James Fergusson: There's our Tom, in his tank, on TV

The Home Front: The heart-stopping courage would not be out of place in Kipling

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My wife Melissa's 25-year-old cousin Tom was on telly last week. He phoned home to tell his family not to miss it. It seems like he only joined the Blues and Royals about five minutes ago, yet there he was, on his Scimitar tank, directing machine-gun and cannon fire into the tree-line. Another attempt to resupply the base at Sangin in northern Helmand, this time by helicopter, had been ambushed. An ITN crew had filmed our boys, caught in a hailstorm of dust and bullets, as they crouched and returned fire. "That is so cool!" exclaimed Tom's sister, Lucy, before realising it was her kid brother and bursting into tears.

In living rooms around the country, Tom's extended family mostly looked on aghast.

The exception was Mary, Tom's splendid 93-year-old grandmother, who responded with puzzling insouciance. Granted, she couldn't actually see the pictures, being that she is almost blind, but that didn't quite explain her reaction. The soundtrack alone was hair-raising, and there is nothing wrong with her hearing. Nevertheless, it was her view that the action in Afghanistan wasn't necessarily a bad thing, on the grounds that it would undoubtedly "make a man of Tom".

"Darling," she said when Melissa protested, "you know, I really have seen all this before."

Our different attitudes to war are a function of history. Mary's was forged in the 1940s. When she was Tom's age, she drove a support van servicing anti-aircraft batteries. Her husband Douglas was in submarines and survived a terrible sinking. Like many of her generation, she lived each day with the possibility of violent bereavement. Not so for Melissa and me. I am nearly 40, but there has been no British military action as intense as this in my lifetime. The army says it is the worst it has known since Korea, half a century ago.

As a schoolboy in the 1970s, I thought war was wonderful. The Second World War had been over for more than 25 years, but it still felt natural to play "Tommies and Jerries" with my friends. We re-enacted El Alamein with die-cast Panzers and obsessed over the swastikas on our Airfix Messerschmitts.

With hindsight, our play-acting looks like a golden age of innocence. We were forced to draw on history to fire our bloodthirsty imaginations. By contrast, when Tom was at Airfix-modelling age, Gulf I was getting under way. Why re-enact El Alamein in a sandpit when the real thing was on the nightly news? And now, 12 years on, he is starring in his own televised battle adventure.

I cannot say what motivated him to join the army. Yet the tone of the emails he sends is strangely familiar. The simple, soldierly enthusiasm that he displays - not to mention a heart-stopping courage - would not be out of place in a Kipling story. Reading his cheery accounts of playing cricket with the locals (and volleyball with the nurses), one is left with a powerful sense of history repeating itself, of a uniquely British military tradition and spirit unbroken since we first tangled with Afghanistan. In one email, Tom even wonders about playing polo.

But this isn't 1839. For Tom's family, the most obvious difference between now and the First Afghan War is the way that he is able to tell us about his experiences via email and phone-calls home. Even Grandma Mary concedes that the torrent of information from the Front is difficult to cope with. "A friend's husband was killed at Dunkirk, but it was six months before she found out," she told me. "But in a funny way the lack of news made it easier to bear when it finally came." Put another way, no news was good news.

The occasional phone and email silences are just as difficult for Tom's family as the calls that do come through; and watching the TV news is often a nail-biting experience. What differentiates this engagement from previous ones is that, for the first time, the squaddies are beginning to set the news agenda. Their commanders have so far failed spectacularly to prevent them from doing so. The case of the paratrooper who smuggled back pictures of a fire-fight on his mobile phone (he was reportedly peeved at the lack of awareness of his regiment's bravery) is just the thin end of the wedge. The internet is awash with multi-forwarded emails from troops on the ground. From a strategic view point, some of them are breathtakingly indiscreet. Soldiers now pop up all over the place, criticising the RAF or denouncing the MoD for deficiencies of equipment and manpower. Some of this backchat was not intended for publication; but what do the generals make of arrse.co.uk, an unofficial message-board that has anonymous outpourings of heartfelt, potentially treasonous insubordination?

For our political leaders, these are uncharted waters. The combined effect of so much indiscretion was certainly felt in Manchester this week, where a debate on Afghanistan, or the official agenda's marked lack of one, electrified Labour party delegates. Distracted by Iraq, the public has mostly been asleep to what is going on in Helmand. But as the body-count climbs and our TV and PCscreens show unauthorised battle footage, the savagery is becoming harder to ignore. The internet generation is fast becoming reacquainted with the reality of close combat.

The worry is that this will be accompanied by a process of subtle rebrutalisation: a return to the attitude of our grandparents, for whom death in a military campaign was not just acceptable, but a normal part of what it meant to be British.

There was a message on the infantry section of arrse.co.uk from someone calling himself "Thuggerz", who was thinking about joining up. "This might sound weird, but I'm not sure if I can handle bullets flying at my head," he wrote. "How do I know if I can handle this responsibility?"

"That is why you have the 24 weeks CIC," came the reply. "You're not going to be given a gun and told to shoot the flip-flops on your first day."

"Shoot the flip-flops": that is the process of brutalisation. Little by little, our society is being remilitarised. This is, perhaps, the most insidious legacy of a decade of bellicose British foreign policy, the thing that causes Workers' Union types at Manchester the greatest unease of all.

Will historians remember the relative peace of my lifetime as a happy blip in British history? For the sake of Tom and his family, I sincerely hope not.

James Fergusson is the author of 'Kandahar Cockney'

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