The High Cost of Living a Twisted Ideology
10 Jun 2006
Damien Lewis, author of the recently published Bloody Heroes and top ten bestseller Operation Certain Death, explains how he goes about writig his books.
As I came in from a hard morning writing my wife glanced up from the lunch table, shock and concern written across her face. ‘You look terrible,’ she said. I appeared exhausted and grey, she told me, like every last drop of life force had been drained from me.
Coming to think of it, that was pretty much how I was feeling.
I’d spent the last three months trying to get into the hearts and minds of the Al Qaeda and Taliban who had fought again British and US forces in Afghanistan. I wasn’t attempting to understand their ideology or their religious beliefs, or their genesis and their aims: I was trying to think like they think, feel how they feel, to simply become one of them.
I was writing a book that tells the story of two bands of brothers: on the one side, a dozen British special forces soldiers sent in to hunt down the ‘terrorist enemy’; on the other a group of Al Qaeda / Taliban ‘brothers’ sent out to fight and kill British and American forces.
This is the way I believe in writing, by living the story. It’s a total immersion kind of process, in which one takes on the existence of those in the book. I was writing a true story, but the total immersion was none the less because of that.
Imagine having to think and behave as a suicide bomber; to get inside the mind of someone actively seeking death as the ultimate achievement in life; to feel the same as a young man seeking to kill anyone not from their own religion; and to share the same conviction as he who has voluntarily left behind a wife and child to do so.
Imagine going off to fight in a far away land as part of a volunteers-only jihad. Imagine the state of your mind.
Each morning I had disappeared into my studio faced with nothing but the need to reacquire a burning desire to kill the infidel enemy, or die a glorious martyr’s death in the process. When the culmination of one’s existence becomes the quest to kill others – complete strangers who happen to have been born into a different faith system – imagine how black your existence has become. Add in the all-consuming desire for martyrdom, and life becomes a dark and hollow rush to the grave.
I had started my research many months before, by meeting two British veterans of the Afghan jihad. One was a white, public school educated scion of a wealthy family, who had turned his back on the ‘profligacy of the West’ and converted to Islam. The other was a first generation Britain of Pakistani descent who hailed from an impoverished town in the north of England.
Both men had joined up with the foreign Mujahideen in Afghanistan and spent months on the frontline of that war. Both were proud of their stories and happy to tell them, as long as I gave them the guarantee of anonymity.
Some six hundred of their ‘brothers’ died in the central battle related in my book – the siege of the ancient, mud-walled Qala-Janghi fortress, near Mazar-I-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Yet the surviving brothers are proud of this fact, and that battle is seen as something of a glorious Custer’s Last Stand for the foreign Mujahideen.
Of course, that was the easy part, listening to their - and others Brothers – relating tales of the ‘heroic sacrifices’ of that war. The tough part came after, as I sat down to the writing and forced myself to enter into the mind of a young Islamist on the path of Jihad in Afghanistan.
I have always believed that feelings of hatred and revenge harm most those who feel them: they are angry, bitter thoughts that corrode the very soul. Spending weeks on end immersing myself in a brotherhood driven by such dark beliefs was a sickening, soul-destroying process. But it was also an oddly enlightening one, and in the most unexpected of ways.
As a journalist I have spent many months reporting from war zones all over the world, and have known much of war. So when the brothers described to me the ‘pure’ existence of combat, of the Jihad, I got what they were saying. I know and understand why life on the front line is life lived at a heightened level that can never be reached elsewhere.
When you exist in a place where life can be taken from you at any moment, sheer existence itself attains a level of preciousness that it never can do in ‘normal’ life. This sense of a heightened reality, the pure line of combat, was something shared by both bands of brothers in my story, British special forces and foreign Mujahideen alike.
This I had expected. But what I hadn’t expected was to feel a growing degree of empathy for the Brothers and their Jihad.
They say that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but it wasn’t in this sense that I felt any sympathy with the Brothers. I had no time for their fascist belief systems or their aims.
But as the weeks progressed, and I immersed myself deeper and deeper in the struggle, I realised that the war in Afghanistan boiled down to two groups of soldiers fighting each other in a bitter and bloody struggle to the death. As in any war, peel away the ideology and politics and that’s all there was.
And in that sense, on that very basic level, I started to feel myself relating to the Mujahideen.
Why? Because they had marched into combat against the might of the world’s only superpower, and her British allies, with the odds stacked so massively against them. And then they had hunkered down in their trenches and waited for the enemy to come, for their chance to do battle, face to face with the ‘Infidel enemy’.
And what had happened? The coalition had – and rightly – spent weeks bombing the foreign Mujahideen from the air. Their front lines were blasted by B52 bombers using massive, daisy cutter munitions, in a blitzkrieg designed to break the enemy spirit and render them incapable of resistance.
Such tactics made perfect sense from the Western military viewpoint. But to the Brothers, to the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters who had given up all to volunteer for the Jihad, this was infidel cowardice at its most blatant and deplorable.
Rather than coming like men to fight them on the Afghan plains, the Infidel cowards were so fearful of their own death that they spent weeks bombing them from the air. The Brothers were being massacred, without a single chance to fight back. What could be more enraging? What could more fuel the hatred and the enmity?
How could the Brothers fight the Jihad for which they had volunteered, if the cursed enemy never came closer than an F16 at 10,000 feet dropping a laser guided 2,000-pound JDAM? So far, the path of the Jihad had taken the Brothers nowhere.
So, when six hundred foreign Mujahideen surrendered at Mazar-I-Sharif, many had not in reality done so. They had secreted hand grenades and pistols on their person, and gone quietly into captivity – hoping that by doing so they might finally get close enough to the infidel enemy to fight and to kill them.
When these ‘prisoners’ were taken to the ancient, mud-walled fortress at Qala-Janghi – an Arabian Knights like desert castle with a bulging weapons store – they had their first up-close sight of the enemy. American CIA operators were interrogating prisoners at the fort.
Some of those six hundred Mujahideen had doubtless genuinely surrendered. But forty-eight hours into their imprisonment the majority overpowered their guards, broke into the weapons store and seized control of the fort.
Eight British special forces soldiers – aided by a few dozen Afghan fighters and a handful of American troops – were sent in to retake the fort and rescue the CIA officers trapped therein. The scene was set for a bloody and bitter battle to the death.
When faced with the boiling cauldron of that fort, the eight British Special Boat Service (SBS) soldiers – from the sister regiment to the SAS – believed they were being sent to their deaths. This was a firefight the ferocity of which they had never witnessed before, despite being veterans of operations in Iraq and elsewhere.
Several of the SBS men told me that as battle was joined at that fort, they had believed they were dead, and I absolutely believe them.
Sometimes a book acquires a title from the very first that the author knows is perfect: this one I had entitled ‘Bloody Heroes’. But as I lived the stories of both bands of Brothers during the horrific, eight-day siege of that fort, I began to wonder just who were the real heroes.
The SBS mission to retake the fort is one of the most highly decorated British special forces operations since WWII. Those eight soldiers advanced through enemy minefields, charged down enemy machine guns, turned their opponents weapons against them when they ran out of ammo, and even disobeyed orders to continue fighting at the fort. And they did so in an effort to rescue the CIA officers trapped inside.
I spoke with Johnny Spann, the father of one of those trapped CIA agents who died in the fort. Of the actions of the SBS men he told me: “I am full of admiration for how those heroic British soldiers tried to rescue my son.”
But once again, it was US airstrikes that broke the Mujahideen and prevented them from breaking out of the fort. The Brothers that I was trying to ‘become’ in my writing were armed with AK47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades: they faced wave after wave of air attacks using laser-guided JDAMs and giant AC130 Spectre gunships.
Yet they never faltered. In response to the airstrikes, they sent wave after human wave of Brothers charging across the open ground of the fort, seeking to find and fight and kill the infidel enemy positioned on the battlements, or die in the process.
Brothers clutching grenades volunteered themselves as ‘human bombs’. They charged the enemy positions and blew themselves up beneath the fort battlements. Despite the slaughter and the carnage, despite the wall of fire put down by the SBS soldiers and the devastating air strikes, the Brothers fought on almost until the last man.
So, who were the real heroes? What sort of bravery did it take to charge out under intense enemy gunfire, knowing that enemy warplanes stalked the skies overhead, in an all-but certain journey to one’s death? Where was the greater bravery, I wondered, and amongst which band of brothers?
For eight days the battle raged on. The foreign Mujahideen fought until their ammunition was exhausted, surviving off the flesh of the horses that had been tethered in the fort grounds and caught in the crossfire. They witnessed hundreds of their brothers pounded into the dust by US air strikes and gunned down by the SBS marksmen.
When eighty-six survivors finally gave themselves up, at dawn on day eight of the fort siege, they did so after their subterranean redoubt had been filled with burning diesel and flooded by water. Exhausted, starving, burned and half-drowned, they were all out of ammunition and had nothing left with which to fight but their bare hands.
After spending weeks on end living this battle as fought by the foreign Mujahideen, I was shocked to find myself empathising with the enemy. It seemed to me that - loyalties and allegiances aside - could it not be said that they were the true heroes?
As the writing progressed I grappled with this odd, unsettling feeling. But then I began to see a new pattern emerging, a sense of where the true courage really lay.
True heroes, I believe, are not those who feel no fear, but those who feel fear in all its stomach twisting dreadfulness, but force themselves to overcome that fear. They do so in a greater cause: to defeat an enemy, to rescue a fellow soldier, to fight to defend one’s country. Even to not let down one’s mates, as many of the SBS soldiers had described it to me.
And in the months spent researching and writing, a key difference had emerged between the two bands of brothers, the SBS unit and the foreign Mujahideen. The SBS lads had talked to me quite openly about their fear: fear of dying in that fort, fear of being captured by the enemy, fear of never seeing their friends, family and loved ones again.
They had forced themselves to overcome that very real and visceral fear, in order to retake that fort and put down that uprising.
The Mujahideen Brothers that I had spoken to had never once mentioned fear. They had spoken of glory and Jihad and martyrdom and the path to Paradise – but for them, it seemed, fear had never entered into the equation. Often, their eyes had the glazed look of the fanatic about them, and that blind fanaticism was mirrored in the fascist Islam they espoused.
And there was another difference, too. One of those SBS soldiers confided in me that he still woke in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, seeing the faces of the dozens of young men he had gunned down in that fort parading through his bedroom.
These hard-bitten SBS soldiers were troubled by the wholesale slaughter, the way the enemy had come rushing towards them seeking death and oblivion. They had no sympathy for the aims or beliefs of the enemy, but they could identify with young men senselessly gunned down in their prime.
Three years after the fort siege one of those SBS soldiers was so troubled by the slaughter that he actually cried over the dead, or at least he did so after a night out on the booze.
But none of the young Mujahideen I spoke to felt one iota of shared humanity with the British and American enemy they had sought to kill in Afghanistan. They remained brainwashed by fascist Islam, and no humanity or heroism accrues to those who are.
I had journeyed into the Brother’s dark and twisted ideology, and been momentarily taken in by them. But as I sat down to lunch with my wife and children, I felt a dark shadow lifted off of me. I knew that I had journeyed through to the light on the other side.