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Stacey Dooley: Ready For War Review – An Unforgettable Reminder Of The Horrors Of War In Ukraine

Did you know the UK runs a scheme that flies Ukrainian civilians here, gives them intensive military training, then sends them back as rookie soldiers with the basic skills they need to fight Russia? Stacey Dooley: Ready for War? assumes you do and pitches us straight into an aircraft hangar full of blinking new recruits, somewhere in Britain. Like the young Ukrainian men who have just stepped off a plane, we are tossed in and must quickly adjust.

Dooley lurks on the periphery as the men spend just more than one month trying to learn what new British army recruits would cover in six. Her challenge as a documentarist is that, once we have acclimatised to the scenario, the basic conclusions that Ready for War? will draw risk being obvious. Almost every week there is a programme about Ukraine on British TV, asking what it is like to have your every day life destroyed in an instant and replaced with the fearsome danger and dreadful obligations of war.

It’s not great, is the answer – these men are in an extraordinary situation and we can see for ourselves what is extraordinary about it. But by patiently getting to know individuals from the new cohort, Dooley finds the moments that make it hit hard.

First, introductions. Artem has left his six-year-old son and his profession as a jeweller to become a soldier. “What am I doing here?” he asks himself as he learns about field survival in a frosty landscape: “I changed a warm home for a cold forest!” For another trainee, Mykola, there is an even greater contrast between where he is now and the job he used to do: “At home, I grow flowers.” Pasha, meanwhile, was happy working as a welder in Belgium when the Russians invaded – his parents urged him to stay there but he felt duty-bound to defy them. “Who will protect them, if not us?”

Dooley, pregnant and swathed in layers of khaki, watches as the guys recover from a wet night spent in a shelter they didn’t build properly, a harsh lesson from the first training module. Pasha, though, manages to go wrong before this: having been given his pack full of equipment back at base, he arrives in the woods to discover he didn’t mark it as his, so he has to glumly trawl through a pile of identical-looking bags. “I’ve failed!”

The training gets no easier as the men learn to clear a potentially hostile building, but here they have help from an unexpected source. Their orders are translated by Aliia, who looks to be in her mid-20s and has left her comfortable prewar life to work here in a job that is nominally just an interpreter, but has become a mix of translator, counsellor and military trainer. Having seen all this several times before, she is giving the orders rather than merely converting them into Ukrainian, urging and gesticulating as the men dodge through smoke-filled rooms and clatter up stairs. “She’s such a powerhouse!” says Dooley. “She’s really, really impressive.”

When the day is over, Dooley eavesdrops on the men’s video calls home. “Babe, I miss you – we’ll meet after the victory,” says Mykola to his other half, before Dooley coyly introduces a woman called Ivanka as one of Pasha’s “best friends”. Ivanka has joined up herself and has requested a posting to Pasha’s regiment. “I’m kind of worried about him,” she says. Pasha looks down the smartphone lens and makes a heart symbol with his hands; Ivanka, beaming, returns the gesture.

Such flowering optimism is, however, short-lived. As Artem talks about his first day at the recruitment centre in Ukraine, when a throng of volunteers were asked if they were willing to die and answered “Yes!” in unison, filming is interrupted by the sound of sobbing. Has Dooley broken down? No, it’s Aliia, translating for the programme as well as the army, whose forceful exterior has cracked as she is confronted with the knowledge that a lot of her countrymen will be killed trying to apply what she has taught them.

If that doesn’t shock us out of any complacency about a war that is now more than a year-old, there is one more unforgettable interaction that does. Over the five weeks of training, Pasha has recovered from the lost bag fiasco and flourished, emerging as a canny and compassionate leader and earmarked as a commander. The British soldiers clearly like him, Dooley clearly likes him and we at home do, too. But on the bus back to the airport, he calmly sums up his own predicament. “I hope of course that I will survive. But the chances are not so big.” For once, Dooley is almost speechless, but in terms of reminding us anew about the horror of this war, it’s mission accomplished.

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