From above, in footage captured by military drones, they looked like thousands of iron filings massed around a magnet. But they were people, and every one of them was desperate. Some stood in raw sewage for days at a time in the 40°C heat. Some kidnapped other people’s babies under cover of the chaos, convinced the presence of a tiny bundle would hasten them to the front of the queue. Several, having finally made it to the building where the British soldiers would process them, were determined to hide any injuries they’d suffered, fearful of being kept back at the last. Diana, a squadron leader in the RAF police force, searched a man whose head was bandaged. The dirty linen around his brow concealed a bloody hole through which she could see his brain. What should she do? Like most, he said he would prefer a dab of antiseptic to the hospital visit that would surely keep him from his place on the next plane.
Kabul airport, 2021. A circle of hell. Who would have wanted to be there? But in James Newton’s documentary series Evacuation, a revelatory account of the biggest British airlift since the Second World War, we are there, hour-by-hour. The story is told by those who served during the 14 days the whole debacle lasted: by the young people, many on their first deployment, whose job it was to police the surging crowds; and by the older, more experienced men and women who had to give them their inconceivable orders. Yes, somehow, Newton convinced the British army’s top brass (and, presumably, the Ministry of Defence) both to allow these servicemen and women to speak freely of their experiences, and to let him use its own remarkable video footage (recorded by an army team). But if this is a coup for him, it’s a masterstroke on the generals’ part. The politicians who presided over this disaster are now further shamed by the diligence, determination, grace and utmost bravery of those who had to turn a shambolic, last-minute plan into some kind of reality. What they did as Boris Johnson had yet another takeaway delivered to No 10 was nothing short of miraculous.
Newton’s series is going to win all the prizes. Give it your time, let it rip open your heart. You won’t ever forget these testimonies. Here is Calvin, an RAF wing commander, explaining how, in the absence of any air traffic control, he did the maths himself, radioing the other seven planes that were then coming in to land, thus avoiding certain calamity. And here is Padre Meikle, an army chaplain, recalling the day when he found five little girls sitting with their mother’s body: a woman who had, perhaps, been one of those crushed to death in the crowd. And here is David, a young lance corporal, who was there when the suicide bomb that killed 13 US Marines and more than 160 Afghan people was detonated. He remembers a wrist. He will never forget that wrist. It was attached to no hand or arm, but the Casio watch it wore was still ticking.
The stench of death was everywhere, but still they kept going. How to choose who to prioritise from among those with the right paperwork? You “err on the side of compassion”, said Gaz, a sergeant major with the Paras. More maths. A plane that ordinarily carried 230 would, its loadmasters thought, still rise in the sky with 432 people inside it. In the makeshift hospital, a baby was born. “We couldn’t save everybody,” said Diana, rolling what she calls her PTSD stone between her fingers. Gaz had done two tours in Afghanistan before this, and now he was expected, as the deadline of 31 August arrived, to hand over officially to the enemy. The Taliban to whom he spoke had an English accent: northern. It was bizarre. What had the past 20 years been for? As the soldiers left their base for the airport, Gaz shut the gate behind him. He doesn’t like to think about this. Too many feelings.
How to say goodbye? What words could possibly fit? “This is NAG 93XRAY TANGO, the last British aeroplane to take off in Kabul,” announced Mark, an RAF wing commander, from his cockpit (he is still word-perfect, and will be forever so). He thanked everyone for their service. He said those who had been lost would not be forgotten. And that was it. (Pray the Taliban don’t decide to use their anti-aircraft guns now.) The folly was over.
Channel 4, 2 July, 9pm
[See also: After Iraq: the great unravelling]
This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia