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Thin Red Line of Heroes

Unsung and underappreciated, the British Army deserves a country more worthy of its valor.

12:00 AM, Jun 6, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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At various points the Shiite militias attempted to storm the compound, but always were driven back. Attempts to bring in supplies were occasions for desperate fighting. By the end of August, the Mahdi Army felt it had a real chance to overrun the British and take control of the entire city of Al Amarah, but this final, all-out attack was driven off by a combination of ferocious small arms fire and a timely assist from an AC-130 Spectre gunship. The attack broke the back of the insurgency in Amarah. The British were never driven out, remaining the legitimate authority in the city, allowing the brokering of a cease fire and the gradual pacification of the entire province.

To give an idea of the intensity of the fighting, during the 23-day seige, Cimic House was hit by 595 mortar rounds during 230 indvidual attacks; 57 RPG attacks, and 5 barrages by 107mm rockets. In addition, the company engaged in 25 separate firefights during sorties into the city (to collect intelligence and keep the enemy off guard) and repelled 86 different ground assaults on the compound itself. The defenders fired more than 33,000 rounds of rifle and machine gun ammunitions, in addition to shooting back with their own 51mm mortars. During this time, Mills and his sniper platoon were the key to the defense, accounting for some 40 percent of all the insurgents killed. It was a truly remarkable feat of arms, for which SGT Dan Mills was "Mentioned in Dispatches"; he deserved much more.

Yet few people know any of this. On the fronticepiece of the book, Mills quotes the battalion CO, LTC Matthew Maer, just before it returned to Britain:

When you go home tomorrow, don't expect anyone to know what you have been through. Even if they did know, most people wouldn't care anyway. Some of you may get the medals you deserve, many more of you will not. But remember this: All of you are now members of the front-line club, and that is the most exclusive club in the world.

The second book is Apache by Ed Macy. A 22-year veteran of the British Army Air Corps (AAC), Warrant Officer Macy was one of the first pilots trained to fly the AAC's latest and best attack helicopter, the Boeing/Agusta Westland WAH-64D Longbow Apache. Based on the U.S. Army's Apache Longbow, the British version is even more advanced, to the point that, for once, American pilots are envious. The downside is that its hellaciously expensive, so that the Brits can only afford to send them over to Afghanistan one squadron (12 helos) at a time.

Designed to fight hordes of Soviet tanks on the North German Plain, the Apache was something of an orphan in the war on terror, until British ground troops discovered that it could provide them with really, really close air support, with a variety of weapons from Hellfire missiles to 70mm unguided rockets to a 30mm Chain Gun cannon, all directed by some of the most powerful sensors and fire control systems ever put in the sky. Much of the weaponry is directed by a helmet-mounted sight, so that all the pilot or the weapon operator (Macy is one of the few aviators certified to fly in both seats of the Apache) can aim the weapons just by looking at the target and pulling the trigger. The WAH-64D also has fully digital communications, allowing aircraft to share sensor information from multiple sources, and to send text messages to each other. Ground-pounders came to look on the Apaches as their "Big Brothers" in the sky.

Macy and his compatriots operate out of an austere base carved out of the Afghan desert, and put up with the same combination of dust, heat, and boredom faced by Dan Mills--complicated by efforts to maintain one of the most complex aircraft in the world in an environment that is even more hostile to machinery than to human beings.

In the course of this, his second and final tour in Afghanistan (Macy was scheduled to retire, but was coaxed into going back just one more time, because there was such a shortage of trained Apache drivers--much to his wife's distress), he and his fellow aviators--including two women (as politically incorrect as any of the men)--do everything from scouting for Taliban to taking out terrorists setting up rocket launchrs in the dead of night from three kilometers away. Using the Apache's 240x Targeting and Designation System (TADS), Macy observes that the Apache pilot, like a sniper, is one of the few soldiers who gets to see his enemies up close and personal: "When he opens his mouth, you can count his fillings." This personal aspect of the war comes to haunt him, particularly after he uses his Apache's thermal imaging system to find a missing British SAS soldier: through the TADS, he can tell that the body has been stripped and mutilated by the Taliban. This sets the background for a later mission that is the climax of the book.

During a carefully planned campaign to break up Taliban command structures and drive them into a kill pocket in an uninhabited part of the country, a Royal Marine company attacks a walled Taliban stronghold known as Jugroom Fort. The attack goes badly awry, and the company is forced to retreat, but then realizes that one of its Marines is missing. Macy and his Apache flight (four helos) go searching for the missing man with their TADS. When the find him, they realize with horror that his body is glowing white hot against the cold ground--the man is still alive. The search mission becomes a rescue mission. Macy's unit prepares to give cover to the Marines when the company goes back to recover its man. But the company is in total disarray (its commander was later relieved for incompetence), and Macy is running out of fuel.

Unable to contact his base, he decides to rescue the man using the Apaches and a technique normally used to rescue aircrew from shot-down Apaches: he calls for volunteers and straps four Marines to the outside of his helicopter. Supported by the other two helicopters, Macy and his wingman will fly into Jugroom Fort--now held by a a large and very angry garrison armed with machine guns and RPGs--land next to the misssing Marine, strap him to the Apache, too, and then fly out. It sounds so simple!

Somehow or other, they actually do it--in the process, firing off more rockets, Hellfires and cannon rounds more quickly than on any mission in AAC history. Not a single man is injured, not one Apache is hit. The mission is a rousing success--except that the missing Marine is dead, hit in the head by a ricochet from somewhere after being wounded by friendly fire.

Returning to base, Macy and his companions are reamed out by the commander of the colonel commanding all AAC units in Afghanistan for a foolhardy stunt that could have cost the Army several $30 million helicopters--and all to recover a dead body! But the colonel soon realizes they did not know he was dead, that they were unable to contact him due to poor communications, and that they had no idea a rescue mission was being organized (even though it would have been much too late). From being on the verge of court martial, Macy and his friends find themselves being decorated--Macy with the Military Cross, others with the Distinguished Flying Cross. They deserved much more.

Macy receives his medal from the Queen herself, just prior to his retirement, in an episode Macy describes with pride and simple patriotism. Before that, he met with Prince Phillip, the Honorary Colonel of the AAC. Upon being introduced and telling the whole story, the prince could only grunt and mutter, "Are you all insane?" If they are, it's a glorious insanity, the kind that nations need when under attack.

Today, the British military is being subjected to draconian budget cuts, which will undoubtedly undermine its ability to execute the missions to which its government commits it. But the men and the tradition do not change, and the enemies of Britain are certain to agree with Napoleon, who once said, "The British infantry is the best in Europe. It is good there is so little of it."

When one looks at how the United Kingdom intends to pay for its fiscal mismanagement on the backs of the military, when one reads of fat, slovenly, self-satisfied British burgers and housewives complaining about the presence of injured British soldiers at public swimming pools, when you see wastral British youths denigrating returning veterans, one realizes that Britain is not worthy of the men she sends into battle. But it is just as Kipling wrote in his immortal Tommy Atkins:

We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,

But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;

An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,

Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;

While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind",

But it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind,

There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,

O it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind.

Stuart Koehl is a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.