Iraq, 2 May 2005

Andrew O’Hagan

In southern Iraq, just south of Amara, the main city of Maysan province, the British military base at Camp Abu Naji was preparing for the night. Set at the northern end of the marshlands between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the camp is now abandoned and looted, but in May 2005 it was a busy centre of military operations. Amara has seen many reversals of fortune and opinion: it was once a hideout for anti-Saddam insurgents, whom he punished by draining the marshes. He also killed many of them, and buried their bodies in mass graves around the city. But by the time the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards were operating out of Camp Abu Naji, it was the British army that had become the enemy of the people. Mortar attacks on the base were just part of the general grief, a handful of dust to be thrown regularly in the face of the occupying forces.

Anthony Wakefield, aged 24, had a long memory of night-time patrols. He had done any number of them in Northern Ireland. On the evening of 1 May 2005 he was talking about his children and making jokes while assembling his kit to attend a briefing from the company commander, Major Coughlin. The plan that night was to leave Camp Abu Naji and travel in a north-westerly direction, seeking to prevent the enemy’s retreat from an area under Coalition control. Guardsman Wakefield was told to provide top cover in the second of two ‘snatches’ – a V8 Land Rover, lightly armoured – which would travel the road out of Amara in the dark. Sergeant Ian Blackett was in the patrol’s first vehicle and had known Wakefield for five months. There were 14 men in the patrol and Wakefield was one of the most experienced. ‘He was a professional soldier,’ Blackett says. Some soldiers seem not to do much except cheer up other soldiers, yet they surprise everyone with their readiness. ‘A good lad, who was definitely up to it.’

Guardsman Gregory Shaw says they left camp at 10 p.m. Wakefield’s head and shoulders were protruding from the top of the second snatch, the usual position for a soldier doing top cover. ‘Everybody was fatigued,’ Shaw says. ‘You know it’s going to be a long hot night. A lot of people are shy of work and want to do as little as possible, but Wakefield was always one to muck in.’ The patrol could hear bursts of small-arms fire as they made their way along the road. Over the course of the next hour or so they met other patrol groups from the company. ‘We then did a U-turn on Green 9 and Green 12’ – these were combat zones – ‘and turned into an area known to us as “India”,’ says Lance Sergeant Stephen Phipps. ‘We then made our way through the al-Mukatil al-Araby district. I’m not sure if we drove to Green 5 – the streets were getting quieter.’ The patrol was about forty kilometres from Camp Abu Naji and the vehicles trundled along a dimly lit road. ‘It was a sort of urban area but with a lot of waste ground,’ Blackett says. ‘A few buildings on the road, a few shops, and very dark. Very few people. It was one of the roads leading out of town.’

‘He was happy. He seemed cheerful,’ says Guardsman Gary Alderson, who was next to Wakefield in the snatch. ‘Seemed happy all the way round. I was facing rearwards, he was facing forwards.’ Two hundred metres short of the zone called Green 6 there was a loud explosion and what some of the soldiers describe as a fireball at the right side of the second vehicle. ‘Wakefield fell inside the snatch,’ Alderson says. ‘I went down inside as well. I was very disorientated and can’t remember much.’ Lance Sergeant Phipps’s immediate impulse was to get the patrol out of ‘the killing zone’. He instructed the driver to power ahead, but the vehicle was damaged and broke down after fifty metres. ‘I could see Wakefield lying across Lance Sergeant Newton’s lap,’ Phipps says. ‘Guardsman Alderson was injured. Wakefield had a pulse but was not breathing.’ The stranded occupants just stared into the blackness at the retreating lights of the snatch in front.

In the first vehicle, Blackett saw a flash and sparks at 23.37 hrs, and told the driver to put his foot down and get out of there. Then he realised the second snatch wasn’t following them and went back to help. They radioed headquarters as their snatch rumbled back to the stricken vehicle.

The regimental medical officer at Camp Abu Naji, Captain Vickers, was woken before midnight and told to come to the operations room. ‘A contact had been made and we had a casualty.’ The blast had come from an explosive device hidden at the side of the road, concealed in a mound of dirt with an infrared trip set in front of the charge. The device installed in every vehicle, intended to detect and short-circuit such devices, had in this instance failed.

At the time of the blast, Guardsman Wakefield was wearing standard body armour, which provides protection to the front and back of the torso. Projectiles entered his neck and upper chest, the latter through the unprotected side area of his vest. A forensic pathologist later said the neck injury severed one of four main arteries to the brain. The material passing through his chest hit a lung and the heart, causing massive internal bleeding. He had no chance of survival. Captain Andrew Cox dispatched a helicopter to pick up the injured man and bring him back to base. The helicopter carried him to camp Abu Naji where he was ventilated, but his pupils became fixed and at 00.50 hrs on 2 May 2005, surrounded by medical officers, Guardsman Wakefield was declared dead.

The last day of Anthony Wakefield’s life was a deadly one in many parts of Iraq. At a Kurdish funeral near Mosul, two dozen people were killed by a car bomb. American soldiers handing out sweets to children were targeted by a bomber in Baghdad. As the new Iraqi government debated Sunni cabinet positions, home-made bombs went off all over the country in a spree that saw 120 dead. It was two years exactly since George W. Bush had announced that ‘major combat operations’ in Iraq were over, an anniversary marked that week with 17 co-ordinated bombings in Baghdad.

May 2nd is the date of Joseph McCarthy’s death and J. Edgar Hoover’s. It is the date of Tony Blair’s 1997 election victory and the day in 1982 on which a British navy submarine torpedoed the General Belgrano. Soon after colleagues at Camp Abu Naji woke up to news of Anthony Wakefield’s death, Lynndie England would appear in a Texas court to plead guilty to charges of maltreating Iraqi prisoners.

Many servicemen, British and American, expressed disgust that day at the crimes of England and her associated military reprobates. One who did so was Major John C. Spahr, an executive officer with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, but serving during the spring of 2005 in the Persian Gulf on the USS Carl Vinson. Major Spahr was 6 feet 3 inches tall and did a memorable impression of John Wayne, which lent him his call-sign, ‘Dukes’. His sister Kelly told me he wasn’t motivated by politics, but was driven by a keen sense of right and wrong. ‘Those top pilots are all alike,’ she said. ‘They are not available. That’s why a lot of them are single or marry late. They never really talked about what they did: there are things John did in the line of duty that I knew he would never talk about. But he said that being in the jet was like being inside his own skin.’

At 7 p.m. – 18 hours after Guardsman Anthony Wakefield was pronounced dead – John C. Spahr climbed the ladder onto the flight deck of USS Carl Vinson and walked to his F/A-18 Hornet. Lance Corporal Lindsay, who did final checks on Spahr’s jet that evening, said he came out onto the flight deck smiling and joking with his fellow marines. The ship is more than a thousand feet long and can carry 5500 personnel; its motto Vis Per Mare, ‘Strength from the Sea’. A major carrier is more like a floating town, often surrounded with smaller ships serving as warehouses. Major Spahr and his colleague Marine Captain Kelly Hinz had their orders: they would fly into south-central Baghdad and support the marines on the ground, many of whom were fighting insurgents and taking sniper fire. Major Spahr was more than familiar with the journey. He had been the first pilot to fly into Baghdad on the night of 21 March 2003 – the first of 1700 sorties flown by the US Air Force – at the beginning of the campaign called Shock and Awe. Launching from the aircraft carrier, ‘you go from about zero to 150 miles an hour in less than two seconds,’ says Captain Daron Youngberg, a colleague of Spahr and Hinz. The pilots left behind a series of signalmen scurrying on deck as each rose and tilted their $55 million plane over the empty horizon. Other pilots watched the pair ascend from the Carl Vinson: ‘There goes Dukes,’ said one of them whom I later spoke to. ‘He was the best Top Gun pilot of his generation, and what I would call a complete man,’ he said.

I looked at hundreds of pictures of John Spahr over the months I spent looking for his story. Many of them showed him in the cockpit of his fighter plane: one with his visor down and his thumb aloft as he waited to launch from the carrier; another in the blue sky as he saw off some Russian jets; and yet another, looking focused and fit, under a message which said: ‘Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You.’ On 2 May the two pilots were flying at 26,000 feet, high over fawn-coloured houses south of the Tigris, the river that stretches towards Amara. Lieutenant Colonel Hunter Hobson, who had been with Spahr at flight school and later ended up in the same squadron, the famous ‘Death Rattlers’ 323, told me Spahr had what few people have: ‘an amazing ability in the airplane’. When I spoke to Hobson he was at the Miramar base in San Diego. ‘When you’re flying complex, multi-million-dollar aircraft, hand-eye co-ordination is crucial,’ he said. ‘You have to know how to use that machine lethally. The tangible difference with John Spahr was his athletic ability. And you know, being in charge of that machine – it’s exactly where people like John and me need to be. All the training is for that moment. If you had to choose one place for it to end, it wouldn’t be in a hospital: it would be up there.’

Hobson had been flying the same course as Spahr and Hinz that night but he was called back and the others went on to refuel in the air. The conditions were terrible, an ugly sandstorm, low visibility, though Hobson says the weather was better in Basra. ‘There was lightning,’ he said, ‘and after the refuelling John and Kelly lost sight of each other.’ It seems that Major Spahr was behind and below Captain Hinz when Hinz’s plane suddenly dropped fifty feet and slowed, at which point the planes collided. Both men were killed. Hobson and others believe that the pilots ejected, but an F/A-18 parachute was unlikely to deploy effectively at that height and in those stormy conditions. Major Spahr’s life may have ended at the moment of collision, but there are signs he died on impact with the ground. He fell more than 25,000 feet to the desert, where his body lay, still strapped into his ejector seat, until it was recovered the following day. ‘That night will never leave my mind,’ his sister Sabrina said when I met her in Philadelphia. ‘I feel I need to know exactly what happened to John so I can properly empathise with him in those final moments over Iraq.’

At the bus stop in Newcastle, people stood with damp hair and stared into space. The buses going east in the direction of Heaton were half full in the morning and nobody spoke. When I arrived at the house of Paul Wakefield I immediately saw a picture of his handsome younger brother on the coffee table. ‘He was my bodyguard,’ Paul said. ‘He was always quite tough, but brave. He was my hero and he always will be.’ Paul answered the door in his pyjamas and went off to grill some bacon. ‘He was too good for most people,’ he said from the kitchen. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone who could compete with my brother.’

The Jeremy Kyle Show was blaring on television. ‘You Abandoned Your Baby When He Was Two Years Old,’ it said on the screen, and all the people, audience and guests, looked angrily compliant or defiant. Paul’s sitting-room smelled of fresh ironing and there were plastic bags from Primark and Iceland along one wall, with Misty the cat easing around them and pawing the legs of his pyjama trousers. Paul threw a dismayed look at the TV and stroked the cat. ‘It would be the best thing they ever did if they left their children alone,’ he said. On the pale wooden mantelpiece, there was a Girls Aloud CD and a photograph of Paul and Anthony’s late grandmother standing outside her house with a birthday cake.

‘My epilepsy started when my grandmother died,’ he said. The doctor gave him carbamazepine, an anti-convulsant, but Paul is reluctant to take it because he thinks it will aggravate his weight problem. He is 28 and gay, with a part-time job in Marks & Spencer. ‘Anthony lived with me here when he split up with his wife,’ he said. ‘And it was a happy time, d’yer know what I mean? When my brother died in Iraq I think I just fell to pieces, to be quite honest. I had to take anti-depressants. It kills me to think that someone as strong and beautiful as Anthony could lose his life just like that. The army’s after-care service is rubbish. At the time, they say they’re going to give you the world but they don’t.’

The last thing Anthony Wakefield saw in life was dimly lit waste ground, a road going out of town at the edge of Amara. But the sight could not have been unfamiliar to him: he grew up in a similar place in the North of England, in the depressed area of Walker, where he was born on 20 August 1980. Paul was almost exactly a year older, and the brothers were always ‘the boys’. Their father, Jimmy Wakefield, died of a heart attack when Anthony was four; he’d been beaten up in the street one day and died in the armchair of their house in Walker Road, aged 40. Paul says their mother abandoned them at that time and that things have never really been right between them since. She still lives in the area. ‘Anthony and I went to live with my grandparents,’ he said. ‘My grandmother was from Greenock in Scotland and my grandfather, he was from a mining village in Durham.’ But they were really brought up by their Aunt Emily and Uncle Danny. When I went to see Emily, her house in Apple Tree Gardens was teeming with porcelain cats. ‘Anthony really loved army films,’ she said. ‘He watched Platoon every other day and he kept army films under his bed. My husband, Danny, bought him combat trousers when he was about seven – him and Paul and you couldn’t get them off him to wash them. When Anthony wore his out he stole Paul’s to wear.’

Emily showed me photographs of the boys at that age. I could see from the photos the ubiquity of the combat trousers, and a certain fearfulness in Anthony’s face. ‘When his mam left and their dad died,’ Emily said, ‘I think Anthony was left with the feeling that if he got too close to people they would leave him.’

The boys were ‘injured-seeming’ when they first arrived, a teacher at their old school said. Anthony was the more outgoing but was clearly troubled when his grandfather died suddenly in 1987, while queuing for unemployment benefit. Anthony liked football and was always easy and popular with everyone. The boys didn’t see much of their mother (she had another family) and, as the years passed, their grandmother’s people, whom Paul calls ‘my family’, were estranged from her. Paul was initially keen to steer me away from his mother, which wasn’t hard, as she carefully steered away herself.

Anthony was always very good-looking, and in childhood pictures is often jumping or running. On a trip to Holy Island, Anthony is casting himself about, seeming to look for adventure or entertainment, while Paul always appears to be retiring from the scene. ‘It was like he was the older brother,’ said Paul. ‘And eventually, telling him I was gay was just like borrowing a cup of sugar. Anthony just said: “I know. I used to share a room with you, Paul. I don’t care.” When Anthony was next to me I felt about twenty feet tall, d’yer know what I mean?’

Sister Josepha, the headmistress of St Vincent’s Primary School, can still remember the boys coming to the gate for the first time. ‘Anthony was so neat and tidy,’ she said. ‘Walking up with their grandmother, you could just feel the pain. I just wanted to bring them in and look after them; they seemed so small and so tentative. Anthony wasn’t strong educationally. You know the way some children are … not shell-shocked, but frozen somehow.’

St Vincent’s was built in 1932 as a result of the voluntary efforts of local Catholics. It is a small school in a difficult area, and, according to prideful lore, working men were known to have stolen building materials from the Tyneside shipyards to help with its construction. The day I went to see her, Sister Josepha was wearing sandals and a black wimple, and her eyes smiled through gold-rimmed spectacles. Behind her stood a large print of the Virgin and Child. ‘There was an awakening with Anthony,’ she said. ‘He developed into a bit of a monkey and people wanted to be with him. It was just too sad. When I heard Anthony had gone into the army I said, “No!” His whole physique was so thin and I couldn’t imagine him in that macho world.’

Sister Josepha showed me some old registers and school photographs of Anthony. His hair was light brown and the headmistress remembered the way he suddenly just burst out of his shell and became popular. ‘But he wasn’t the sort of boy you had to check,’ she said. Listening to her talk of her fears about Iraq and compare the loss of young men to the devastations of the First World War, my eye fell on an open bible next to her. The passage was from Luke: ‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the Word.’

Memory was the issue for Mr Simpson. A former maths teacher at the school, he now suffers from Parkinson’s disease and he said he found it difficult to settle and remember things. Mr Simpson sat in a high-backed chair wearing purple pyjamas. His living-room was small but it housed a great many bibles, which he sat in front of, his arms flailing and his legs jerking as he tried to clean his glasses and speak to me about Anthony. It seemed an incredible effort and I asked him if he’d like to take a rest. ‘No,’ he said. ‘They were great dancers, the girls in Anthony’s year. He never fought at school or anything like that. I think I had him as a full-back on the football team.’

Paul leaned into Mr Simpson’s chair. ‘Can I ask you a question?’ he said. ‘Can I ask you what you thought of me when I was a kid?’

‘Nice,’ said Mr Simpson, rocking. ‘A quiet boy.’

Brian Simpson’s sister looks after him. She brought us tea and a plastic tub of biscuits. ‘I remember,’ he said. ‘I remember’ – and his hands beat a semaphore, as if guiding the words into the room – ‘that Anthony would walk up at the end of the day and stand at my classroom door, showing his big smile. I remember several times he came up like that and I drew, with chalk, three stripes on the sleeve of his blazer. He seemed to like that, the stripes.’

John C. Spahr was born on 9 January 1963 at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden, New Jersey. His mother, Eileen, is the eldest of her Irish family, the Kellys, who came to Boston from Ireland before the Second World War. Eileen married Ronald Charles Spahr of Philadelphia, the son of German immigrants, and in the late 1950s the couple moved to a three-bedroom colonial house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, which is fairly close to Philadelphia. Everyone you ask speaks of the Spahrs as a classic American postwar family, moderately affluent and natively tough, putting great stock in education, sports, mealtimes, prayers, memories, and earning money. It is the kind of American family that knows its European origins, each generation doing a little better than the one before, while remembering where they came from. The Spahrs could always dilute conventionality with a few drinks, but overall they gleam with a sense of family duty, a common purpose, which might sometimes have chimed with the national mood.

It was obvious from babyhood that John Spahr was going to be big. He filled the crib and was often irate at first, but before he was three years old his gentleness had begun to assert itself. He was Ronnie and Eileen’s first boy – their fourth child – and in all the pictures he appears placid and willing to be charming. Yet there always appears to have been something reticent about him; on his first day at kindergarten, as he left his mother and faced the new doors, he turned and said to her: ‘What’s my name?’

‘We were the house in the neighbourhood that all the kids would gravitate to,’ his sister Sabrina says. ‘I guess being the house on the street with the largest number of kids was the reason, but if you ask us, even today, we’d say it was because we were the most fun.’ Dinner always happened at 5.30 p.m. and everybody remembers Eileen laying out the food on seven plates. They all said ‘please’ – always twice: ‘Mother, may I please be excused from the table, please?’ – and their father would never say much. Before the children left for the bus every day, the whole family would kneel down in a circle in the middle of the carpet. ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ they said, ‘good morning, Dear God, thank you for another lovely, happy day. God Bless Mommy and Daddy and all my brothers and sisters. Amen.’ Then off they would go down the path with their satchels and lunches in brown paper bags, each with his or her name marked on them: Kelly, Sabrina, Tracy, John and Stephen. They liked to build a snow wall in the yard at Christmas, to battle the Burcher boys across the street. And they had Easter outfits and lots of swimming at the beach in summer and every kind of sport you can imagine. It sounds like the world of the Kennedys, and not just because of the Irishness. It’s that American open-air life, that instinctive response to conditions outside.

Early on, it became obvious that John was gifted at sports. He was peaceful but determined. When he was trying to learn to ride a bike, he just fell off and got on, fell off and got on, until he mastered it. For John’s father, the great hope was that his son might become an athlete. Some of the siblings feel today that the pressure to succeed was almost too much, but Ronnie would get up with John at five in the morning and drive him down to the boathouse, just to see him row. It was Ronnie’s dream that his eldest son prove his specialness that way, perhaps exceeding hopes he once had for himself.

When I turned up in Cherry Hill, the lawns were already twinkling for Christmas. It was not so much a matter of keeping up with the Joneses as showing the Joneses that some values were held in common, the wire Santas and flashing sleighs a signal of consistency. Eileen Spahr answered the door in a Chanel suit and a beautiful silk blouse; there was something rather resplendent about her looks and her Irish sense of rules. She appeared to aim for correctness – or perfection, to judge by her hair and her nails, her teeth and her manners – but a merry air of devilment occasionally rose as if from her genes. Mrs Spahr made me a cup of tea and set it down in a green cup. She has lived in that house for almost fifty years, and the bustle has gone. Her husband and her elder son are dead and the others are out there prospecting for happiness, while Mrs Spahr maintains a sense of style among the lonely hours.

‘Ronnie was passionate about sports,’ she said. ‘My husband was an intense person.’ Mrs Spahr is a keen reader and she asked me several questions about books I had written and pieces I’d done. She had never allowed a writer into the house before and wanted to be sure she could handle it. She is intelligent enough to know that other people’s writing can offer disclosures that may be a little difficult to bear if you are close to the subject, but the Irish in her wanted to speak and pack up her troubles. ‘Oh, yeah,’ she said, when I asked her if John was fixated on pleasing his parents. ‘And it wasn’t a burden for him. He wanted to be a good guy. He said to his brother once: “Don’t you want to be all right for them?” From a young age John was focused.’

Captain Kelly Hinz and Major John Spahr (right)
Captain Kelly Hinz and Major John Spahr (right)

‘Well, he had no choice but to be successful,’ his sister Kelly said to me later, ‘because my dad was always pushing. Dad was always torturing himself. But he didn’t have to worry about John because John always liked to be doing something at a high level.’

When he was around twelve, John was always out on the street shouting orders at the other kids. He just had that leadership thing and all the kids respected him. ‘Then suddenly,’ his mother says, ‘he just stopped all that. I asked him why he wasn’t shouting any more. He said: “I just don’t wanna be that way.”’ When, in junior high school, he was called out and had a fistfight he had to tell his mother about it. She was simply pleased he had won. ‘I thought it was always my job to keep them safe and on track,’ she said. The boys spent a lot of the summer holidays cutting grass for money around the neighbourhood.

‘That’s the smell I remember,’ Sabrina said. ‘The boys’ room always smelled like old, grassy, pre-teen sneakers. I remember opening their closet and looking down to a mound of sneakers and thinking: Why are there so many?’ And when I spoke to her in a bar at the top of a tall hotel in Philadelphia, Sabrina just kept turning over the pages of old photo albums as if they held a mystery. She’d been putting the albums together ever since John died, wanting to bind the material of his life and all their lives together. ‘Ever since he was young,’ she said, ‘he had a coach’s mentality. The kids in the street wanted to be like him. And, you know, the motto of the Marines is Semper Fidelis, “Always Faithful”. That was him and always was him. Even before he was flying he loved to fly at things. We had a great childhood.’

Mrs Spahr wanted to show me around the house before we continued talking. The boys’ room had an American flag above the desk. The trees outside seemed frozen and watchful, while Mrs Spahr recounted how the boys would play games up here once upon a time and share stories and laughs. It was hard not to think of soldiers all over the world who started off in small bedrooms like the one in Cherry Hill; as I looked up at the placid walls and the tidy small space, a certain dream seemed to rise for a moment and take hold, a very domestic dream of glory. Motivations are perhaps the greatest mystery of all.

‘You know, his father hated to fly,’ said Mrs Spahr. It seemed he would do anything to avoid going on a plane, including driving across the country to see John when he lived in San Diego. ‘Ronnie wanted John to be a football coach and that was that. He didn’t want him to join the Marines and thank God he wasn’t around to see what happened to John because it would have killed him, too.’ Mrs Spahr was dabbing her eyes with kitchen napkins as she spoke; they were brightly coloured, with the words ‘Happy Holidays’ printed on each one.

When I caught up with Sabrina again she seemed as if she had been thinking about significant things in the meantime. ‘Even at a young age,’ she said, ‘he wanted to bring out the best in people and teach you what he knew. That was his gift. For my father, it was all about family. We went to church and it was always the front pew. It was a house where they would have parties, cocktails and cigarettes. It was that time, right?’ Sabrina is different from the other people in her family: she worries a lot and is an organiser. She will say, in quiet moments, that there is something missing in her life and that what happened to John stopped her in her tracks. Like her sister Kelly, she often starts sentences with the phrase, ‘I said to my husband …’ and she gives off a feeling of hope that family can answer all of life’s demands.

Mrs Spahr played down the influence of her husband’s anxieties on John’s chosen path, but others felt the influence was pretty decisive. ‘Not a lot of fathers in New Jersey would get up at five in the morning to drive their son to the river,’ Sabrina said. I thought about that, and wondered at Ronnie’s overall effect on his son’s inner life. Sabrina’s voice is quiet, even quieter when she’s discussing their father, as if he might be listening, as if she were speaking in church, as if she were being disloyal. ‘He didn’t talk about much,’ she said. ‘My mom talked. I always wished that he had talked more.’

In May 1981 there was a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer: ‘Spahr is New Jersey’s gift to St Joseph’s Prep Rowing’, the headline said. ‘In America, those kinds of young men are a breed apart,’ said a friend of the family, ‘and they’re treated like gods in certain schools.’ The photograph accompanying the article is of a tousle-haired, clean-limbed and smiling John Spahr, looking like a tragic hero out of Scott Fitzgerald.

Why does one of the very best scholastic rowers in the United States go to school in North Philadelphia – when he lives in Cherry Hill? ‘It was just word of mouth,’ said John Spahr, who won the Junior National Singles championship last summer, rowing for St Joseph’s Prep … Spahr, who gets up at 5 a.m. daily so that he can start practising on the Schuylkill at 6, isn’t just an oarsman. He started at quarterback for the Prep this fall, and started for the private school stars in the City All-Star Game in April.

The newspaper spread also included a picture of Mrs Spahr, elegant as ever, a believing mother, mid-life, pre-crisis, and far from the vexations of a poor Irish childhood, shouting encouragement to her American boy from the bank of the river.

St Joseph’s Prep is a Jesuit school. Past a hall of portraits showing successive principals since 1966, the head rowing coach Bill Lamb sat in a room under an overactive air-conditioning system. ‘To educate mind, body and spirit,’ he said, ‘and show how these three components make a complete person, that is the Jesuit mantra.’ Like many of the people I talked to about John Spahr, Mr Lamb spoke about him in the present tense. I wondered as I listened to the coach’s tough statements what effect the death of a young man had on the lives of people who lived for the vitality of youth. But Mr Lamb was circumspect: one imagines he feels, somewhere, that sacrifice is a known and regrettable part of the game. ‘John is the perfect model,’ Mr Lamb continued. ‘To turn the skill and the confidence you learn in athletics and use that to develop as a person – and John, in a heroic way, took that complete person and recognised how he could best be of service to others. He dedicated his life to that.’

His star pupil wanted to lead and change things. He was popular and athletic, and the rowing team needed that very badly at the time, because it was feared the school might lose its position in the league. ‘If we could get John to row, the rest of the kids in the school would look at rowing as something cool to do. When this started we had nine guys and by the end we had over a hundred. The best marketing is when the kids tell other kids there’s value in what they’re doing. He was successful at everything he ever did. But even when he was at the top level, John acted as if he was at the bottom. Out of any year, you can see there are two or three who will do outstanding things.’

I imagined Mr Lamb was a lot like Mr Tothero, the coach in the first of John Updike’s Rabbit novels:

The coach is concerned with developing the three tools we are given in life: the head, the body and the heart … All those years, all those boys, they pass through your hands and into the blue. And never come back, Harry; they never come back … Give the boys the will to achieve. I’ve always liked that better than the will to win, for there can be achievement even in defeat. Make them feel the, yes, I think the word is good, the sacredness of achievement, in the form of giving our best.

‘Some talented guys can sit back a little,’ Bill Lamb said, ‘but John was working as hard as the weakest guy on the team. He didn’t want to risk the privilege by getting involved in some of the things that teenagers get involved in.’

‘And what about his father?’ I asked. ‘Some people have suggested the influence was strong.’

‘His father was a very, very conservative, strict disciplinarian,’ he said. ‘He raised all his daughters as if they were boys. It was his way or the highway.’

‘Isn’t there a danger in the American system,’ I said, ‘in creating such a platform for sterling brilliance at school that the rest of life is a struggle to maintain it?’

‘Absolutely,’ Bill Lamb said. ‘That’s our greatest challenge. We have a lot of kids who never leave high school. They’re 30 years old and they’re still operating as if it was St Joe’s Prep, and the real world isn’t like that. Some of them have a problem in applying the lessons they learned here to their daily lives. But it’s about hard work. Pick up the sports pages I’ll show you five of those guys. But with John it was almost as if he didn’t really exist. He was the model of success, and you couldn’t have drawn it any better.’

Down at the boathouse it was dark and the town’s lights were reflected in the black ripples of the river. Al Zimmerman, another of John’s teachers, showed me the boat that was named after John and the memorial plaque. Mr Zimmerman used to teach Latin and Greek at the school and he wrote the words for the plaque; he skirted around them when I was there, as if shy of what he had produced. The boathouse was full of expired energy and prolonged ideals. Al talked of what they tried to give John and about what he gave them. His voice lapped gently and kindly at my back as I looked out at the river, and beyond that to the merging borders of Pennsylvania and Delaware and New Jersey, wondering how many of the people out there once knew a young man called John Spahr. And what did his life say about theirs? About ours? About the lives of nations? ‘He liked to roll his sleeves up and get the job done,’ Al Zimmerman said. ‘And that’s what you really need in crew. He applied those same principles elsewhere.’

The River Tyne is a place where famous industry appears to have given way to infamous leisure. The only ship I passed as I made my way to visit Anthony Wakefield’s wife and children was one called Tuxedo Princess, a former liner now converted into a nightclub. Along the quay the flashing lights spoke of concert halls and happy hours, while the shipyard cranes stood still against the dark. Among them, once upon a time, battle-cruisers were built to order and the gatling gun was made by W. Armstrong & Co.

Anthony – left – and Paul
Anthony – left – and Paul

As he came to the end of his schooldays, Anthony kept saying he wanted to be a soldier. Living with his grandparents, he had always enjoyed the stories his grandfather would tell about surviving the Normandy landings. Anthony’s guardians made a rule that no toy guns were allowed in the house. But at secondary school Anthony got in with a rowdy crowd and was expelled. His childhood was transformed in that period by an adult accusation: some girls said he’d got rough with them in a park. ‘It wasn’t true,’ his brother said, ‘but it shocked him. Anthony was dyslexic and was never going to sit exams anyhow.’

The Army Careers Office in Northumberland Street turned Anthony away the first time. They said he was too small and too thin, so he got a job stacking shelves at a discount supermarket; the second time they let him have the forms. His Uncle Danny says he didn’t think Anthony would pass the interview for the army because he was a little bow-legged and had high arches. Anthony accepted another job, at the 24-hour Tesco in Kingston Park near the airport – where many of the staff go round on roller skates – but right away the letter came from the army saying he was in. Anthony and Paul’s grandmother was dying, but she said she wanted to hold on to hear Anthony’s news, ‘Just to make sure the boys were all right,’ Paul said.

Anthony’s choice of regiment, the Coldstream Guards, was made on the basis, he said, that all the best-looking guys joined the Guards. He did his training at Catterick and Aldershot and then Pirbright, where he passed out in 1998 on St George’s Day. ‘We had to stand in a line for four hours,’ Anthony wrote to his Aunt Emily during his training. ‘All our legs hurt and we are all very tired and we are starving. The only thing I’ve had is a Murray Mint off one of the lads. We are going to get our haircuts tomorrow.’

Once he got going, Anthony was getting about £250 a week, serving first in Belize and then in Northern Ireland. When he came home on leave, he would sometimes go out with Paul and his friends to clubs in Newcastle. Anthony loved tanning parlours and dancing, so he was as comfortable in his brother’s preferred gay haunts as anywhere else. ‘If anyone had come near him I would probably have killed them,’ Paul said when I asked him about it.

‘Was there anything about Anthony you didn’t like?’

‘I didn’t like it that he smoked,’ Paul said, ‘or that he had tattoos. The tattoos came with the army.’

On the left side of his chest Anthony had a fairly large tattoo of a ripped flag – a Coldstream Guards staple – and he also had a tattoo of a kneeling girl in fishnet stockings. During his second tour in Northern Ireland, a young Catholic pulled a gun on him but he didn’t fire and Anthony was commended for standing his ground. Before that he’d already got married to Ann Toward, a girl he’d met in the Global Video shop on Shields Road. ‘He was just dead nice,’ Ann says. ‘He took care of himself and he was a laugh.’

Ann already had a little girl, Stacey, when she met Anthony. She had the baby when she was about 18 and she has never had a job. (She is 33.) She and Anthony went on to have two more children, Scott and Corey, who are now aged ten and five. Anthony’s Aunt Emily told me Anthony ‘totally loved’ having a house of his own. ‘He would love making dinners,’ she said. ‘And he’d want everybody round. When he did that he’d clean the house from top to bottom. It was as if he just loved the idea of making a proper family himself.’

Anthony Wakefield (left)
Anthony Wakefield (left)

Paul has few good words to say about Anthony’s widow, and she knows it. I tried to steer him away from saying too much. I told him I was writing everything down, but he said that didn’t bother him. The circumstances of his childhood and his brother’s loss have made Paul self-absorbed, understandably so perhaps, but he doesn’t see how difficult it must be for Ann bringing up three children on her own. Paul and Anthony’s difficulties with their own mother may lie behind some of this confusion. Paul was boiling with rage about his mother one night when I drove him round Newcastle. At that stage, his mother hadn’t wanted to speak to me, and Paul couldn’t understand why. He couldn’t work out why other people didn’t see the point of the story – as if it meant they didn’t see the point of Anthony – and he considered his mother’s refusal to be yet another rejection.

This had all been part of the chaos of Anthony’s life, not just his childhood but also the time before he died, when he and Ann had split up and he was going out with a local hairdresser called Kym. The Byker Estate was pitch-black the night I called on Ann, and her house seemed over-excited and overpopulated, children rushing in and out of the bright kitchen. She is a pretty woman with a nice smile and a bad cough. She was looking for her inhaler but she held a pack of cigarettes in her hand the whole time I was there. I was told Scott had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and he certainly whirled around a fair amount, crashing into the fridge and clearly finding it hard to settle.

‘My dad and me went to the lighthouse museum,’ Scott said, wrapping himself around my arm. ‘On my birthday my dad hided all the presents behind the settee and in the cupboards. I found five and then he told me where the other ones were. There was a hundred stairs at the lighthouse museum.’

‘He died,’ said Corey.

‘I went in me dad’s car with me friend,’ said Scott, ‘and we ate chewing gum and we asked Dad if we could put music on and that and he say: “Aye.”’

I asked Scott what he would like to do when he grows up. ‘I want to be a high court judge and work with horses,’ he said. The whole family spoke with singsong Geordie accents, the words pouring into one another.

Stacey came down the stairs wearing a Playgirl T-shirt and with her hair in bunches. She is 14. A neighbour told me that Anthony doted on Stacey. ‘When he got home on leave,’ she said, ‘he was always taking her up the town to buy her phones and trainers, whatever she wanted.’ By the time Stacey began to speak – it took her a while to stop chewing the ends of her hair and giggling – the living-room had turned into a corner of Bedlam. Scott was thumping the Formica kitchen top with a giant stick and shooting us all with a plastic gun and Corey was blowing a whistle. ‘My dad was nice,’ said Stacey. ‘He told jokes and he didn’t shout at you. We went to the MetroCentre on my birthday. He bought us a Girls Aloud CD and jeans and everything, then we went to KFC.’

When Anthony Wakefield died, his loss animated a series of hurts and complications that might never end. ‘Every Christmas, every birthday, every memory,’ Ann said, ‘the death of Anthony just affects the kids. To Corey his father is just in heaven. Stacey goes off on her own to her bedroom and broods about it and has her own thoughts. With Scott’s problems, he often just doesn’t understand. At the time of Anthony’s death, Stacey would blame me, saying, “It should have been you,” and things like that.’

I asked her if they had enough to live on.

‘We have £800 a month,’ she said, ‘£416 of that goes on rent for this house, and there’s another £100 a month for council tax.’

‘So you and the kids have £70 a week left to live off?’

‘Aye,’ she said. ‘You’ve just got to get on with it.’

It was hard to speak to Ann while Paul was there: resentment made him vigilant, and he felt angry when she spent a few moments with me in the kitchen alone, ‘forcing me to hear her side of the story’, he said.

‘There needn’t be sides,’ I said to him later. But I felt sorry for Paul and thought his possessiveness about his brother’s memory could only be part of his grief. ‘I’ve got these kids and I get the pension and that’s what bothers him,’ Ann said. ‘He never comes here. Neither does their mother, the kids’ grandmother. She hasn’t seen the children since the day of Anthony’s funeral. There’s been a lot of nasty stuff, but I’m not bothered really. People might think I stole Anthony away too young and made him have kids. But it wasn’t like that. We did it together and now he’s gone we have to make it the best way we can.’

When I asked her, Ann said that Anthony really loved being in the army. That was his first love. ‘We probably married too young,’ she said. ‘He only had two days’ leave when Corey was born, then it was on to Iraq. It was hard and things just fell apart. But I don’t think the dislike will ever end with Paul and his family. It’s sad for the kids but you’ve just got to get on with it.’

One of Ann’s neighbours in Byker is called Angela Cairns. As I walked to her house there was a crack of lightning over the estate and a roll of thunder. Angela knew Anthony and Ann when they first met. ‘He had a huge picture of the singer George Michael above his bed,’ said Angela. ‘Everybody teased him about it, but he said: “One day I’ll be famous like him.”’ Angela was wearing huge hooped earrings and slippers covered in hearts. Whenever she got excited she kicked an Argos catalogue that was sitting on the floor beside the front door. ‘One night, when he was home from the army,’ she said, ‘Anthony went out on the town with my son Stephen. They went to Buffalo Joe’s on the Gateside Quays – Steve was Gothic, then – and they were drunk and coming across the swing bridge. Stephen was really pissed up and he climbed onto the side of the bridge and lost his footing. He fell all that way down into the Tyne and he was struggling in the water ’cause his Gothic gear was dragging him down. Anthony dived in. The tide is strong down there and Stephen was losing consciousness, but Anthony pulled him to the side by the hair and then insisted on giving him artificial respiration. He saved Stephen’s life and then Anthony was up all night crying.’

When he was leaving for Iraq that last time, it was a Sunday and he went with Paul and Kym to have lunch and then began packing his bags. ‘Don’t be a hero,’ Paul said. And when his truck back to Aldershot broke down, Paul and Kym decided to drive him and another young squaddie all the way down in Kym’s car. ‘We were exhausted by the time we got there,’ Paul said, ‘and we all fell asleep in the one bed in his living quarters, me and Kym with Anthony in the middle. In the morning all the soldiers were pleased to see him. He had a shower and then he gave me a microwave oven to take home and a DVD player. When it was time to go he grabbed me and gave me a big hug. It was usually me that instigated that, but this time it was Anthony and it meant a lot. That was the last time I ever saw him. He just looked spotless. We were always like that when we were kids, always spotless.’ We were in a restaurant at Newcastle quayside when Paul said this, and he sat back in his chair. ‘We didn’t have much as kids,’ he said, ‘and … that’s it. We didn’t have much.’

Ann and the children were asleep on 2 May 2005 when the knock came at the door. Ann was shaking as the children came down the stairs, Scott saying: ‘When my daddy comes home I’m going to ask him to buy me a backpack.’ Ann took all the children into the kitchen and told them there had been an accident; ‘Daddy’s gone to heaven,’ she said. The children were screaming and Ann phoned her neighbour Angela in a terrible state – ‘heartbroken,’ Angela said – and everyone was bewildered and disbelieving at four in the morning, the children crying and trying to imagine how it could happen. Paul says when he heard the knock on his door he thought it would be Anthony. ‘He must be home.’ But through the spy hole he saw it was Ann and Stephen. ‘I was so stunned,’ Paul says, ‘that they thought I was going to smash the place up. I remember just walking around the house putting pictures of Anthony in my pocket.’ Then the three of them went to tell Anthony’s mother. ‘It’s all my fault,’ is what Paul remembers her saying. ‘She was throwing up her hands,’ Paul says, ‘shouting, “Jimmy, Jimmy” … shouting for her husband. She said she thought it was all her own fault because of what happened when we were little.’

Months after my first visit to Newcastle, I went back when the opportunity arose, very suddenly, to spend a little time with Anthony’s mother, Sylvia Grieve. Her house on Finsbury Avenue is very neat and modest, with a sign on the side facing the street that says No Ball Games. Mrs Grieve was wearing black trousers and a black top; she is a small, easily embarrassed woman, wearing a bracelet covered in gold hearts, and with eyes that seem to show some experience of what the world is like; her world, at least. ‘Anthony had been a very happy baby and daft as a brush,’ she said. ‘I lost them when they were very young because of marriage difficulties. I was too young when I had kids. My own family background wasn’t very nice so you rush into things to get a house of your own. It was mainly worries with money and his dad liked a drink. When I got the news about him I just felt guilty and wondered why it wasn’t me that died.’

Mrs Grieve has photographs of Anthony on several of her walls and she appears to live a lot of her life between the gas fire and the television set.

‘And did you worry about him?’ I asked.

‘You always have this thing in the back of your mind,’ she said. ‘But you could tell he was frightened the last time I saw him, before he went off. I says to him: “Just tell them your mam says you have to come back or else I’ll come looking for them and I’ll bash them.” And when they came with the news that he’d died, I just kept hearing Anthony’s voice saying to me: “Come on, Mam. You’ve got to say something.” That’s what I imagined him saying.’

Mrs Grieve was quoted later as saying that she blamed Tony Blair for her son’s death. (Paul puts it differently: he says George Bush murdered Anthony.) You can tell Anthony’s mother isn’t actually very interested in politics, but she wishes her son had come home and she says she feels the Americans are taking all the glory. ‘But I suppose Anthony wanted to go,’ she said. ‘He was eager. From the beginning, from the very beginning, Anthony always wanted a little limelight on him.’

As evening approached in Cherry Hill, Eileen Spahr began to tell me her own story. She has the kind of faith in comfort and progress that comes from not having known enough of either in childhood. When it comes to her children, she points out that she may not always have got things right – too much pressure, perhaps, on Stephen, the younger son, who was more rebellious; too much emphasis, perhaps, on her husband’s hopes – but with all that she has a basic certainty about the values she sees her family as having tried to live by. ‘“You’ve got to have testicles,”’ she said to John when he was dithering at college. ‘“Go full force and take advantage of the opportunities in life.” John was my best friend – he had this beautifulness of spirit – and we could talk about pretty much anything.’

Under his photograph in his high school yearbook, John Spahr chose the motto, ‘Good company on a journey makes the way seem shorter.’ He got his degree from the University of Delaware and he met and fell in love with Diane, who was later his wife. ‘He was affable,’ his sister Tracy says, ‘and he had a real soft side. At Delaware he did a lot of growing up.’ He came to university trailing high expectations, but he lost his football scholarship, which people say was just part of some bigger job of getting to know himself. ‘I think he was quite shaken up by not quite knowing what to do,’ Tracy says. After that, he worked for a while teaching physical fitness. He also spent time teaching sports to handicapped children. ‘I knew he wanted a large life,’ said his mother. ‘So I went down there to have lunch with him. I said: “John, what do you want to do?” And he said he wanted to fly jets, so I said: “Go do it.” Ronnie had totally figured out what John should do with his life: he should go to the Naval Academy and coach football – that’s the life my husband would have wanted. I don’t want to be disloyal to my husband, but he knew he was right. He became more and more German every day of his life. My father was domineering, you know, and my mother’s policy was appeasement.’

Three times that summer John came home to tell his father he had joined the Marines, but three times he left Cherry Hill having failed to tell him. In any event, he had entered a five-year programme to become a pilot. On 6 August 1991 Mrs Spahr wrote about John in her journal: ‘On this day John called in the middle of the afternoon. And I said “why?” and he said “jets” and I said “happy?” and he said “yes”.’ A couple of years later there’s another entry in Mrs Spahr’s diary: ‘John called a few minutes ago. “I am alive and I am happy – the best day of my life, winged in the Marines … Whatever happens, I am content. I did my best.”’ Mrs Spahr says that from that point on, no man was ever so proud of his son as Ronnie was of John.

‘I met John as he followed his dream of becoming a marine jet pilot at the basic school in Quantico, Virginia,’ his friend Kevin Wolfe said. They went on from there to further training at Kingsville, Texas. ‘Dukes stood out,’ Wolfe said. ‘He had the classic good looks and swagger of a marine – he carried himself with confidence and right away you wanted to follow him and you didn’t know why. He had an unparalleled work ethic: he lived in our tactical manuals, perfecting his briefing and debriefing skills. John wanted to be a Top Gun instructor, and because he had performed so well in the navy’s premier strike fighter course, he accepted their invitation. It was there that Dukes would have an indelible impact on pilots throughout the navy and Marine Corps. He was funny too. My wife, Heather, and I were there when his daughter, Chandler, was born in San Diego. I remember as we all anxiously waited to know his or her arrival, John came out with a sheepish grin and said: “Well, she’s a Republican!”’

John Spahr and his wife, Diane, worked hard at their marriage, but in the end, like so many military marriages, it didn’t work out. In trying to give an account of a life fully lived, a writer wonders what matters most. In the end, what we write is not merely an account of the bare facts, but an account of our choices and of other people’s: the Spahrs are a family who care about family and they speak of John’s endless affection for his daughter. ‘He was married to flying anyhow,’ his sister Kelly said. ‘It’s like a vocation, and that’s that.’

Lieutenant Colonel D.A. Robinson was an instructor on the Top Gun staff with John Spahr. This is the elite training school for fighter pilots in Fallon, Nevada. ‘A number of his commanding officers said he was the best officer that has ever served under them,’ he said. ‘And a number of his own staff said he was the best officer they’d ever served under. He always had a special faith in the underdog.’ At the Top Gun school, instructors would be expected to debrief rookie pilots when they returned from a training exercise. This would normally take twenty minutes or so, but Spahr’s were famous for their length. Major Tim Golden remembers ‘a debriefing of John’s that took six hours. Nobody could believe it. The poor guy was in there for six hours and John would just go over everything in detail.’

I met Major Tim ‘Nugs’ Golden and Major Dan ‘Knuckles’ Shipley in an Irish bar in Washington, only a few minutes’ walk from Capitol Hill. There was a game on television as we entered, and Rich Gannon was commentating on the Miami Dolphins’ performance as we ordered. ‘Gannon played behind John Spahr in school,’ Nugs said. ‘There was always this competition between them, and many people felt that John was better than Gannon.’ This is the world these men live in: a universe of professional self-improvement and ceaseless competition, where being better than the next guy is a survival instinct. ‘John was the guy everybody listened to,’ Nugs added. ‘He was the best instructor by far – a coach, really. And he was so competitive. We were all out there in 2003 in the Gulf and John would be involved in the most stressful things, then he would stay up all night playing Xbox. I remember we all played and then turned in for the night, and we kept calling him to get some sleep, but whenever I woke up, all the way to 6 a.m., he was still playing that damn thing, trying to get to the next level. He was up all night.’

‘And he had natural flying ability,’ said Knuckles. (I noticed these pilots liked me to use their call signs; anything else seems too formal to them.) ‘He had flown more dog fights than anybody else and was so far ahead of the action.’

‘That was it,’ Nugs said. ‘His only fault was to push and push and you’d say: “Hey, dude – relax, friggin relax.” But he always wanted to do more and more, which was a pressure on him and on others as well.’

‘He chose the toughest route,’ Knuckles said. ‘It’s much more intense being a marine fighter pilot – six months’ infantry training, then two years’ flight school. You gotta learn how to land that thing on an aircraft carrier. Then they ask him to come back as an instructor and he comes back and he’s the best. God, man: you wanna kick him in the nuts. But he had humility. There were people who were as good pilots as he was but none of them had his humility.’

In training videos, you see how John Spahr would explain to groups of elite pilots all the things that could happen flying his particular jet, but he kept it mainly technical. He could draw on more than three thousand hours of flying experience, but he was discreet about his missions. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Spahr had spent a great deal of time in military combat, flying sorties in Bosnia and supporting the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. In 2003 he was aboard the USS Constellation, a veteran carrier made famous during Vietnam, and it was from here that he would lead a bombing campaign in Iraq that would exceed the might and devastation of all that conflict’s previous campaigns.

On 20 March 2003 the CIA received reports from Iraqi spies that Saddam Hussein would spend the night at a farm on the banks of the Tigris in eastern Baghdad. The Shock and Awe air campaign was launched at 9 p.m. local time the following day, involving, according to William Arkin of the Washington Post,

1700 aircraft flying 830 strike sorties plus 505 cruise missiles attacking 1500 aimpoints at several hundred targets: palaces, homes, guard headquarters, government buildings, military bases. More targets were attacked in Baghdad in the span of one hour on 21 March than were hit in the entire 43-day air campaign in 1991, and airpower followed up reliably every day with hundreds more strikes. When the sandstorm came, when the Fedayeen arrived, when ground commanders got nervous that Iraq was not the country that the US had wargamed against, when the Red Line was crossed, when the public got equally nervous, airpower continued in the background, bombing, bombing, bombing.

According to Jon Lee Anderson’s account in his book The Fall of Baghdad, ‘the sheer power and scale and precision of the attacks were at once terrible and awe-inspiring and placed us in a state of mind in which almost anything seemed possible.’

John Spahr was the first pilot over Baghdad on 21 March and the first to deliver bombs. His sister Kelly said he would never talk about what happened; ‘That’s what John said,’ Kelly remembers. ‘There are things he did that I knew he would never talk about. But John wasn’t political in the way some people are: he believed in the commander-in-chief and he followed orders. That’s what he did.’ John told his friends that if his commanding officer said ‘Go,’ he’d go, and personal opinion had nothing to do with it. At the end of that first mission in Baghdad, as the sun was coming up, John had his photograph taken in midair by one of his colleagues. For the photograph, John tilted up the bottom of the jet, to show the camera his bombs were gone.

Knuckles, another member of the Death Rattlers on those missions, told me what it’s like up there in a fighter plane during a mission. ‘There’s anti-aircraft stuff coming at you,’ he said, ‘and you’re working via night goggles. Your mouth goes dry and it ain’t funny any more. This is what happens when you’re “in-country”. Time slows down to an incredible level and everything is deliberate. And you’re making sure you’re getting precision in the bombing. You’re taking information like drinking from a firehose. You’ve got to be aware of your altitude; you’re looking at your wingman. You’re worried if you can make it back. It’s literally overwhelming. It’s such a frickin challenge and you know it’s a son of a bitch. And then at the end you have to land this thing on a ship in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night.’ Nugs was a mission commander that night. ‘You’re saying: “Please, God, don’t let me mess this up,”’ he said. ‘It’s as confusing as hell out there.’

‘I loved to fly with Dukes,’ said David Peeler, another pilot who served with Spahr in Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323. ‘John and I had something in common in our childhoods that prepared us very well for that business. It was not a game to him. He understood that to “go to the show”, as he put it, was what we all aspired to do, that is lead in combat.’

Anthony Wakefield and John Spahr were, at whatever remove, brothers in arms, but they also had brothers back home who would have to live with the glory they had sought and found. John Spahr’s brother, Stephen, wears his own duty with a smile: he is proud of his older brother, and perfectly silent on the pressure that must always have existed for him to live up to his example. But, whatever he says or doesn’t say, his burden multiplied after that fatal flight on 2 May 2005.

Their mother says Stephen was always different. She remembers him, as a boy, pouring water down from the top of the stairs onto the carpet below, an act of gleeful destruction that would never have occurred to the solid John. Stephen got into drinking and girls pretty early and his freedoms were never squeezed by his father’s dislikes. He was just his own man and he still is, while knowing that his brother’s example is now not only an alternative to his own life, but a hallowed ground that surrounds him. ‘We stayed up late, John and I, at my sister’s house one time,’ Stephen said. ‘We’d had a few cocktails together and were pretty drunk, and John said we were different in a way that he did what was important to make my parents happy … going to St Joe’s Prep, a stepping stone to a good career and all that. Whereas I did what made me happy. John was more focused. He didn’t want to share the glory, neither would I – if you’re gonna play baseball, you wanna be the pitcher. If you’re gonna do crew, you want to be in a single shell. He wanted to make my parents proud.’

Stephen will always remember the boys’ bedroom at Cherry Hill, the trees outside, the brothers’ customary whispers and laughter, and the bus journeys to school in the morning after they’d been to the boathouse. But his abiding memory of John might be one of his last, when he visited his brother on the aircraft carrier in Honolulu. ‘I was looking down and looking for his plane,’ Stephen said. ‘And suddenly I saw it taxiing up from the end of the carrier. He’s got the full face mask on and his uniform, but I knew it was him just by his mannerisms. He gave me the thumbs up and then I saw him holding onto the dashboard – then, phweeeewo, he was off. He said to me one time, just before that last tour, that he was a little bit disgusted with what was going on with the war. He was getting a little frustrated with the military – I think he didn’t like killing people – and it started to get to him a little bit.’

I was later briefed on a report written up by the Pentagon, and it appears John Spahr probably died instantly. It is unlikely that he ejected at the point of collision, but even if he did his parachute seems not to have deployed and, falling five miles in a sandstorm, he would not have been conscious. He suffered a severe injury to his head and he was later found in the desert a great distance from the jet fragments, a great distance from the floating city he knew as his temporary home, and a great distance, too, from his daughter in San Diego and from the boys’ room at Cherry Hill, where he once stared into the dark and dreamed of glory in the miles that were said to exist above the trees and beyond the shores.

On that day in May, two marines came to the door at Cherry Hill and found that Mrs Spahr was in Florida. The neighbour across the road saw them and called Sabrina, who was already panicking when she saw the television news, which spoke of two pilots assigned to the USS Carl Vinson having gone down. ‘No,’ said Sabrina, ‘please don’t say it’s John.’

In Florida, Mrs Spahr was staying with a friend and she was in the back of the house when her host shouted that two of her friends were at the door. Mrs Spahr came through and nearly passed out: she knew the meaning of two marines standing at the door of a house containing the mother of a marine. ‘I had always planned,’ Mrs Spahr told me, ‘that if I saw those marines come to the door, I would just go out of the back door and I would just run until I disappeared into the earth. That was my plan. I went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with John and Chandler one time. He just wanted her to see it, and he loved it there. He was such a peaceful man. That’s what you would say about him. I’ve been there a bunch of times but I’m not going to that place again. I just can’t go there any more. When I was in Florida that time, I took a drive up to the Gulf Coast. I felt so peaceful and everything was so beautiful – for about an hour there was just this exquisite peace.’

When a soldier was clearing out Anthony Wakefield’s quarters at Camp Abu Naji, he found a collection of posters stuck above his bed and they too were sent home to Newcastle, the Blu-Tack still on the back of them. They included posters of John Lennon, the Sex Pistols, Adam Ant and Bruce Lee. Anthony had filled in standard MOD Form 106 – a soldier’s will – saying that the contents of his savings account should be split between the three children and that all his personal belongings should go to his girlfriend, Kym. These belongings made for three small boxes, and included a sandwich toaster, a gold ring engraved DAD, various CDs and civilian clothes, and a Gucci money clip, along with personal cash of £27.76. His collection of papers was not voluminous, either: some legal things, vehicle documents, a booklet from the Guild of International Songwriters and Composers and a membership card for Blockbuster Video.

A letter came to the home of Anthony’s Aunt Emily, the woman who had brought him up, from Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Henderson. ‘Such was his, and their professionalism,’ he wrote, ‘they were chosen to look after the most demanding and dangerous part of the city – in order that real progress could be made. They were having a positive effect on the Iraqis, who are desperate for peace and security, and we will continue in the same manner, partly to fulfil our mission here, but also, and most importantly, to honour the memory of Anthony.’

Anthony Wakefield’s body was flown back to RAF Brize Norton and from there to Newcastle. The funeral took place at St Gabriel’s Church in Heaton. Before the service, the hearse drove past his old house, and his son Scott looked out of the window and wondered what the car and the box inside it had to do with his dad. There was a large crowd on the streets around the church that day, and the coffin was taken up the aisle to ‘Ave Maria’, covered in yellow tulips. Paul put a card in beside his brother, saying all the things he wished he had said before; it went down into the ground with Anthony and Paul feels pleased that nobody will ever know exactly what it said.

The Benton Road graveyard was empty the day I went there with Paul. It had the look of so many English urban cemeteries, neglected in the evening traffic, more a place of forgetting than a garden of remembrance. Vandals had made their presence felt, gravestones pushed over, lager cans strewn in several areas, the remains of small fires. You could see the buses lighting up on the main road as Paul took me first to see his father’s grave, and then past rows of civilians, the local people of Newcastle who had died where they were born and whose arguments had come to rest in the same place as the people they were arguing with. ‘Everybody ends up here,’ Paul said, except he hoped that he would not, and that a job entertaining on a cruise ship would come up before the end of the year. We stood in front of Anthony’s headstone, a simple, grey one paid for by the Coldstream Guards, and I thought of Paul’s letter mouldering in the local soil. There wasn’t much light left at the end of the day, but enough to see other headstones just like Anthony’s further along the line. ‘There was nobody like him,’ Paul said as we turned to go.

Lieutenant Colonel John Spahr was buried with full military ceremony, the occasion marked by the first fly-past in Washington since the events of 9/11. John’s sister Tracy was involved in the second term of the Reagan-Bush administration, working as an assistant press secretary. She later campaigned for the vice president and had several posts in his administration. ‘My friends at the White House had always wanted to know about John,’ she told me. ‘Everybody was impressed with him, but to him it was just his calling. He accepted it and he made the sacrifice. I know that, had he survived, John would have gone on to very great things. The Pentagon was certainly on his list.’ A few days after his death, a letter came to Tracy’s house from her old boss, the president’s father, George Bush. ‘Dear Tracy,’ it said. ‘I am so sorry that your brother was KIA. Perhaps it is of some comfort to know that this truly good man gave his life serving our great country. May God Bless him as he holds John in his loving arms. Please convey to all your family my most sincere condolences. To you I send my love.’ Two hundred family and friends, and his beloved daughter, Chandler, accompanied John Spahr’s coffin to Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried in a low plain made over to the American dead of Iraq.

John’s sister Kelly picked me up in Baltimore and we drove to Arlington from there. ‘John was timing his retirement to be when Chandler was in high school,’ she said. ‘Just to be with her.’ As we got closer to Washington I began to notice how many of her mannerisms were just like her mother’s. ‘What’s my point?’ she would say if she got lost in talking about John. ‘We went to our boys’ school,’ she said, ‘and there was this sign hanging up and it was a kind of American motto – Men for Others. I just turned to my husband and said: “I think we’ve had enough of Men for Others, don’t you?”’ She told me about their beach house, where one day a few years ago, when they knew John was going to be flying past that way, they went down onto the sand and wrote in big letters, ‘HELLO JOHN’.

In Arlington Cemetery there were red-ribboned wreaths in front of every grave, stretching in each direction as far as the eye could see, along a vast slope to the higher points commemorating the Union dead. When we reached the part where John is buried, Kelly’s voice changed and she lay down on the ground and cried there as if the earth were merely a barrier between her and her brother. I put my hand on her back and thought of the miles, the entire oceans that spanned one human loss and another. Kelly stood up and gestured with her arm at the rows of graves. ‘When will all this madness end?’ she said. ‘The last time I was here, John’s row was at the end of the field, and now look.’ She moved her arm over the many new rows of young men and women who had died in the fight for Iraq. Many of the graves were those of servicemen born in the late 1980s. At the other end of the field the stones were more weathered, the beginning of the past: Vietnam, Korea, the Second World War, and on to Fredericksburg, Bull Run, Antietam. Then we left John Spahr and went to look for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. When we got there, a uniformed soldier marched up and down and we looked beyond the tombs and the urban parks to see Robert Lowell’s Washington Monument, ‘stark as a compass needle in the distance’.