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04th Mar 2022

Remember the Brit who got stuck in Afghanistan? He’s in Ukraine and hungry for war

Maddy Mussen

“If something pops off, I want to be there […] I want to be in every war.”

“Sometimes now when I get home and sit down in my chair… I long for this type of stuff,” says Miles Routledge. By ‘this type of stuff’, Miles means war.

If you recognise Miles’ name it’s because he’s been in multiple areas with active conflict over the last seven months – none of them by accident. Most notably, he was the student trapped in Afghanistan during the fall of Kabul, who eventually needed British assistance to get him out. 

He then made his way to South Sudan, the world’s newest country since its very recent Civil War (which ended in 2020). The majority of travel advice warns against visiting South Sudan under any circumstances, due to “armed conflicts, inter-ethnic violence and high levels of violent crime”. And now he’s travelled to Ukraine, because, as he says: “If something pops off, I want to be there […] I want to be in every war.”

Miles does not have military or aid experience – though he did use a cardboard cut out of an AK-47 to help him “get used to holding a gun”.

Before his conflict-hopping exploits, Miles, 22, worked in investment banking, but he was always seeking more “adventure”. So, in August 2021, he took a trip to Afghanistan just when it was about to fall to the Taliban regime. In a post to 4chan, which has since been deleted, he posed for a selfie and captioned it: “Just goofing off and soaking in the sun.” Kabul fell two days later. 

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Two hundred days on, and Miles is taking selfies in a different war-torn country, staying in a hotel and regularly updating his social media feeds while missile strikes land around him and people try to flee their home country in search of safety. 

Miles says he’s in Ukraine to help. He was supposed to be bringing medicine into the country for a friend who couldn’t get hold of any. He also claims to be handing out cash to those fleeing the country, and sweets to Ukrainian children. “I’ve paid for people’s tickets to get out of Ukraine, I’ve sent hundreds of pounds to people who are running charities […] and to medics.”

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But not everyone is convinced by Miles’ good-natured efforts. One comment on his Instagram reads: “You really shouldn’t be giving him [Miles] what he wants which is attention and exposure to fuel his narcissistic and delusional fantasies of being some SAS and James Bond hybrid.” Another says: “You’re taking a dip into wars like it’s a LARP [Live Action Role Play] but other people have to rebuild their lives while you can just go home.” An all caps comment reads: “Shame on you for turning war into tourism all for social media. None of this is cute. You’re disgusting.”

Other people from Miles’ crop of over 7,000 Instagram followers (with a further 97,400 on Twitter) are more moved by his work: “Please stay safe Miles,” one comment says, “We love what you do and admire it but more than anything we want you around to tell the stories. Only just discovered you after watching your GB News interview, got to say you’re brilliant.”

The war in Ukraine has already claimed over 2,000 Ukrainian lives, according to the Ukraine State Emergency Service, though this is impossible to verify currently. At least 500 civilian casualties have been reported in Ukraine by the UN. While the conflict has inspired a great outpouring of support all over the globe, it has also become the latest hotspot to attract war tourists: people who travel to war zones purely for the thrill of it.

“It’s the same guy? Wow, he’s really doing it for the ‘gram isn’t he.”

“It’s being used for clout,” says Army veteran, Joe Glenton. Joe served in Afghanistan for six years from 2004 to 2010 and has returned to warzones since as a war journalist. When I tell Joe about the war tourism happening in Ukraine, he immediately says: “It reminds me of that kid in Kabul last year.” I inform him that Miles Routledge is, in fact, that same kid, and is up to his old tricks in Ukraine as we speak. “It’s the same guy?” he gasps, “Wow, he’s really doing it for the ‘gram isn’t he.”

This specific form of tourism is called “hot war tourism”, where people travel to active war zones, as opposed to “cold war tourism” where the areas have already been ravaged by war and have gone “cold” in the years since. Dr Mark Piekarz, an expert on war tourism, says this hot war tourism is fuelled by “the possibility of experiencing the vicarious thrill of war first hand”. He calls it a form of “dark tourism” and notes that it is nothing new – in 1919, right after the First World War, as many as 75 per cent of enquiries about travel into countries that had substantial fighting, such as France, were related to visiting the battlefields.

Joe Glenton thinks the majority of war tourists are “naive” to even consider entering active warzones without training – but some are more realistic. Leon Dawson, 37, who owns a gym in Surrey and has no previous military experience whatsoever, turned up at the Ukrainian embassy in London this Monday to offer himself for service fighting Russian troops. Leon is willing to fight, kill and die to save Ukrainians, but he’s also only ever shot a gun once, at a shooting range while on holiday.

“They seem like they’re in trouble,” he says, “they seem like they’re being invaded and need help. I’m not really a political man but I can see that women and children are being shelled, and tanked and shot, and I believe I can help.” He also admits, “I don’t think I’d do very well on the front line, I think I’d be shot on the first day, but if that’s what happens then that’s what happens. It’d be very foolish and naive to go into a warzone and think you’re going to come back in one piece.”

Leon isn’t the only one who put himself forward. At least four other men turned up at the Ukrainian embassy with him that day, willing to fight. Boxer Tyson Fury has even said he’d go over if he could

Joe Glenton points out that this kind of behaviour, while well-intended, can put people in very real danger. “What can tend to happen is that they get in trouble, it takes loads of resources and bandwidth to get them out of trouble. And [the Army] don’t have time for that.

“It gets embassies involved, and there may be people who have Ukrainian family members or Ukrainian families in the UK, so it wastes resources that could be used on people who are in actual danger. There are other people who aren’t voluntarily there and are probably more deserving of those resources.”

“There are other people who aren’t voluntarily there […] more deserving of those resources”

When Joe served in Afghanistan, every aid worker he came across had training, as did every soldier. When he later went back as a journalist he even had to retrain and take a “hostile environment course” despite the fact he had been in the army, on active duty, for six years. Miles has not done this course. “I learned how to shoot a gun a little bit in Kabul,” he shares, “I also used a cardboard cut out of an AK-47 and labelled it so I could get used to holding it. And I used some YouTube tutorials.”

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He also has some handy cue cards. “I don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian or anything, but I do have cards with key phrases, so if I need a hotel I have a card with a picture of a hotel on it and they point me in the general direction.” 

Though his cue cards may suggest otherwise, Miles maintains that he is not a war tourist. “I always get this comment,” he confirms, “The type of people [who don’t believe in me] are the type who will do a hashtag or use an emoji and think they’re doing something. But I’m actually on the ground handing out money and handing out resources, I’m doing something.”