Deborah Orr: My disillusionment with the British Army

Call me a mug, but I really went for that stuff about the British Armed Forces being the best in the world
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The Independent Online

Here's a knotty moral conundrum. Is the Royal Marine who shopped 42 Commando the sort of person we want in the British Armed Forces? I suppose that depends on whether we want our fighting people first and foremost to have a strong sense of justice, and the courage to act on their convictions, or first and foremost to be able to put up with whatever physical and emotional privations may be thrown at them, because they understand that their own discomfort and suffering is not important, compared to staying loyal to the team and obeying their superiors.

In an ideal world, these two sets of desirable elements would not be contradictory. Even in a less than perfect world, you would surely wish to create a training system that does not alienate the young people with the former qualities, while trying to inculcate them with the latter. The fact that this does not appear to be possible confirms that our world, this world, is very, very far from perfect indeed. Which, while not being news to me entirely, still delivers me to a level of disillusionment that I'd rather not be at.

Call me a mug, but I really went for that stuff about the British Armed Forces being the best in the world. I loved the idea that even though we'd become embroiled in a misconceived war, we were comporting ourselves well. The Brits in Basra (Army, not Navy, I know, but the ethos is the same), with their berets, and their sensitivity to the locals, and their banter with the kiddies, seemed marvellously heroic to me, too good to be true, really. Which, of course, they were.

The first signs that it wasn't like that, came with the allegations of British Army brutality towards Iraqis at Camp Breadbasket. We saw photographs - not Piers Morgan's stagey fake ones, but sordid ones that were weird and unpredictable enough to look right. It turns out that the sort of stuff depicted in them is the sort of stuff that the British Armed forces are encouraged to do to each other, by their superiors, at barbecues.

It wasn't an initiation ceremony, as was alleged by the whistleblower, because they're illegal. But a lot of the depicted behaviour - men eating vomit, being forced to drink alcohol till they vomit, being forced to fight each other naked in front of a baying crowd, being subjected to simulated intercourse, being forcefed food laced with mud or faeces, is the sort of thing armed forces men choose to do when they get together off duty.

No wonder, that some of those men felt it perfectly appropriate to do it to the new friends they had just so kindly liberated in Iraq. Party? Initiation ceremony? Bit of fun that got out of hand? Criminal assault? Abuse of power? Violation of human rights and dignity? Torture? All much the same thing. Nevertheless, much, much later, when the nation was regaled with the sight of a British Army tank bulldozing an Iraqi police station in best Reprisals-Against-The-Palestinian-Terrorists'-Friends-And-Families style, I for one was still completely surprised that the boys in their berets would do such a thing.

Suckered again. What an idiot. But I'm not going to be too hard on myself. Because it turns out that the officers in the Armed Forces are every bit as silly, naive and romantic about the whole bloody thing as me. Commander Tim Collins, he of the inspirational speech to his men at the start of the war about courage and justice, believes that this latest revelation about training the British armed forces suggest a "serious abuse of power" leaving him in no doubt that "the Queen's uniform had been disgraced".

Which is somewhat contradicted by the rank and file. Andy McNab, the former SAS man who became a bestselling writer, says instead that "if the handwringing armchair generals think that our marines run round places like Iraq and Bosnia killing people to survive then coming back to play Scrabble, then they are sorely mistaken". He does condemn the aspect of the video that shows a corporal beating a young recruit unconscious, but says that "the system comes down hard on bullies. They are demoted and sent packing from the training teams".

But nobody in the film has been demoted or sent packing. One person has been arrested now, but only as a result of the exposure of the incident last May. One has to ask why, if the armed forces have such a good system for winkling out bullies, the man who handed over the tape approached the News of the World, and not the senior officers he has been trained to respect?

Maybe he has received payment for his video tape. Maybe he's no more a paragon of courage and justice than those he has exposed. Maybe he's no better than the parade of kiss-'n'-tell mess-ups whose flogged stories fill our red-top papers. But I'm afraid the very fact that there could be a perfectly sensible reason for his actions speaks volumes about the state we're in.

It is just as likely that post-Deepcut he had no faith that in the hands of senior officers or of the police or the MoD, his evidence would be taken seriously. After all, it was not considered terribly important by any of these institutions that the mysterious deaths by gunshot wounds of four different young adults while being trained for the Army should be fully and properly investigated. Why then, would anyone be expected to take seriously the very small matter of a man who never ever made a complaint himself about being kicked unconscious one summer's evening?

It used to be common to see shop front premises. exhorting young people to join the armed forces, to drop in and have a casual chat about the idea. You don't see that so much any more. The armed forces tend to concentrate their efforts on deprived areas and young adults coming out of care, among whom there is a much higher takeup than in the rest of the forces. One of the saddest things I've read over the past couple of days, is an account by a former trainee officer, of getting "beasted", as they call ritual humiliation, on his first night away in the forces. He put up with everything thrown at him, even though his clothes, expensively provided as part of a list demanded by the Army, were detroyed along with his dignity.

"I remember phoning my mother the following day, asking her for replacements for the stuffy, expensive clothes from the prescribed young officer list," he wrote. "Clothes we could ill afford to buy in the first place. 'But you've only been there a day,' she said. 'Is everything all right?' Tears streamed down my cheeks as I leant my head in shame against the mess payphone door."

How much easier it must be to train men, when no mother has ever loved them or cared for them properly. How much easier it must be to keep them, when they have no home to return to.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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