‘‘Why not me?’’

A recent veteran of the Afghan conflict describes the pain of watching comrades fall and insists tha

When life is reduced to the barest necessities in the cloying dust of the Helmand summer – eat, sleep, fight, survive – certain, otherwise everyday things take on a special significance. Imagine our disappointment when we realised that the Taliban were ranging their mortars in on the makeshift lavatories in the corner of the compound. When a man can’t even relax during his ablutions, nothing is sacred. Much has changed since I came home at the end of 2007 and some progress has been made, but few can have escaped the knowledge that British, Afghan and now American forces are sustaining ever heavier casualties.

I was perhaps fortunate that when I was in Afghanistan the Taliban retained suicidal aspirations of simply defeating Isaf troops in open fighting. With fewer men and resources (although proportionately not that much less than spinning politicians would have us believe), we launched nothing on the scale of Operation Panchal Palang (Panther’s Claw, the current push in central Helmand). But over seven months we engaged in a series of smaller, concurrent set-piece operations against the Taliban, and sustained casualties in every one. On one gruelling, 72-hour slog north early in the tour, we lost 12 men over 100km through injury and one was killed – less than 10km per man. In another op some months later (which, even in the context of the current campaign in the region, was grossly under-resourced), my unit lost a third of its fighting power in less than a week, two young men killed and another elsewhere in the province in simultaneous operations.
It is not easy for those back home to gauge the effect such casualty rates have on the troops still fighting. The domestic news media tend to concentrate on fatalities, which come in sudden bursts during the early kinetic phases of deliberate operations or in single mass-casualty incidents, as claimed the lives of five men of 2 Rifles in Sangin. What often goes unreported is the further casualties, the scores who, in the same time frame and in similar incidents, have lost limbs and eyes and who are also removed from the battle, and the slow but sure effect on those who remain behind – the last glimpse of their comrades being the sight of the medical evacuation Chinook carrying them away, and then getting back to the task at hand, only that bit more difficult than it was before.

My experience was that soldiers cope remarkably well in the midst of an operation. Units are galvanised by loss, bonded even more closely by the shared experience and more determined to fulfil the mission. The emptiness, the draining combination of fatigue, hunger and adrenalin comedown that gnaws at the tail end of every infantryman’s slog can be magically held at bay that bit longer by the motivating memory of the guy who just got injured, or worse – but only for so long. It is in the quieter, more reflective moments that grief and anger and loss intrude. Back at camp, exhausted after one such operation and having thought nothing would be more welcome than my cot bed, I couldn’t sleep a wink between the two empty bed spaces that had belonged to my fellow platoon commanders, both by then tucked up in hospital corners in Selly Oak recovering from their injuries.

Perhaps the hardest moments on tour are the repatriation ceremonies, life in the otherwise safe and comfortable Camp Bastion coming to a respectful stop as the flag-draped coffins are solemnly loaded on to the Hercules to begin their long journey home. Standing to attention by the runway, ranks of soldiers – some of whom have known the dead in private grief, others who have never met them sharing in the corporate loss – will stand immaculately to attention and squint into the sunset as the pilots perform a final, mournful fly-past.

Grief is a particularly private emotion and there are few private spaces in a hastily prepared defensive compound. I noticed that the younger soldiers, often the more fearless in battle, found it hardest. The average age of my team was maybe 22. Some had never known death and retreated confused into iPods and long silence. In such moments, the smallest of brotherly gestures, the shared last packet of sweets, the unexpected brew, made all the difference.

Up in Sangin, our tour drawing tantalisingly to a close, we spent the most difficult months of all not on an operation, but almost under siege, losing both British and Afghan National Army comrades in the frustrating, oppressive, morale-sapping drip, drip of the defensive battle. A fellow captain, a few years older than myself, with whom I’d been sharing cigarettes hours earlier, in fractionally the wrong place
on the roof during a later attack. The youngest guy in the team, barely 19, and only a few steps behind me and the interpreter as we charged forward and were all sent sprawling by an incoming rocket. The anger and frustration mount, but so, with each loss, does the haunting thought: “Why not me?”

And then, hardest of all, back home. Trying to joke with friends over new prosthetic limbs, raising pints in pubs to guys you promised you’d be sharing them with. We harden ourselves for what may come on tour; soldiers know and accept the grim bottom line unique to their profession. But no matter how rough and tough most of us no doubt think we are, there can be few who have fought and lost who don’t, as I invariably do, fight back a tear every time we hear the “Last Post” played.

Patrick Hennessey is the author of “The Junior Officers’ Reading Club” (Allen Lane, £16.99). Between 2004 and 2009, he served as a platoon commander and then company operations officer in the Grenadier Guards, making tours to Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2007

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood