Mark Evans, Code Black (Coronet, 2015)
Code Black is the story of a British Army Officer, Captain Mark Evans, and his deployment to Afghanistan in the summer of 2008. In particular, it focuses on a seven-week period during which Evans and a small multiple of British troops – supported by an Afghan National Army kandak (battalion) – were left fighting for their lives in the district of Nad Ali. In 2008, the focus of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Helmand was directed mainly towards the movement of a third turbine to the Kajaki dam in the north of the province. While the brigade’s head was turned, however, hundreds of enemy fighters pushed upwards from the south and took the town of Marjah (later to be the scene of the clearance operation in 2010 called Op Moshtarak). The enemy were now heading towards the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and Nad Ali was next in line for their attack. As ever, the UK deployed a woefully under-manned and under-resourced team to try and hold them back. Code Black is a powerful story of defensive warfare and the pressures of command in dangerous circumstances.
In previous articles, I have disapprovingly acknowledged how almost every junior officer’s Afghan tour ends up as a published memoir these days. It’s a well-trodden route and consequently there is rarely any scope for true originality in these types of books anymore. That said, Code Black is firmly focused on a battle that was fought well away from the media spotlight and, as such, it’s fair to say that Evans’ story is a little known vignette of the UK’s war in Afghanistan – one which shares a great many parallels with the fabled Battle of Rorke’s Drift – the defense of a tiny garrison station during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1882.
I am pleased to report that Captain Evans’ book is different in another key aspect too: It is an altogether much more humble effort than many of its contemporaries. Objective and authentic, Evans doesn’t attempt to present himself in a heroic light but instead he makes a point of discussing his own short-comings and moments of self-doubt in leadership. I like that in an author. Guards officers are not generally known for their humility but, in this case, the memoir is not dominated by the author. Instead, Code Black provides plenty of space for other characters to play a full role and, ultimately, I think that one of book’s key successes lies in its descriptions of the relationships between different people at war.
For example, Evans’ relationship with his company commander is a feisty and antagonistic affair; it could easily be dissected and pulled apart in any leadership lecture. But the relationship that interested me far more was his relationship with the co-habiting Afghan National Army kandak commander, Colonel Wadood. While it seems to me that the UK’s prevailing attitude towards the Afghan National Security Forces is that they were lazy, incompetent amateurs, the Evans/Wadood dialogue shines a light on the Afghan perspective. Consider Wadood’s poignant observation:
I’ve been here for two years. We don’t know when we’ll leave. Back in the UK do you work seven days a week? No, you don’t. But you come here for a few months, run around in circles, work every hour in the day and look at us like we are lazy for taking off a day each week [Friday] …no doubt I will have this same conversation again in six months’ time.
Wadood gets it absolutely right. The Afghan National Army might not have been the elite fighting force we wanted them to be but the “lazy, incompetent amateurs” narrative is excessively harsh and probably stuck because it justified the round the clock thrashing of staff officers in brigade more than anything else.
By the time Evans shows up, Wadood has clearly had enough already: It is apparent to him that the British forces are doing little more than paying lip service to the idea of partnering. He substantiates this claim with the fact that he, a colonel, must negotiate with a captain and he is furious that Afghan forces are not afforded the same air support as their British partners when patrolling. This is a key feature of the Afghan conflict that is often overlooked. For all the rhetoric, did we really see the Afghans as our partners? Or were they just treated as obstacles? Code Black offers a rather definitive answer to that question when Evans receives a stark admission from a staff officer that the value of an Afghan life is most certainly worth less than a British life.
As a veteran of the Afghan campaign I have always held the belief that, organizationally, we failed to appreciate how much the Afghans had to offer. There is no clearer illustration of this than when, following a firefight, Wadood calls the Taliban on the phone so that he can arrange for one of his Afghan soldiers to be buried. They oblige. The obvious implication is that Wadood, like probably all of the Afghan officers, had a better relationship with his enemy than he did with his so-called partners. As a result, however, the Afghans could find solutions to their problems while the British were the ones who struggled to adapt. There is another scene in Code Black where Evans’ JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller) observes a Taliban funeral being attended by 50 men and then desperately tries to get permission to blow it up. The two episodes contrast sharply and they left me wondering a little: Were we the “savages?”
Given his relationship with Wadood, I think it noteworthy that Evans never really passes on the baton during his handover/takeover from theater. His replacement seems to write him off as a jerk and the senior officers are more interested in getting him to have a shave rather than listening to his views. I have no doubt, therefore, that Colonel Wadood did indeed have that same conversation again and again with the countless other junior officers being cycled through Nad Ali over the next few years. The lack of continuity between successive brigades is something I have highlighted before from an operational perspective but Code Black manages to highlight this problem from the Afghan viewpoint. In our dealings with Afghans, UK and U.S. forces were obsessed with “wiping the slate clean” (see Restrepo for a clear illustration of this) but this was never truly a possibility. I am sure the Afghans held us in great contempt for trying to do so.
Finally, I can’t really review Code Black without mentioning Evans’ battle with post-traumatic stress. As the deployment drags on and the battles intensify, Evans is gradually sapped of his strength and sense of purpose and he is clearly very affected by the futility of his efforts and those of the men he commands. His war was meant to be his moment of self-actualization but it seems to just fizzle out, much like one of his adrenaline come downs. This is perhaps the crucial reason why the author can’t bring himself to cast himself as the hero of the piece; he doesn’t feel much like a hero. After returning to the UK, his descent into alcoholism is fast and it is interesting to note the ease with which a junior officer was able to hide it from colleagues. Never was there a truer word when Evans remarks:
Even in today’s modern Army, alcohol on the breath can be explained away with the words ‘just a late one in the bar last night, Sir.’
Personally, I’ve not been close enough to the system to comment on the provision of psychiatric care within the Ministry of Defence, but I would suggest that somebody high up the food chain of the Royal Army Medical Corps needs to read the group therapy scene where Evans and two of his colleagues are asked to sit (in suits) and then open up to a senior officer who is proudly wearing his rank-slide in front of them. It’s farcical and appalling in equal measure.
Overall, Code Black is a fine read. It is being publicized as a tale of “Overcoming Overwhelming Odds” and it is, ostensibly, a book about small teams and tactical warfare. But I think that its real treasure lies below the surface and, in particular, that it perhaps says more than it realizes about the UK’s relationship with its Afghan partners in Helmand in 2008. Despite holding all the cards, commanders like Colonel Wadood were marginalized and criticized – not necessarily by our rhetoric but certainly by our actions. And as a result, Code Black shows us that many of our disparaging narratives about the Afghans (“savages,” “incompetent) were probably exactly the same narratives that the Afghans were using to describe us.
George Vlachonikolis is an economics tutor at d’Overbroeck’s College, Oxford. A retired British Army officer, Vlachonikolis served two front-line operational tours in Afghanistan during a six-year career from 2005 through 2011.
Photo credit: ResoluteSupportMedia