In 2003, I was freelancing for a Sunday newspaper. Sat in my car on the doorstep of whichever public figure I'd been assigned to hassle that particular week, I got a phone call from my editor asking if I wanted to go off to Iraq in anticipation of the war that was slowly brewing over there. I did, so I was sent with a press group of journalists and photographers to a biochemical training course at the National Rifle Association in Surrey, where former British soldiers taught us how to survive the chemical weaponry Saddam Hussein definitely had stockpiled away in some as yet undiscovered, but 100 percent existent Iraqi bunker.
As I'm sure you'll remember, it was those exact speculative weapons of mass destruction that had Whitehall's politicians and pen-pushers getting all riled up in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. According to Tony Blair, there was a very real threat of brutal nuclear, biological and chemical warheads being unleashed on the world, all – according to intelligence reports – able to be deployed within 45 minutes, ready to blow up and infect everything we loved. All of that forcibly injecting the amount of fear and paranoia into public mentality as you can imagine a report about all their families dying might.
When my ex-army friend had called me up a couple of weeks previously to tell me that everyone he knew was now readying themselves to ship over to Iraq, I wasn't surprised. Many ex-soldiers were now working with security companies in the land of Saddam, protecting journalists and their guides, and something in the tone of their voices told me they already knew the war was going to happen, whether the rest of the world liked it or not. It wasn't long before British troops were on their way to Kuwait to get ready to "stand up" – the drumroll of the world's next war beginning its incredibly depressing beat.
Despite the hysteria surrounding the situation – including learning how to use respirator gasmasks and nuclear, biological and chemical warfare bodysuits at this course in Surrey, as if it was a necessity that the rest of the UK would soon be adopting – I was very keen to cover the unfolding story in Iraq. The prospect seemed a lot more exciting than sitting in my car, waiting on some other completely pointless shagging drivel to materialise.
I spoke to one of the instructors at the Surrey course, who was still serving in the Special Forces and was soon leaving the army, who was having personal doubts about the Iraq invasion. "I think it's a terrible mistake, personally," he told me. "Tony Blair is just tagging along to make Bush happy – it's a sickening thought, really."
The editor of the Daily Mirror, the paper I was working for at the time, also denounced the proposed invasion, making it difficult for his journalists to get access should the war go ahead. Instead, I suggested to the picture editor that I knew someone who was working with an ABC News crew and would be going along with the US Marines en route to Baghdad. He wasn't interested. It had to have a British angle and nothing else would do.
Fat Mike was right all along.
On February 15th, 2003, there was a global anti-war demonstration happening in cities all over the world. I was assigned to cover the march going through Whitehall. There were hundreds of thousands of people there, but I remember feeling enraged, knowing that despite the fact that millions of people globally were showing their opposition to the plans, the politicians weren't planning on paying them any notice whatsoever.
The picture editor wanted me to specifically photograph people carrying "NO WAR" banners, as they were running a front page and double page spread that Sunday. Estimates claim that any number between six and 30 million people marched that weekend, but obviously any number of bodies is irrelevant when a decision has already been made.
I was in the last batch from the Sunday Mirror destined to fly out to Iraq. The first lot were sent to Kuwait and caught up with British troops stationed out there, the second bunch were sent but had problems getting into Baghdad, so had to go via Jordan instead, then one of the Sunday Mirror photographers refused to go on the grounds that the war was "illegal". Soon after, news reports came through that US troops had killed the ITN journalist Terry Lloyd in a bout of friendly fire.
A photo from "Baghdad Garage Crew".
The editor of the newspaper announced that they wouldn't be sending any more reporters or photographers to Iraq because of the Terry Lloyd incident. Instead, they would run a series of shagging stories to dilute the reality of what was happening in Iraq. With my one chance of covering the war quickly evaporating, I decided to document my own journey on the exploration of the war in Iraq, writing a couple of features for VICE – "Shredded By War" and "Baghdad Garage Crew", but never getting the opportunity to actually spend time on the frontline with active coalition soldiers.
It goes without saying that the consequences of war are often brutal; I found out in early 2010 that the defence correspondent at the newspaper where I worked back in 2003 had been killed in an explosion. He and the photographer, who was left seriously injured, were both embedded with the US Marines and had been travelling in a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP), the most advanced of any vehicle designed specifically to protect its passengers against explosions of mines and IEDs.
A photo from "Shredded By War".
I had my doubts about the Iraq war from the very beginning. For me, it was when a long-standing belief in the Labour party vanished and I realised that, regardless of which government is in control, it's Whitehall's old boy network that truly make the big decisions. It was a doomed exercise from the beginning and, as quickly became clear, an embarrassing gig for Tony Blair, leaving him the enviable legacy of being forever remembered as George Bush's obedient lap-dog.
After all this, I was eventually called on by an agency that represented me to spend some time with the US troops who'd been with my journalist friend, Rupert, when he was killed. Luckily for my family – and, in retrospect, myself – I broke my arm falling on ice, preventing me from going to war. Unlike the estimated 120,000 casualties since the beginning of the Iraq war, I was one of the lucky ones.
See more of Stuart Griffiths' work here.
The "Closer" exhibition by Stuart Griffiths is being shown at The London College Of Communication from May 2013.
More about the war in Iraq: