Five years after Ross Kemp seamlessly morphed from jobbing actor to BAFTA-award-winning documentary maker, he has few regrets:
I think enjoying a Winnebago and a bacon sandwich every morning as opposed to being kicked awake to go on patrol with the Royal Marines after a camel spider tried to eat me all night is appealing,” he says.
But I really enjoy what I do. It’s very fulfilling, particularly the loyalty among the friends that I’ve made through doing this, who will hopefully stick with me for the rest of my life. We’ve got some ‘dits’ [stories] to spin - which I probably wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed an actor, and I certainly wouldn’t have met as many interesting people.
Kemp’s new five-part series on Afghanistan marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and British troops’ arrival in Helmand, and he is brimful of facts and figures:
It’s the longest war we’ve been involved in since the Second World War and it’s the most expensive in financial terms,” he says.
Five years ago, Kemp stepped off a plane in stifling heat on Operation HERRICK 6 and spent time with 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, accompanying the troops on the front line. Now he is back, following the fate of 45 Commando Royal Marines to find out what has changed in the ten years ISAF forces have been in Afghanistan.
The programme covers six months, with Kemp examining bin Laden’s legacy, meeting warlords and tribal elders, and pounding the patrols with the Bootnecks.
Ross Kemp is blunt, fiercely intelligent and opinionated, but the real surprise is that his speech is peppered with military jargon: ‘dits’, ‘scoff’, ‘scran’ and ‘contacts’. He explains that the new series is about the story of why British troops went into Afghanistan and explores some of the early mistakes made:
We weren’t equipped as well as we should have been. We didn’t have enough soldiers to do the job. We were also pretty culturally unaware, with a lot of the mistakes made on the ground.
On his latest visit he also spent time with the US Marine Corps and gained access to Lieutenant General William Caldwell, the Commander of NATO’s Training Mission - Afghanistan, tasked with training Afghan soldiers and police. And Kemp says that it’s the ability of the Afghan Army and Police to keep out the insurgents after 2014 that will be the real litmus test:
We’ve got three years so a lot can happen,” he says. Pause. “I should say they have got three years,” he grins as the meaning of what he’s just said sinks in.
How can you ever take a police statement or call in an attack helicopter if you can’t even write your own name?” asks Kemp, adding that in the war-torn country, where corruption is a problem and many can’t even read or write, the answers are far from black and white.
There are massive issues and it is indicative of General Caldwell that he sees it as important to teach these people to read and write rather than load a rifle.
The new TV series shows how much the strategy for dealing with the insurgency has been transformed. Kemp says:
Rather than taking out the guy on the ground with a 200-pound bomb which we used to do, we now follow him back, see where he lives, see where his contacts are, and hopefully find the boss who gives him instructions way up the command and remove him, therefore saving far more ISAF and UK lives.
To prove his point, he examines how much the situation on the ground has changed:
Our area of operation has shrunk by nearly 80 per cent from being half of the UK to the size of Kent. But we’ve still got the same number of policemen on the ground, which makes it very hard for the Taliban, which is maybe one reason why the number of attacks has dropped.
Kemp also describes how the complexities of Afghanistan’s famously tribal land add up to a Spook’s nightmare:
You can have a family in Helmand that soldiers are trying to profile,” he explains. “One member could be in the Afghan Army, one could be in the Police, two could be in the Taliban, one is a narcotics smuggler and the other five could all be farmers, so the complexities don’t bear thinking about. Trying to identify all the riot suspects in the UK was difficult enough, so imagine trying to do it in a war zone.
Since his last visit, Kemp has seen dramatic improvements in body armour, ‘pelvic protection’, helmets, weapon systems and food that have given UK troops a morale-boosting lift.
As this story is being posted online, 385 British troops have lost their lives in Afghanistan. Does Kemp consider the sacrifice worth it?
I can’t say that,” he says firmly. “That is down for the families to decide and hopefully the Afghans who will be able to stand up on their own two feet after we leave. I can say that I’ve never not been impressed by the professionalism, integrity and bravery of the British soldier and marine.
Over the course of the series, Kemp oozes ice-cool courage, ducking in a ditch as bullets crack just inches over his head. He wasn’t even daunted when he met the Taliban because the previous two series had already hooked them in:
They are very media savvy and want to get their point across, and hopefully they trust us to know we would give them that opportunity,” says Kemp.
Expressing firm opinions on why the Taliban should be given air time he adds:
There is no way that the solution to Afghanistan will come at the end of a rifle. It will come through negotiations and undoubtedly the Taliban have to be involved, so the sooner we start listening to what they believe, what they want, the sooner we will hopefully come to a settlement. They weren’t cliches. They have beards and they wear black turbans but they are all individuals.
Kemp also believes that no-one should be thinking about trying to turn Afghanistan into a completely democracy-embracing country:
They are Afghans and they live the Afghan way. It will never be the same as ours, and why should it be? But it would be a heck of a waste of time and life if we leave that country and things haven’t improved. But I’m hoping and praying that they will.
As an actor, you sense that Kemp adapts to his surroundings like a chameleon:
I am always for whichever team I’m with at the time, so if I’m with a load of Rangers fans, I’m a Rangers fan,” he confesses. “I found the Marines to be very welcoming. They do good scran but the Army does good scoff,” he says, deftly underlining his point.
You also get the feeling that down-to-earth Kemp is equally at home chatting to private soldiers as he is with the Chief of the Defence Staff, whom he admires:
To me, General Richards is a soldier’s soldier, an airman’s airman and a sailor’s sailor. He knows it from top to bottom and doesn’t lay it on thick which is important when you’re that important.
Kemp’s strength is his own everyman appeal and he has made lasting friendships aplenty that are on speed dial:
Of course, all the way through,” he nods. “When you share life experiences you stay friends.
As we wind up our interview, I ask him to share an abiding moment from Afghanistan:
Coming home to Brize Norton and seeing patterns of beautiful colours of the British countryside as I fly over is always something that warms my heart.
Yet he also treasures the camaraderie and humour, even under fire:
I have never laughed so much in my life as when I was shot at with those guys. It was a natural reaction of coping with danger.
He recalls a pivotal moment after a friendly fire attack from an earlier series when three soldiers were killed while Kemp was back in the UK. Eight days later, the company were sent to Sangin to recuperate, and when Kemp returned to the front line, he met the men of B Company and 7 Platoon to tell the story of how they were affected:
They lived in the back of an old shed and we stayed with them for four days,” says Kemp. “It was cathartic because they started talking and it was an amazing moment as we saw those guys come to terms with what happened. They treated us as friends. It’s things like that that will stay with me. It’s incredible how much it bonds you.
This report by Lorraine McBride features in the November 2011 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.
‘Ross Kemp: Back On The Frontline’ starts tonight on Sky1 and Sky1 HD at 2100hrs GMT.