Saturday 3 July 2010
Dylan Jones: 'At Camp Bastion, politeness prevails. When lives are at stake, where’s the sense in petty squabbles?'
There is an orthodoxy and a sense of order about Camp Bastion that you don't expect. Not on a military base in the middle of a war zone, not in this part of Helmand anyway. Efficiency is implicit, and among the rush and the push there is a feeling of genuine calm. Here in Helmand, rigour is de rigueur, and you immediately feel that everyone around you knows exactly what they're meant to be doing at every minute of the day. No one "bimbles about", no one dawdles, everyone appears to be a self-contained self-starter.
Politeness prevails, too. When lives are at stake, where's the sense in petty squabbles? For the visitor the atmosphere is strangely seductive, as you begin to think this is what society actually ought to be like, a community of dedicated, courteous people who are too busy worrying about the macro to busy themselves with the micro (note: there is no litter in Bastion, as litter suggests carelessness and disrespect).
But as in any civilisation there is a longing to rebel, if only sartorially, and only as a distraction from the important things in life (namely survival). Many of soldiers here enjoy looking "alley", which describes the way they alter and customise their uniforms and accessorise their kit. They try to push it as far as they can, and this might mean trimming their khaki hats, tailoring their combat pants, ever so carefully rolling up their shirtsleeves or sewing strips of colour into the lapels of their jackets. They even experiment with facial hair. And while they don't make light of having occasionally been denied the protective clothing they've needed, many young soldiers – and let's face it, most of them are heart-breakingly young – take an obsessive interest in making sure that they have the latest uniforms, with the most up-to-date desert camouflage pattern. Civility may be paramount, but peer pressure is still very much in evidence (if you have the wrong pair of suede walking boots you'll be ripped mercilessly).
"That's the 'badger'," said a young Squadron Leader, using the word like the Irish use "Yoke" (anything you like), and referring to his mate's new kit.
As a diversionary tactic, looking alley is as good as any I suppose.
Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'
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