During a recent parents' evening at an academic London school, a mother put up her hand. She was alarmed that her son had suddenly expressed an interest in joining the armed forces. Had the school encouraged this in some subversive way and had any other parents had similar experiences? Imagine substituting the word "doctor" or "lawyer" for armed forces and you see how far removed we have become from "our boys". A couple of generations ago, many families had a connection with the Army; now few do.
We may glimpse soldiers rumbling past in Land Rovers or avoid them on late-night trains to Aldershot. We sentimentalise them for risking their lives but are squeamish about battle victories. We use them as ballast for our dinner party conversations about the war in Iraq but do not imagine them as husbands, or sons or brothers.
As a metropolitan, liberally inclined kind of woman, I fretted about my inexplicable young son. Why did he play rugby like a Fijian, why did he never sit still, why had he broken every bone in his body by the time he was a teenager? Like a lost member of a tribe, he found his own kind when he was recruited by the Army. Suddenly I was surrounded by cheerful, honest, fearless young army officers and a new code of behaviour .
The outstanding characteristic of soldiers is modesty. Take Private Johnson Beharry VC, who drove his armoured vehicle through an ambush in Al Amarah, Southern Iraq, saved the life of his commanding officer, returned to duty within a day, and came under a second attack, during which a shell slammed into his head. Despite this, he led his platoon to safety. What he said was: "I was just doing my duty. Any of my mates would've done the same."
Beharry does not talk about our UN mandate, or the position of the Tories in relation to America. Most soldiers are not political. They do not serve the Prime Minister, but the Queen.
I was in Basra during a surprise visit from Tony Blair and the soldiers looked on with broad amusement at the bustling, self-important entourage. Soldiers talk about the "mission". They will endure extreme discomfort with fortitude and regard faulty equipment with black humour. When I crossed Afghanistan in a shuddering Chinook the commanding officer merely raised his eyebrows. In Iraq, when flares cascaded from our helicopter, the senior officer looked out with the mildest curiosity. Then he snatched 10 minutes' sleep.
Soldiers are studiedly undramatic. An all-day firefight would be described as "an interesting day". After a setback, commanders will grimly talk of "cracking on". In their tented camps soldiers banter and look forward to the next meal. They are cheerful, honest, fearless. Doubts are confined to private diaries or emails. There is an increasing conflict between the army "family" and the wives and children. Soldiers want to come home, but they also want to "finish the job". We should not assume that they are like us. They are better.