Most narratives of the war in Afghanistan come from either servicemen or journalists. This engaging account from Christian Hill is a combination of both. Following a stint as officer in the Royal Artillery, Hill pursued a civilian media career that included working as a BBC radio journalist, while at the same time rejoining the Army as a reservist in the Media Operations Group. In 2011 he was sent to Afghanistan as part of a Combat Camera Team, in charge of a stills photographer and cameraman.
Their brief was to provide both the Army and British media with engaging stories from Afghanistan, with the emphasis very much on the Allies ‘successful’ hand-over to local Afghan forces. Stories that did not support the official line were unacceptable, leaving the journalist in Hill with something of a dilemma: ‘The issue of selective reporting was a moral quagmire, of course, requiring its own coping strategy. I told myself that as long as I was on the military’s payroll I would do the military’s bidding. Balance and impartiality – those cornerstones of BBC journalism – were not part of my current remit. When I was no longer in uniform – ie when I was back to being a journalist again – then maybe I would rethink my actions.’
Hill’s tour in Afghanistan provides many illuminating incidents, not least the endemic corruption in the Afghan Army. On one occasion he is sent to interview officers at the Afghan Staff College, but just as he is about to begin the first interview, access is denied by the commander of the College. On asking why, Hill and his Foreign Office liaison are told that he wants a colour printer. ‘Does he need a colour printer?’ asks Hill. ‘No, not really,’ replies the FO man. ‘But I’ll have to get him one anyway.’ With the printer delivered, the interviews go ahead.
Hill is good on the usual idiocies of Army life and its interface with the wider media. A recurring problem is dealing with British journalists, among them Ross Kemp, the former Eastenders star turned gung-ho war reporter. In something a of a running gag within the book, Kemp is depicted looking for lots of ‘bang-bang’ footage but is frustrated at the lack of appropriate action. Eventually he is able to return to the UK a happy man after he is fired on by the Taliban, an RPG round whizzing over his head.
Whether the author succeeded in his mission-impossible of presenting the Afghan government and army in a suitably positive light must be doubtful but he has succeeded in providing readers with a well-written, informative and droll memoir of his service in this war-torn region.
Alma Books, 278 pages, £14.99 (p/b)