“The real buzz starts the moment you leave your team behind and advance toward the device, as it sits there, silent and unmoving. You have disarmed these buggers before, both while training and also for real, on those dusty Iraqi highways that seem like they lead to hell.
As you get closer and closer to the little mound, you are acutely aware that, there could be a bad guy hiding under the parapet of a nearby roof, his finger on the ‘enter’ key of his cellphone. You go into into a sort of tunnel vision. Your objective is now singular and in sharp focus. You are within it’s event horizon.
At that moment, if that thing goes off, your suit might prevent death but you’ll surely be a mangled mess, destined to ride a wheelchair for the rest of your life.” – Major Chris Hunter, British Bomb Disposal Expert
As a British Army Major, Chris Hunter probably earned an aggregate annual salary of £50000, a tidy but not overly generous sum, certainly not enough to justify doing what he did for a living.
For quite a bit more than what Hunter gets paid, I sit in peaceful air-conditioned comfort, munching on a turkey-bacon sandwich, trading dirty jokes with Kenny in the adjacent cubicle, inside a high-tech lab, in a part of the world which is not likely to see conflict anytime soon, at least not in my lifetime. The only risk I have to face sitting there, is being given a dirty look by Nurse Ratched (the boss) if she catches me on Facebook.
For Chris Hunter, whose life provided the inspiration for the 6-Academy Award winning Katherine Bigelow movie The Hurt Locker, life is just as scary as it is uneventful for me and we both have the careers that we chose.
Why did Hunter want to wake up in the morning and go to work knowing that there is a 75/25 chance he’d get blown apart sometime before dinner, while all I wanted to do was to go sit in front of a robotic arm inside a climate-controlled lab and dream of Scarlett Johanssen?
When you factor in the concept of being ready to die for a cause (the code that soldiers are supposed to live by), the Iraq invasion did not provide that cushion of a justification, since it was built on a blatant lie. I am sure that Chris had no illusions about that.
Why then was he prepared to throw away his life? Was Chris Hunter stupid, misled, gullible? I doubt that. Individuals who are selected for bomb disposal are none of those. They are highly motivated, capable of taking snap decisions under life or death circumstances and extremely intelligent, with the ability to think on their feet.
Let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth, Chris Hunter himself – “Staring at that one wire which might defuse the bomb, while your clipper hovers over it, causes the ultimate adrenaline rush. At that moment, all background noise just tunes out, like as if your mind has suddenly switched on a cerebral Dolby System. If someone were to ask you what you were feeling at that instant, you’d probably admit – euphoric.”
Hunter links euphoria with danger. In other words, he ‘gets off’ on it. His career is the cover that lends legitimacy to what he does and saves him from being ridiculed as ‘foolhardy’ or an ‘adrenaline junkie’.
Norwegian Karina Hollekim (helmeted) was one of the world’s top base jumpers, base jumping being a truly extreme sport where folks jump off cliffs, towers, skyscrapers and bridges, free fall or glide with their wing suits and then land with the help of parachutes. Hollekim also holds the distinction of being the world’s first ski base jumper, which is base jumping with skis on, landing on a snowy slope and skiing downhill. Here she is, with base jump teammates. Don’t they make you want to go base jumping too?
As a base jumper, Hollekim looked forward to that precise moment when she stepped off the cliff or airplane. Right before that moment, there is always a tipping point where the jumper has a choice – to go ahead and take the leap or step back. Beyond that point, there is no turning back.
She remembers the first time – that first second when she stepped off the cliff – a magical freeze-frame moment. She moved in slow motion for a few seconds and then the speed of her fall picked up and so did the pressure and the noise of the wind. Hollekim was wearing a wing suit, a contraption that adds surface area to the jumper’s body and significantly increases lift and slows down the descent. First developed in the late 1990s, a wing suit creates an aerodynamic surface with fabric between the legs and under the arms, making the jumper look like a bat or a flying squirrel.
In her autobiography Den vidunderlige: følelsen av frykt (The Wonderful Feeling of Fear), Karina Hollekim recalls one particular jump she did in 2006, vividly. Her parachute failed to fully open and she ended up spinning uncontrollably. She hit the ground at over 100 kmph, shattering her ribs and both her legs in 21 places. After 20 surgeries, she recovered and undaunted, she resumed her dare-devilry. The reason? The cocaine-like high of the jump, the sudden moment of extreme clarity, that constant trade-off, between euphoria and pain.
In October 2012, another famous base jumper, Austrian ex-paratrooper Felix Baumgartner, jumped from a height of 39 kms, 36 of which were a 4-minute free fall, during which he momentarily became the first human to break the sound barrier in un-powered flight travelling at 833mph (Mach 1.24), before he opened his chute.
The pre-jump speculation that Baumgartner’s body might be torn apart by the stresses from the g-forces proved ill-founded. He recalls feeling no bone-jarring vibrations or ear-splitting noises, as he broke the sound barrier. His insulated suit protected him from the mayhem outside, caused by the onrushing air.
Baumgartner’s suit and helmet were his personal life-support system. The suit was modeled on those worn by pilots of high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, but it had never been tried in a free-fall before Baumgartner started testing it. Built by David Clark Inc., the same firm which has been making space suits for Nasa and high altitude aviators, the suit had four layers of specially designed protection from the elements.
Baumgartner faced a set of daunting risks – ultraviolet radiation / extreme temperatures, steadily decreasing to around -50C at 10kms and then swing up to around sea-level temp at 40kms / hypoxia (oxygen starvation) / decompression sickness / wind shear / entering into a flat spin during the descent / “shock-shock interaction” (an explosive effect when shock waves in the air collide on crossing the sound barrier) / fire aboard the capsule and a hard landing.
But two dangers hung over Baumgartner above all others – one, a breach in his suit or the capsule that would make his body explode in the near vacuum of those altitudes and second, the premature deployment of a parachute, which would tear it apart, aside from tearing him apart from the sudden enormous deceleration.
Like base jumper Karina Hollekim, Baumgartner too had a tipping point where he could step back. But only in theory – I suppose he could abort by simply bleeding the gas out of the balloon and come back down, though that had never been attempted at such high altitudes where any breach in the envelope would be extremely difficult to mechanically close, considering the near-zero atmospheric pressure outside.
With all these swords of Damocles hanging over him, ‘Fearless’ Felix managed to glide in like a breeze, grinning from ear to ear, exclaiming to his Austrian girlfriend, Nicole Öttl, who had been waiting anxiously on the floor of the New Mexico Desert,” Schatz, ich bin zu Hause!” (Honey, I’m home!)
James Foley wasn’t so lucky, his line of work being no less hazardous than a base jumper’s. A freelance war correspondent and photographer for GlobalPost, Foley was kidnapped by an organized gang after departing from an internet café in North-western Syria, November 2012. From there he fell into the hands of the ISIS and subsequently became the first American hostage to be beheaded by the terror group.
That wasn’t Foley’s first kidnapping. In April 2011, at the height of the Libyan uprising, Foley along with other journalists, was captured and held hostage near Brega, Libya, by forces loyal to Gaddafi. A photojournalist colleague was killed, but Foley survived, eventually being set free and returning home to the US after two months.
Then there was the story of another American war correspondent, a female freelance photo-journalist, who couldn’t hold it together, even after she had given birth to a baby. Leaving the child behind with her parents, she returned back to the intoxicating sights and smells of conflict in Iraq, only to be gang-raped, beheaded, doused with gasoline and set on fire in a Fallujah alley, the day after she landed. She had gone there on a tip and a lead, hoping to be able to sit down for an interview with the dreaded Al-Qaida-in-Iraq chieftain, the late Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. How exactly would the interview of an ex-Jordanian petty thief-turned-terrorist mastermind help in enlightening the world, I wonder.
Trying to cloak their addiction to danger, war correspondents like Foley make it look as if without them, the news from conflict zones would never come out. That would be true before the smartphone era but now, risking your life to be right there in the thick of things looks ridiculously foolhardy. The Al Nasras, Al Qaidas and the ISISs do not need journalists to spread their message anymore. They have slickly designed websites and YouTube videos. Fighting, for the voices of those who don’t have a voice, to be heard – is now a Neanderthal concept and a worn out cliché.
Only one western man has ever been able to gain unprecedented access to the Islamic State and return alive : 74-year old German journalist, Jurgen Todenhofer, a strident critic of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His trip had come after seven months of negotiations with the group’s leaders.
Todenhofer spent 10 days as a guest of the terrorist group in it’s stronghold, Mosul, in December 2014 and came away with the distinct impression that the western world has no idea what it is up against.
Todenhofer brought back with him a message – the clear, unambiguous understanding that the ISIS actually wanted American boots on the ground and that all those beheadings and the rapes and slavery videos were designed for one purpose – to lure American troops into ISIS territory and begin a brutal slaughter to the finish. They want it to be a conflict the likes of which the world has not yet witnessed, where all those high-tech drones and the smart weapons and stealth aircraft would amount to nothing. The ISIS are the quintessential risk takers – they have put everything that they stand for, on the line, for a final showdown that is inevitable.
Did Todenhofer face a risk going there to meet with the ISIS? Sure – being incinerated by a Reaper-launched Hellfire missile, maybe, or being mistaken as a spy and beheaded.
Chris Hunter, Karina Hollekim, Felix Baumgartner and Jurgen Todenhofer may have taken massive risks but they were all carefully calculated ones. They had figured out a way to balance risk with satisfaction. When the risk was high, the satisfaction had to be higher in order to justify the risk. All three are extremely lucky to have survived (so far). In contrast, James Foley failed to understand the folks he was dealing with and the risks he was taking and ended up paying for it with his life.
Within our innermost core, we are all risk-takers and share that willingness to push the envelope and explore. We are all a bit of Icarus and a bit of George Mallory at heart.