The thrill of killing in combat

Fighting Passions gets behind the clichés of warfare to uncover shockingly honest accounts from the frontline, explains Denys Blakeway

Tuesday 04 March 2014 05:15

BBC2 wanted a film about how it feels to kill. With our troops still engaged in Afghanistan, this was a chance to explore the previously taboo subject of what men do in the most extreme situations in battle.

War can be elating and killing can be the source of overwhelming pride, even ecstasy. This is not just the experience of a psychotic minority but of many normal infantry soldiers.

In 1999, Professor Joanna Bourke, a contributor to our film, published An Intimate History of Killing. She quoted letters and diaries that spoke candidly of how, amidst the horrors of war, for the soldiers, killing was sometimes pleasurable. We knew we had to find men who would open up to us on camera about these complex emotions.

Questions about killing are notoriously the ones soldiers most hate civvies asking, and the production team, headed by the director Deborah Lee and the producer Adam Jessel, did not have so much as a pair of combat trousers between them. The old cliché of war being 99 per cent boredom and one per cent exhilaration means that most soldiers never even get a chance to fire at the enemy. And if they do, the fog of war often ensures they do not know if they have killed or not. We agonised over whether to approach the Ministry of Defence, the gatekeepers to any filming with the Army. Would the access to serving soldiers and military training make up for the potential editorial complications? Yes, we decided. Blakeway Productions has a record for making serious documentaries and a persuasive pitch helped obtain the blessing of the powers-that-be.

In fairness to the Army, ours was an unfamiliar hybrid. Many of the programmes they cooperate with, such as Ross Kemp in Afghanistan, hang entirely on embedded access. This led to some uncertainty, spilling over into suspicion when it was discovered we had written to the Stop The War Coalition. Our explanation, that this was only part of our wide-ranging trawl for ex-soldiers, was accepted and discussions continued. Assembling a cast involved immersing ourselves in numerous books, online message boards and regimental associations, not to mention train journeys and back roads. We talked to former servicemen of all ranks and ages. Anxious to move beyond the military stereotypes of either the Sandhurst-educated stiff upper lip or Andy McNab commando-speak, it was rewarding, finally, to find men who agreed to share our vision for a warts-and-all film.

When the cameras started rolling, what surprised us was that these men were even more frank than we had dared hope. It is said that many soldiers don't talk about their experiences of combat, because words are inadequate. Having agreed to try, it seemed these veterans had decided only extraordinary honesty and open introspection would do. The resulting interviews were long, intense and occasionally astonishing.

The surprising revelation was that killing the enemy had never in itself troubled most of our interviewees. All openly admitted to craving an opportunity to put their training into practice. Robert Lawrence, whose experiences in the Falklands were charted in the 1988 BBC drama Tumbledown, spoke of his greatest fear when serving in Northern Ireland; that he might wake up one morning to find he had missed a firefight with the IRA. Lawrence was shot in the head by an Argentine sniper during his time in the Falklands and lost 40 per cent of his brain, only to make a miraculous, but hugely painful recovery. Today, he remains paralysed down one side of his body. Yet, he still recalls the immense rush and satisfaction he obtained from doing his job of neutralising enemy soldiers. He would not change it for anything.

Doug Beattie, a serving member of the forces for more than 20 years, had a more complex response. He joined the ranks as a teenager, before ultimately being made a late-entry officer. He never saw combat himself until, on the brink of a retirement in 2005, he was sent to Afghanistan and found himself on the frontline, locked for days in a stand-off with the Taliban.

Beattie admits to the thrill of finally deploying the skills he had so long been honing. But he was also acutely aware of the common humanity of the men he killed, who were part of families who would mourn them, just as his would him if the roles were reversed. When he had to thrust his bayonet into an enemy soldier, an experience increasingly common for the British military in Afghanistan, he found the experience especially distressing. Even when talking to us about it three years later, the visceral details of the encounter still seemed crystal clear in Doug's memory.

Today's audiences are more used to the sight and sound of soldiers firing weapons on TV than any previous generation. The greatest pitfall in the cutting room was letting war seem too familiar. If we'd used such images excessively, it would have blunted the sharp edges of our interviews and weakened the first-person accounts of the realities of killing – of seeing a man's head explode with your grenade, of bayoneting a man who begs you to stop – that had to stay at the heart of the film.

We hope Fighting Passions is not sensational but provocative. Provocative in the sense that it makes people consider what it takes to kill another human being, think about the men for whom killing is work and wonder whether any one of us could do it too.

Denys Blakeway chairs Blakeway Productions, a Ten Alps company. Fighting Passions is on BBC2 on Sunday 24 May at 10.30pm

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