Menace of the Maroon Machine

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The Independent Online
THE SAS apart, no regiment of the British Army has been as prone to controversy as the Red Berets. From Bloody Sunday to accusations of shooting Argentine prisoners in the Falklands, trouble never strays far from the two battalions of the Parachute Regiment, earning them public fascination and a mystique conveyed in books, films and TV documentaries and dramas such as Lynda La Plante's Civvies.

Not surprisingly, the Paras revel in their image as the hardest of the hard. Other regiments are referred to sneeringly as "crap hats". There are exceptions - grudging respect for the green-bereted Royal Marines, "the cabbage-heads", as rival toughs, and respect and genuine affection for the Gurkhas. The Paras and Gurkhas were the first Nato soldiers into Kosovo, and the camaraderie was obvious.

The Paras have the toughest basic course in the Regular Army, including "milling", a recruit fighting a succession of opponents in two minutes of unarmed combat, no holds barred.

Some of the Army hierarchy question the value of this but the Paras have always claimed the recruits like it. More importantly, so do the immensely powerful NCOs of the regiment.

Their sergeants and corporals are said to be the most influential of that rank anywhere in the Army, apart from the SAS which regards service in the "Maroon Machine" as excellent training for their different combat role.

But the toughness of the 1,200 Paras means young officers have a difficult task to live up to their men. They have to be as hard as they are, with flair, dash and aggression, buttressing the culture of machismo and "us against the world".

Officers and men relish conveying menace. At the Drumcree stand-off last year the arrival of the Paras incensed the crowd as a sign of ultimate British betrayal - the men in the frontline against the IRA now being turned against them.

The Paras stood stone-faced at the crowd's incongruous insults of "Fenian bastards", searching for the loudest, then locking eyes and stroking their weapons. It was intimidating.

"The MoD [Ministry of Defence] would like nothing better than for the regiment to have a different image," says one young Para officer. "If we change enough we may even start getting invitations to dinner parties in Islington."