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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #28

In his superlative autobiography, Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves described his experiences on the front line in World War One but in particular he emphasised the distinction between military and civilian life, and the total lack of comprehension of people back home of the experiences that their soldiers were going through in fighting on the front. Living on the front line of a war zone is a unique experience, that very few people have more than once. It involves a daily intensity of extraordinary events and occurrences that make the mark upon a person for life. You get used to life, death, destruction, despair, rejoicing, relief, stress, depression, and a range of unusual emotions that are not reflected in the ordinary rollercoaster of life.

The things you experience are nothing short of extraordinary, and these extraordinary occurrences take place several times a day. Your life is placed in danger or in jeopardy, several times a day. You make new friends, or new enemies, several times a day. In one moment the relationships within your team are harmonious and everyone is working towards a common cause. In the next moment those relations are fractured because people are scared or nervous or anxious and they become self-interested. Your emotions shake violently about amidst this relentless maelstrom of events.

Graves noticed that people who have not experienced life in military theatre never really understand this. Given accounts of the intensity of life amidst the daily grind of hot war, they listen in astonishment but they stare in blank miscomprehension. When, each day, your life and welfare are potentially in jeopardy; when you must strictly prioritise events: your own physical and mental welfare first; then the welfare of your colleagues; then your mission goals; when you must plan every day down to the most minute of details, in order to minimise risk and to maximise the prospects of your mission being successful, the everyday routine of civilian existence becomes quite forgotten to you.

Moreover people who are not living in an environment in which every second counts - and I hammer out these words with the greatest of speed, knowing that in just a few minutes I have another obligation - cannot understand what it is like to live in such intensity. The daily humdrum of bureaucracy, niceties and etiquette go out of the window as everyone focuses upon the immediate necessities of physical security, mission goals and sustaining mental health. And as Graves found, notwithstanding the intensity of all your experiences when you go home nobody will understand what you have been doing or express more than the most abstract of gratitude. They simply cannot understand what it is like.

When you are working in a war zone, all other life stops as you focus upon the immediacy of your situation. Last night was a quiet night in terms of air raid sirens, and I slept soundly. Nevertheless within minutes of waking up this morning there was a howling array of sirens and alarms as we were warned of the risk of more Iranian-made drones. We had another appointment in Kherson, and we had to bundle off in our convoy earlier than usual along a series of dusty roads with the usual sun-drenched sunflowers. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there came towards us a colossus of a machine: a large military vehicle carrying a fully armed barrage of surface-to-air missiles, driving towards us down this country lane at full speed. And it wasn’t going to slow down or move out of the way. There was clearly an emergency; there was some sort of aerial attack upon Kherson; and this surface-to-air missile carrier was hurtling towards the front line to repel the attacking forces. The service vehicle in the convoy, in which I was travelling on this occasion, had to swerve into a farmer’s garden to shift out of the way of this mighty machine. These experiences are not of the kind that anyone can possibly imagine who has not been through them.

There have been tensions and stresses in our team. We are somewhat short-staffed, although we have had a new influx of workers but they still need to be trained. I am sorely in need of a short break; I have not had a single day off this gruelling regimen since I arrived in Ukraine. Nevertheless the new team members need to be trained. The manager of the team would prefer me to stay. I understand his position. I have said I am going anyway, tomorrow, for a 24-hour visit to Odessa. There is a beach there. You cannot swim in the waters; they are mined; the grain silos are routinely attacked by Russian rockets and armed drones, to prevent Ukraine from exporting wheat to support her economy; nevertheless Odessa is safer and more peaceful than most places in Ukraine. I have chosen a day when I anticipate our being less busy than usual, and where the site for delivery of aid is less dangerous than most, to take that day off. The weekend promises to be exceedingly busy and I should return to the team to work the entirety of the weekend without substantial breaks. That is the compromise I manufactured for myself out of the competing imperatives of mission success and preserving my own mental and physical wellbeing.

As we drove back from our rural mission site today, we could hear the relentless barrage of anti-aircraft fire from the Ukrainian Armed Forces, as well as a series of explosions that appeared to be mortars landing in free Ukrainian territory from the Russian side of the River Dnieper. We proceeded with determination down the impossibly pot-holed rural Ukrainian roads that do such compound damage to our vehicles, all of which are in desperate need of maintenance that is not easily available (all vehicle mechanics are currently retained by the army), keen to get home before the exchange of munitions became any worse. You learn to move quickly when the shells start raining down, because it is only the law of averages that is keeping you alive.

And then, just as we were returning to base, we felt a low shadow overhead, and we had a military experience about which I must keep silent.


Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.


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