Young star who shunned movie world to study soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan

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He acted with Russell Crowe, but having turned his back on Hollywood, Max Benitz tells Sarah Freeman why his heroes are the troops in Afghanistan

Ten years ago, Max Benitz became the star in his very own fairytale.

A pupil at Harrow School, he was thinking about A-levels when casting directors arrived looking for a boy to play a minor role in the second Harry Potter film. They didn’t find him, but they did spot Max and a few months later he was starring opposite Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

The film was well received, the teenager’s performance was praised by the critics and it seemed, superficially at least, to be the stuff dreams are made of. Except Max didn’t wait to find out if there was a happy ending worthy of an Oscar. When Hollywood beckoned, he turned his back on the film business and returned home.

“It didn’t feel particularly real,” he says. “It feels like a lifetime ago now, but I never thought for one minute that hanging around on a film set was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

All of which goes some way to explain why last year he spent the summer living alongside British troops in the 55C degree heat of Afghanistan. That and the fact his father had been in the Scots Guards and having grown up in a house plastered with images of the regiment he’d always had a fascination with military life.

“I’ve always been interested in Afghanistan,” says Max, who following his brief brush with fame returned to study Modern History at Edinburgh University. “It’s very easy to say we shouldn’t be out there, but like a lot of people I had no clear idea of what was actually going on. I’d seen a lot of excellent coverage about the war, but the only way you can really know what it’s like is to put everything you have read and heard to one side and go find out for yourself.”

Writing to the Scots Guards to propose just that, Max secured a publishing deal for the book he would write on his return and after a little convincing the Ministry of Defence gave him the green light.

Over the following 18 months he trained with the guardsmen at Catterick, watched as they went off on tour and a few months later joined them in Helmand Province.

It had only been a few weeks since he had last seen the regiment, but the change in the troops was already visible.

“Carrying 35kg packs in those sorts of temperatures meant they had lost a lot weight, but it was more than that,” says Max, whose book Six Months Without Sundays is a candid account of the day-to-day life for British soldiers in Afghanistan.

“The stress was etched on their faces and they still had four months of the tour to go. Some of them went there looking like members of One Direction, but they came back men and what they have seen out there will stay with them forever.”

Max stayed with them for the rest of the summer. He watched their manoeuvres at close range, he witnessed their relationship with the Afghanis and he also saw what happened to the regiment when they had to confront the very worst case scenario.

“Yes, there were casualties and that brings home to you the very human side of war,” he says. “These guys can’t fly home to go to their best friend’s funeral. Instead the padre performs a memorial service, one of them will carve a simple wooden cross. It’s hard for them, but constantly asking why? isn’t an option.

“They don’t sit around discussing the geo-political ramifications of British troops being in Helmand. When they sit round the fire they talk about what they can learn from what they did that day, that’s about as far as the horizon stretches. Every day you hear them ask after injured colleagues, but at the same time they have an incredible resilience.”

By the end of his time with the Scots Guards, Max had spent more time with a single unit than any other British journalist or author has done during the war and when he returned he was determined to tell their story.

“As far as I was concerned I was the least interesting person out there. Yes they stay because they haven’t really got a choice, but they are also bound together by these incredibly strong friendships. Everything becomes about the guy next to them and that’s what makes them so brave.

“The question of why a young man goes to war is difficult to answer, but it was a real privilege to spend time with them. When you watch someone walk through 8ft high corn fields not knowing what lies on either side and with only a metal detector to protect them from IEDs it is impossible not to feel immense respect for what they do. It’s the living embodiment of grace under fire.”

Having temporarily left behind his privileged upbringing, Max also saw first-hand that on the front-line money, social background and paper qualifications count for little. “Class is a national obsession in Britain, but it means nothing when you are out there,” he says. “The Lance Sergeant who commands the checkpoint is the counter-insurgency guru regardless of whether he has any GCSEs. Yes, there’s a hierarchy of rank, but it’s very egalitarian. Everyone sleeps in the same kind of bed, everyone eats the same food. Ration packs are a great leveller.”

Embedded with a British regiment, Max admits that his account may well be subjective, but he hopes it is an honest one.

“It is very hard to stay objective. Frankly it goes out the window once the other side has killed someone you’ve got to know,” he says. “I do have a sense of loyalty to the guardsmen, but that loyalty extends to writing about where mistakes were made. The soldiers don’t want fairytales written about how they’re all perfect.”

While Max returned believing Britain had been right to launch its assault on Afghanistan he doesn’t pretend that the end of the conflict is near.

“The summer of 2010 was high noon in Helmand,” he says. “There were 20,000 US marines and 9,500 British troops, they all had the right kit and equipment, the leadership was good and they seemed to be making progress. However, Afghanistan has always been a moving target and I don’t think you can talk about it in terms of victory or defeat.

“The Afghan National Security Forces are improving, but there is still a huge difference in abilities. Where you have a good local Afghan National Army or police commander you generally see good troops who do their job, where you have a commander who is weak the uniformed Afghans can often do more harm than good.”

Six Months Without Sundays has just sold out its first print run. The news was flattering, but making a mark on the book charts was not why he went out there.

“One of the soldiers turned round to me and said, ‘Thank you. Now that my wife has read your book we can talk about what happened out there’. I wanted to write a book which was all about the guardsmen and I hope that’s what I’ve done.”

Six Months Without Sundays is published by Birlinn, at £16.99. To order a copy through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepost.co.uk