"Sniping's a bit like Marmite... you either love it or you hate it," said Adam in Fighting Passions. It's one of those phrases that you somehow know is going to lodge in the memory.
Most of us never get to find out which side of this particular taste dichotomy we fall on, hands-on experience of sniping being a bit less accessible than a pot of Marmite. But as an ex-soldier, Adam had. He loved sniping, he confessed, and though he implied that this was a fact he kept to himself in the pub, he was prepared to talk about it here, in a film scheduled as part of the BBC's Violence season. Strictly speaking, I guess, Adam was a serial killer, having by his own account taken 26 lives. But because the government had paid him to do the job, and his victims had been shooting back at him, he could contribute to this account of what it actually feels like to kill without the fear of subsequent arrest.
The official PR line is that killing really isn't part of the job description. The army is about "peace-keeping", recruiters will insist, and media-savvy top brass also understand that it's politic to claim that the professional soldier hates violence far more than the average civilian. But in the ranks and on the ground it is more complicated: "If you're a fireman you want to fight fires," said Doug Beattie, another contributor. "If you're a soldier you want to fight wars and kill people."
Beattie, I should point out, just in case you jump to any conclusions about his character, was one of the most thoughtful contributors here – and the only one prepared to admit that he'd been left with moral doubts about what he'd done. And yet he was absolutely clear that his first hot encounter with an enemy – after 23 relatively uneventful years in the armed forces – was a high point in his life. "[It was like] I had just climbed Mount Everest," he said, recalling the moment when he saw one of his bullets take off the side of a Taliban gunman's head. Justin Featherstone, who'd served in Iraq, was unequivocal too as he described watching the insurgent he'd shot slide dead from a roof. "That is one of the greatest moments of my life... when I knew I was up to the job I'd signed up to do".
There were refutations of psychological aftermath here that sounded like denial – a suppression of psychological effect rather than its absence. When Robert Lawrence (whose Falklands experience was retold in the television film Tumbledown) said, "I have no problem killing people at all", he spoke with a vehemence that didn't entirely square with a more troubled account of bayoneting a dying Argentinian in the face, even as the man pleaded for his life.
But along with confirmation that many men find combat utterly exhilarating, the programme also revealed that a surprisingly high number of us can be trained to think of killing as a professional task, and then get job satisfaction from doing it efficiently. This is an unsettling finding – but it's probably better to know, I think.
Curiously, Fighting Passions threw some retrospective light on Warriors, the terrific Peter Kosminsky drama about Bosnian peacekeepers who found themselves powerless to intervene as civilians were massacred. If they'd only been permitted to shoot someone at the time, you found yourself thinking, they'd probably have come back in a better frame of mind. Kosminksy was the subject of The South Bank Show this week, and his recollections of the "golden era of Yorkshire and Granada", a time when ITV companies could fairly claim to lead the way in certain branches of serious programme-making, had a rather ironic edge given the terminal prognosis of the programme in which he was appearing. It included a rather startling moment when Kosminsky, recalling the intensity of his own youthful politics, acknowledged that the fictional suicide bomber in his drama Britz had taken "a route that I chickened out of taking".
Happily, he decided to pursue subversion by means of drama rather than by high explosives – though his dramas do generally result in a loud bang. This film ended with a curious abruptness, just as you expected it to look ahead to Kosminsky's forthcoming project, about Palestine. Either Kosminsky's playing his cards close to his chest or they wanted to make sure he made it into the final series.Reuse content