Task Force Helmand
Captain Doug Beattie serves and survives in wartorn Afghanistan. Watch a video interview below
A nine-year-old Afghan girl stares with huge, stunned brown eyes, three penetration wounds on her fragile body – the work of a British smoke bomb. Her name is Shabia and within hours she dies from her wounds, caught up in a conflict that had nothing to do with her. She had been playing near a building where the Taliban were known to put sentries: it was collateral damage. The death of innocent men, women and children is the hardest fact of war.
But Doug Beattie and his Royal Irish Regiment troops must pick themselves up and keep to their mission in the hell of Helmand. They are there, with the rest of the British and American military, to bring peace and democracy to the region. This is a country riven by warring tribes, feudal systems, opium dealing and the brutal domination of the Taliban. It is also a country where women are virtual non-entities, forced to wear burkhas and denied education and autonomy.
Whether western powers have any business occupying or attempting to reform this distant Muslim country remains a controversial question. Many have declared the war unwinnable – a doomed attempt to civilise a country according to western principles its inhabitants are loath to recognise or accept.
But for RIR captain and author Doug Beattie, the bottom line is clear. 'We have given the people of Afghanistan the expectation of a better life since we first went into the county in 2001,' he remarks. 'To leave now and not follow through on that promise would be disastrous for the Afghan people and for the rest of the world.
'I am a soldier, so it isn’t my job to change their culture. But there are many brutal practices in southern Afghanistan, such as the routine sexual abuse of 12-year-old boys and the oppression of women, which are very difficult to understand or sanction.'
Beattie’s warzone memoir, Task Force Helmand, recounts his second tour of duty on the Afghan frontline; the horrors he and his men faced in Lashkar Gah, Marjah and Attal as they fought against the Taliban; and the challenges of training members of the Afghan National Army.
It follows An Ordinary Soldier (2008) and was written with ITV war correspondent Philip Gomm, both as a testimony to the bravery of the men Beattie served with and as a means of coming to terms with his experiences in Helmand Province. Crucially, the memoir opens to public view the reality of war against the Taliban, Islamic militant terrorists who largely hail from the Pashtun tribes in southern Afghanistan and support the widespread dissemination of Sharia law. Beattie describes them as 'a versatile enemy with one of the best light infantries in the world'.
Doug Beattie was born in Hampshire and grew up in Portadown. He joined the army at 16 and describes the Royal Irish Regiment as his ‘second family’. He is no stranger to the heat and high-adrenalin of combat, having served in Bosnia and Iraq. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Garmsir during his first tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Captain Beattie postponed his planned retirement from the army and returned to the region for his final tour, at the age of 42, because of a strong sense of loyalty to his regiment; he could not bear to think of young RIR soldiers going out to risk their lives without someone with the experience to mentor and lead them.
Task Force Helmand is a no-holds-barred insight into the bloodshed, sweat, gunfire, sleeplessness and anxiety of the frontline. Beattie and his men live in constant fear of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) while in transit. In 45-degree heat they patrol the desert dragging their artillery and weighed down under their combat gear.
At every turn Beattie has to take tough decisions, and the consequences mean life or death for his men or enemy soldiers. He had expected the tour to be much less fraught then the conditions he experienced in Helmand in 2006, but instead of the reconstruction and development work anticipated, he and his men found themselves in a bitter face-to-face battle with the enemy.
'In Helmand my main concern was keeping the men of the Royal Irish safe,' he recalls. 'As Captain you are really worried about the 18 and 19-year-olds who are looking to you for help, or the married 26-year-old with three children who wants to get back to his family. With your leadership and guidance you hope to get these people out alive. That’s what kept me going in Afghanistan.'
Taking life is part and parcel of war and Beattie has had to kill in defending himself and his men. It’s a reality that cannot be easy to live with. Beattie has had nightmares in which the faces of his family are superimposed on those he has killed in combat.
In Task Force Helmand he asks himself if the human coast of the combat is worth it and reflects on the loss of innocent lives. Beattie hopes that the greater good will be served by the deaths of the few, that a peaceful Afghanistan can emerge from the bloodshed.
'The things I witnessed in Afghanistan were incredibly difficult – the death of a young girl, a 15-year-old suicide bomber, the deaths of my friends. And it is incredibly, incredibly difficult having to take a life when you didn’t want to. But you learn to live with it and you carry the mark of these experiences with you.
'I’ve spent 27 years in the military. Fighting is part of that. But I have to remind people that I spent 24 of those years peace-keeping, saving lives. It’s not within a person to kill wantonly but there are circumstances in war when you have to do it. A soldier hates war as much as a fireman hates fire. But we have a job to do.
'People do say that for the greater good the smaller number will suffer. That is very hard to see when you are on the ground but you hope that the country will ultimately come out of the dreadful situation it’s in and that all our efforts will lead to a democratic Afghanistan.'
Beattie has now retired from the army but he emphasises just how difficult it is to re-adjust to civilian life after spending months fighting the Taliban at bayonet-point in the Green Zone.
'I went from the battlefield to sitting on the couch with my wife and a bottle of wine within 48 hours. I had real problems dealing with that. Talking with the men who were out there with you really helps. But I think soldiers are a certain breed and I am very proud of all that I achieved in the Royal Irish Regiment. Most of all I am so proud of the men who worked alongside me. Task Force Helmand is as much about them as it is about my own experiences.'
Task Force Helmand by Doug Beattie MC and Phillip Gomm is published by Simon & Schuster and is available in hardback priced £17.99.