Author Andrew O’Hagan’s new novel The Illuminations examines the experiences of the soldiers who went to Afghanistan believing in the war, but who returned home to Britain profoundly disillusioned.
“There are so many war novels about a soldier coming home” concedes author Andrew O’Hagan.
But the journalist and author believes that his new novel The Illuminations is the right book for the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan: “It seemed to me that we hadn’t yet read the book that got inside the problem of that war: what it was like to be a soldier from a small town in Britain now who went off to war believing in it, and came back with all that belief vapourised.”
While writing the novel O’Hagan worked closely with Andy Allen, a veteran from Belfast who was a vital source of information about what life was really like on the frontline.
Despite losing both legs and most of his sight as a teenager on his first tour of Afghanistan, Allen did not come home disillusioned and now runs a charity AA Veterans Support for veterans and their families across Northern Ireland.
The two men spent hours together discussing military hardware, routines and frontline conditions. O’Hagan even read drafts to Allen to get his opinion on whether the banter between the characters rang true.
“It was great to see it and hear it from an outside point of view” recalls Allen, who says he would love to be able to go back to the frontline.
O’Hagan believes the Afghan campaign was “a failed war” that can best be exposed in fiction, rather than news coverage: “I don’t think there’s any such thing as ‘telling it like it is’.
“Journalists deal in facts, and novelists deal in facts too, but also truths that the facts sometimes conceal.”
As for the former soldier, Andy Allen says he “categorically believes” that “we left Afghanistan in a better place”.
Both men agree on the need to invest far more in veteran support.
Returning soldiers have to live with “the decisions that were made for them”, says O’Hagan: “we’re very big on heroism, but we’re not good at treating people heroically when they suffer on our behalf.”