In 2011, a BBC Three film crew followed a group of four young men through their basic infantry training in the British Army, then beyond, and produced a five-episode TV documentary series, Young Soldiers.
Towards the end of his basic training, the most outstanding recruit, Darren Meads, aged 22, from Doncaster in Yorkshire, is given a choice. He is told he can join one of the five battalions of The Rifles Regiment: 1 Rifles, 2 Rifles, 3 Rifles, 4 Rifles or 5 Rifles.
He chooses, sensibly, either 4 or 3 Rifles, in that order, each based in the UK and neither then slated for deployment to Afghanistan. But, it turns out, he never really had a choice, because he is told later that he is going to join 1 Rifles, the next battalion to deploy to Afghanistan, whether he likes it or not.
To his great credit, Darren allowed himself to be filmed meditating on this news, while clearly troubled by it at the time, and then phoning his mother.
To his great credit, the officer, a lieutenant, who delivered the news allowed himself to be filmed while doing so, during which he says ‘Where you’re going you will go, and that’s the end of the story.’
And, to its great credit, the British Army allowed all of this to be filmed and then broadcast without complaint and without anyone trying to slap a DA-Notice (a quasi-censorship order) on it on the grounds that it breached national security because it revealed the locations of British Army units, which, I suspect, is what would have happened ten years ago.
Whatever its current problems, the BBC has a long tradition, beginning with The Paras (1983), of making excellent TV documentaries about British soldiers in training. But this one is different because it follows two of these soldiers into combat.
I would urge any SOS reader who can, and perhaps especially those who live in the United States, to watch this documentary, just as I would urge them to watch the HBO documentary The Battle for Marjah.
But for those who cannot here are two memorable quotes from Episode Four of Young Soldiers:
The first is from Rifleman Darren Meads’ company commander, a British Army major nicknamed ‘Chuckles’, during their six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan:
‘People say “Oh, it’s the PlayStation generation.” But you look around here and you tell me where “the PlayStation generation” is? These guys are as hard as their forefathers and just as capable, if not more capable.’
Then there is Darren himself, nearing the end of his tour in Afghanistan:
‘You have your days and you have your moments where you’re up and down like. “Oh yeah, I love the army and I’m enjoying it out here” and all that. And you just make plans like for when you’re just getting home … but then there’s other times when I think “What the fuck am I doing here?” To be quite honest with you, at the minute I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the country. I’m just doing my job and what I’m told, and then I’ll just go home. That’s it.’