by Captain Kevin Ivison
240 pages, Orion Books
Review by Pat Black
We sometimes forget there’s a war on. Even when reports come in every day about soldiers being killed, it’s all rather remote. The armed forces might as well be stationed on Mars as Afghanistan.
Unless we have loved ones out there, well... we’ve gotten used to news of coalition casualties. Possibly we’re even comfortable with it. We might even start getting bored with seeing bodies repatriated at Wootton Bassett on the news every other night. Sooner or later, when Sky News snaps some news about a soldier being killed by a roadside bomb, we might start to think nothing of it.
British soldier Kevin Ivison’s memoir about his time as a bomb disposal expert in Iraq should be required reading in a time when even the most hawkish of us are wondering exactly why we are still occupying countries in the Middle East after almost a decade. It takes us directly into the “Hurt Locker” scenario of a man who, quite simply, cannot make a mistake in his job. If he does, it means he will most likely be vaporised, along with a few of his colleagues.
After a knockaround start taking us through Ivison’s calling to the armed forces and his officer training at Sandhurst, we are put right into the thick of things at Al Amarah in Iraq, the scene of some of the bloodiest moments of the conflict for British troops. On February 28 2006, Ivison was called upon to deactivate a bomb which has already claimed the lives of two British soldiers in the city – one of them his close friend, Rich Holmes.
Ivison had to walk into a hostile environment, surrounded by a crowd of Iraqi people not taking too kindly to his presence, with the body of his mate and another soldier in situ, all the while looking for a “secondary” explosive device. For all he knew, this bomb could be triggered by remote control at any moment. Adding to the fun and laughter, snipers positioned in the surrounding flats took potshots at him – ATOs (Ammunition Technical Officers) being highly prized scalps for insurgents.
Ivison was awarded the George Medal for his actions that day. But while he may have emerged from the incident practically unscathed, he bore mental scars that would eventually lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Red One’s strength lies in its depiction of the stark fear of death which these boys and girls endure on a daily basis. Although the soldiers are well-trained - and some of them are the most ferocious warriors - no-one is exempt from this fear, rookie and veteran alike.
Ivison describes each whistling rocket attack on the British compound as a withdrawal on the nerves. There are some who get overdrawn. Ivison was one of them. His candour in describing his own fear must be applauded – in the movies, you rarely see a soldier weeping with pure terror. This is what happens to Ivison when he takes “the long walk” into Red One – the bomb site.
Ivison is up-front in his opinions about the Iraqi police (he has little doubt that they are corrupt and complicit in enemy actions), but, curiously, he neglects to sound off about what Britain and the United States were doing in these countries in the first place. Most soldiers you meet are the same – they are not there to raise moral questions about the occupation of other countries, but to do a job well and to show loyalty and bravery. Ivison does, however, give us a glimpse of the paucity of equipment and funding which British troops had to endure in the Iraqi occupation. In the second half of the book, where Ivison describes the unnerving effects of PTSD – hallucinations, mood swings, insomnia, withdrawal from human contact – he is no less scathing of the lack of care for soldiers suffering from this condition, or of some doctors’ almost dismissive attitude when he first approached them with his symptoms.
Ivison says that bravery is not a question of feeling fear, but of recognising it and acting in spite of it. He outlines the one – the only - choice at several key stages in the book: fight, or flight. And at every turn in the road, whether in Iraq or back home, he fights.
There is no doubt that you are reading the words of a man who showed not only extreme bravery in the field, but also great courage in speaking out about a condition that has been misunderstood since the days when shell-shocked men were put against a wall during the First World War. In these circumstances, the question is not: “How could someone become so traumatised?” but: “How could any rational person not crack up?”
The next time I feel like having a bitch about what my work colleagues were up to this week, or bemoan the ill circumstances that led to me making a mistake in my job, I’ll do my best to remember that there are people like Captain Ivison out there. Perhaps right at this moment. Sweating pints in an armoured suit that sounds like an ideas pitch the team on Dragons Den would piss themselves laughing at. And one that will offer no protection whatsoever should they make a mistake with the device they’re attacking with a set of pliers and a craft knife. Turning them into red mist before they are even aware of the explosion.