienced war artist known particularly for his military aviation paintings. Matthew Cook, TImes War Artist during the Gulf War in 2003 and who has also produced illustrations in Afghanistan as recently as 2009. Kevin Lyles, who has been a war artist for many years, making his first tour in Kosovo in 1996. And myself, a first timer, feeling very much like the new kid on the block and finding myself on this path after discovering war art as a mature student on the Cardiff School of Art and Design’s rather new but astonishingly forward thinking and cutting edge Illustration course. Over twenty years as a graphic designer have done little to prepare me for this. Talking of preparation it was interesting to note that all the artists listed above, including myself, have an army background, mostly in the Territorial Army and three, like myself, ex-paras. Coincidence or a telling indication of the type of person who would patrol through the IED and land mine infested dusty streets and dirt tracks of Helmand armed only with a drawing pen and a sketch pad?

For me one of the most exciting parts of the upcoming embed is that I will be hosted by the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards (QDG), otherwise known as The Welsh Cavalry and who have a base in Cardiff. They are a highly trained and motivated Regiment. One of the most operationally experienced and the senior Regiment of the Line in the British Army with over 320 years of distinguished history. Not only that but their role as the armies reconnaissance force puts them right in the forefront of British operations in Helmand. I don’t think I could do much better than to spend time with them particularly considering their connection with Cardiff my home town.

Having now completed their first month in theatre there is no doubt that 20 Armoured Brigade continue to move the campaign forward. “We are making positive changes to the lives of the Hemlandi people.”, said WOI Paul Jones when I spoke with him recently, the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) of the QDG. A Squadron have just completed the mentoring of their Afghan National Army (ANA) Kandak on a major operation in Nad-e Ali – which is likely to be the next District to Transition to the Afghan security control. Paul said, “The QDG mentoring influence is clearly starting to change the attitude of many of our Afghan Army brothers with the adoption of morning Physical Training (PT)!”

B Squadron are currently ensuring that the key routes in the centre of Helmand are secure for both Brigade movement but critically that of the Local Nationals. Their new vehicle (Scimitar 2) is proving to be ideal in terms of protection and agility and has increased their ability to cover great distances of the vital communications routes in their area.

The Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) have conducted a lengthy reconnaissance of a relatively untouched area of central Helmand and have vastly increased the understanding of that area, setting the conditions for the Afghan Government to reach out to a large swathe of the population. In addition the BRF have conducted a series of disruption activities, often partnered with Special Forces and Afghan teams, and a number of aviation assaults against senior members of the Insurgent leadership – detaining a number of key individuals referred to by the British Forces as ‘Jackpots’.

It is whilst involved in this sort of vital work that Lance Corporal Richard Scanlon and Lieutenant David Boyce so recently died. A stark reminder of the reality of the situation I will find myself in when I step out of the military transport in Camp Bastion in just a few days time. A reminder of why it is so important to document the Regiments history by recording their operations in Afghanistan during Op HERRICK 15.

“Having a war artist visit the Regiment while on operations is key to recording the history of the Regiment.” Paul Jones said, “The process to get them out to theatre has taken some time, but it was the hard work of the 20 Bde Media Team and the MOD that has made it happen.”

I do indeed owe thanks to the 20 Bde Media Team, to WO1 (RSM) Paul Jones, Major Toby Lyle, Captain Mike Day and Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel J J de Quincey Adams, all of the QDG. To Mike Bracken and the Ministry of Defense Directorate of Media and Communications. I should also mention The Welsh Livery Guild who kindly donated some money to assist with the costs. I will endeavor to produce further illustrated reports, both during and after my time with the QDG so that you can see a little of what life is like for our troops on the front line in Helmand.

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