“If you truly want to understand what it’s like to go to war, it has nothing to do with the tanks, the bombs, the missiles, the politics or all the things we talk about at the pub,” says John Peters.
“Going to war has everything to do with you.”
Mr Peters is the man behind an iconic image. In the 1991 Gulf War, during Operation Desert Storm, he was piloting an RAF Tornado aircraft when it was struck by a surface-to-air missile. He was forced to eject into the Iraqi desert.
“I had complete tunnel vision,” he says. “Trying desperately to keep this aircraft above the ground… I looked back and there were more flames coming towards us at an incredible rate.
“So it wasn’t a difficult decision: three, two, one… eject.
“There’s a quarter of a second delay for the seat to go off, but it feels like a lifetime.”
Mr Peters and his navigator, John Nichol, found themselves stranded in the Iraqi desert, trying to evade an enemy who knew they were there.
“John picked up his parachute, wandered across, stood above me and went, ‘This will be the Iraqi desert then’. And we laughed. The first thing we did in Iraq was just sit down and giggle,” Mr Peters recalls.
“It was just so...” he pauses, “pathetic. “I was paid to fly a 25-tonne, £25 million piece of equipment. I’ve got missiles, guns, bombs, computers, engines. I have power. I’m at the front end of the largest air offensive in the history of mankind. Power. “And then you’ve got these two little pink bodies in the desert.”
Mr Peters says that in the rush to get to war, some preparations fell through the cracks, which hampered their ability to evade the enemy.
Their survival packs weren’t painted to enable them to travel stealthily through the desert. Rather, they were “two great big yellow fibreglass boxes”.
“Why didn’t they change that? Well, because things are moving fast and things are changing,” Mr Peters explains.
“They’d painted the aircraft; this was in a box, which was in an ejection seat in the aircraft – which is a contingency of a contingency.”
Plus, there was the burning Tornado “with a plume of smoke going up about 8,000 feet in the air”.
They had to move. “The experts say you are to evade the enemy,” he explains. “They say you are to hide your kit. Where?
“I was trained in Wales.”
So, they walked.
Despite their best efforts, Mr Peters and Mr Nichol were eventually captured by Iraqi forces.
Right before, with bullets flying just millimetres above their heads, the two had a conversation.
“I’m looking at John and he’s looking at me and he says, ‘Should we go out with a bang? Should we go out with a bang?’
“Basically, he was saying: ‘Should we stand up, take a couple of shots and expect to get split open?’” Or suicide: “I’ll shoot you and then I’ll shoot myself,” Mr Nichol offered.
“I don’t know why – there were all these bullets bouncing around my head,” Mr Peters says, “but I turned to him and I said, ‘No. there is always hope. Why do their jobs for them?’”
TRAUMA AND TRIUMPH
Mr Peters didn’t see his navigator again for seven weeks.
They were held in solitary confinement and subjected to the sort of torture that would never make it past many censors reviewing war films.
Events were entirely beyond his control – but then they gave him a choice.
“They start beating you and beating you and telling you that you have to go on television,” Mr Peters says. “And the last thing you’re meant to do in the military is go on television. But they hit you and they beat you.
“Then they get a gun out. They put the gun against your head. They say ‘Peters, you’re going on television or you’ll never see your wife and children again’.
“And in that moment, I agreed.”
His image was beamed around the world. The image of a beaten, broken man; not the popular one of the heroic individual who goes to war.
“They reckon about 650 million people worldwide saw that image,” Mr Peters says, ”and really, let’s face it, that is the reason I’m talking to you today – because we were the ones on television.”
For 18 months after his return to the UK, he couldn’t go to a pub without getting a standing ovation. No-one expected him to pay for a beer, for a snack, for dinner.
“When I see those pictures, I remember that I felt like a traitor, I felt weak and I thought it was the last time my family was going to see me alive. And the enduring image my children would have of their father – the children who would never know their father as my son was two years-old and my daughter was six weeks-old when I went to war – was that I was a weak, failure, traitor of a man.”
Mr Peters says he doesn’t try to be a hero. Whatever you might think about the politics of war, he says he knows he is not ‘courageous’.
“What happened to me was not courage.
Courage is about choice. It’s about making the right decision because it is the right thing to do – regardless of how it affects you as an individual.
“As a POW, you have no damn choice,” he says.
“What stays with me? I failed to drop my bombs – that’s what stays with me.
“Now, before some of you go off on your philosophy of violence… it has nothing to do with politics,” Mr Peters says.
“The job of a fighter pilot is not to sit in a little box and get beaten up. I’m paid to do my job and that’s what stayed with me.
I failed to live up to expectation.”
He continues to insist he failed in his mission, but has no doubt he succeeded when it was time to make the call.
“I can tell you, standing here 22 years later,” he says. “Surrendering? Best decision I’ve ever made.”