Chemical Warfare- Andy McNab talks about the battle inside the mind of a soldier

November 13, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Andy McNab talks to OntheBox’s McGee Noble about the time bomb of mental illness for soldiers and what inspired him to make Tour of Duty.

Andy McNab, better known as the mysterious silhouette behind the book cover of Bravo Two Zero, is a lot chirpier than you would imagine. Talking on the phone I comment that he must have been busy since I heard him only a few hours ago on Absolute FM giving an interview. “Haven’t even had a cuppa tea yet!? he laughs in response.

I ask him if he would mind answering a few questions of my dad’s, as he’s a massive fan, and he roars with laughter. “Ok then,? he tells me.

Yet for all his cheeriness, this is a man who has been deep into combat, had a bounty on his head and who has been trained in counter terrorism, demolitions and prime target elimination. In other words, he is a highly trained killer. He has also, in the name of his country,been captured and brutally tortured.

For those unfamiliar with the story, McNab joined the infantry in 1976 and by 1984 was a member of the SAS. During the first Gulf War he and seven others were sent on a mission to destroy underground communication links in Iraq. It had disastrous consequences: three men were killed, one escaped and four were taken prisoner. McNab was one of those four.

For six weeks he was tortured and when he was finally released he suffered kidney and liver damage, nerve damage to both hands and a dislocated shoulder. When he left the SAS in 1993 he was the army’s most decorated soldier.

So today, chatting to McNab on the phone I kind of expected someone who sounded more…grizzled. Mean. Angry.

In actual fact he is direct, funny and passionate and we quickly get to talking about his recent comment that Britain is sitting on a time bomb of mental illness in its soldiers. McNab has vocally spoken out against the lack of care for veterans who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. He tells me that studies show that it manifests usually ten to thirteen years after a soldier has served, usually when they are back to non military life, and affects a staggering 15% of soldiers who have seen active service. “What’s going to happen now is because we’ve got two conflict and lots of infantry battalions now going through both Iraq and Afghanistan- we are going to get again this population of about 15% of the military population suffering in civilian life.?

McNab has had direct contact with the impact that post traumatic stress can have.  Two of his good friends have committed suicide. I ask him how he managed to avoid it himself. “I think that its not an emotional situation where people get this? he replies, intriguingly. He goes on to explain.  “It’s a chemical reaction. In effect there’s a fuse where you can pass this information through the brain as we do in every day events and what happens is that some people… the fuse is fused if you like. These experiences can’t naturally pass through their heads and that’s why they have nightmares and reoccurences of reliving it- flashbacks, sleepless nights, all that sort of stuff. So it’s a chemical reaction.?

He tells me that there was a survey done with a parachute regiment 8 years after the Falkland’s war with serving soldiers.  “55% of these guys- who are still in the army and have got guns- are suffering post traumatic stress disorder and they didn’t even know it. They just thought ‘well i’m always angry’ or ‘I’m always like getting drunk or I’m always starting fights…’. Still, I say, aren’t these reactions just an inevitable consequence of war?

“Yes, totally. Even the Romans were very aware of post traumatic stress and thought well what we’ve got to do is now get these people together to retire so they live in their own communities and talk about it and sort themselves out and this was a thousand or so years ago. It’s the human condition.?

This, in a way is what Tour of Duty, McNab’s DVD that is released this week, does for soldiers. “Look at some of these lads and the way that they conduct themselves after these events and talk about these events. Once you get them talking about what’s going on with their own peer group you can’t stop them.? Isolation is one of the greatest problems for soldiers and McNab talks about the difficulty for many in relating to civilians when they return. That is part of what is important about Tour of Duty for him- it is a chance to get the ‘lads’, as he calls them, together to talk about their experience and in doing that give us back home an insight.

“These lads don’t need anyone to tell their story because they film it themselves and their extremely articulate about it. Rather than me talking about it we’ll let them do it because they were there, they can explain it better.?

“When you get them together and they start to think about what went on and talk about it its quite humbling because they’re 19, 20, 21 year old guys doing outrageous things, totally outrageous things. Its good that these DVD’s are allowed to be made so that back home we can look at them. Basically they are the next door neighbours kids, they are just like me and you.?

This ultimately is the message of McNab: that the voices of these young men serving in the armed forces must be heard. Although he quickly refutes the idea that he has become a default spokesman for soldiers, McNab brings to his audience an important point. That even while we acknowledge the physical tolls of the war, it is only a matter of time before the consequences of a chemical war, one fought in the minds of soldiers will make themselves known. When this war begins, will we be prepared?

Tour of Duty is now available on DVD.

By McGee Noble