Book Review: Combat Camera by Christian Hill (2014)

Combat Camera – from Auntie Beeb to the Afghan Front Line

May 2011, Afghanistan: Camp Bastion is under attack, the Sun’s Defence Editor is about to catch the wrong helicopter, and a famous TV war reporter is missing half his kit and wants his trainers back. Amid the chaos, Christian Hill is preparing to lead his Combat Camera Team on the British Army’s first big operation of the Helmand summer, inching through the IED-riddled fields of the notorious Green Zone, very probably getting shot at. A captain in the Media Operations Group, his job is to promote the war to the British media – and make it look like things are under control and getting better…

Combat CameraI’ve never been to war and I’ve never been to Afghanistan with a gun or a camera. Thankfully Christian Hill’s account of his tour in Afghanistan as a team leader for a Media Operations Group (MOG) in 2011 covers it nicely. The compact non-fiction book starts with Hill leaving university and wasting a decade in an action-free army stint followed by soul destroying gutter journalism and then ending up the ‘desolate wasteland’ of local BBC Radio. More or less on a whim he applies for and soon joins the Territorial Army’s PR team and with an endearing ambivalence is sent off to Afghanistan for four months.

By the time Hill gets out there his job is to report positive stories of British troops working with the Afghan people to rebuild the country. It’s a bizarrely conflicted role – confronted with the day to day reality of soldiers getting their limbs blown off by IEDs and distant clashes with the Taliban, the only stories they can report are puff pieces about training the Afghan police and army. The resulting real experience of being over there is all the more interesting because of it.

As I started reading Combat Camera I found myself expecting that Hill would follow some Apocalypse Now immersion, have his personality destroyed and rebuilt into a warrior. It’s possible I read too much fiction; the beginning of the book reminded me strongly of Germline (by T.C. McCarthy) and weirdly set up my expectations. Instead Hill’s tour is full of boredom, the strange anxious stress of being near combat and desperately spinning minor good news stories into floggable media products.

In many respects this is just a surprisingly light and readable account of the continuing Afghan war. Hill never actually gets mixed up in any serious action. I’m glad he didn’t, but on the other hand the book really feels like it’s leading up to some hideous and dangerous encounter. Initially I felt this was somehow a failing, like I’d been let down, but it’s counter-PR work the book does best. Hill lists the daily casualty and action records with admirable restraint in judging his employers or politicians. It’s a shocking day in day out parade of death and maiming. It made me realise how unaware I am of what we’re doing in Afghanistan – the media has entirely lost interest in the war and I’d stopped noticing its absence from the press.

One of the most chilling parts of the book is at the very end, when Hill recounts two “quiet days” in June 2011. Before I’d have even gotten up for work, IEDs are being struck, soldiers wounded and civilians killed. And that’s quiet…

Hill writes briskly and the naturalism of his observations of daily life with the troops and other news crew is funny and sad. The humour is dark and the commentary barbed, both of which I found satisfying. I enjoyed the book more than I expected to, and it’s reminded me that we’ve got soldiers killing and dying for reasons that are quite unclear and whose success or failure is even more blurred.

Get it straight from the publishers, Alma Books here.

Buy it on Amazon here.

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