Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: I despair of the damage wrought on young soldiers

Once used up, our boys are given hardly any help with their busted minds and weeping hearts
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The Independent Online

Twenty-five years on, another war anniversary builds to a climax and rouses our slumbering memories with a drum and a song - this time for the short and fierce Falklands conflict.

The filth of war stays buried - stains of doubt are bleached out by time and tireless propaganda. We British do this enviably well - bringing out our power and glory, with victories spit-and-polished to a gleam so that the nation can beam with patriotic pride. Gotcha!, said The Sun, and didn't we just. Those Diego Argies, thinking they could sneak across and grab our British isle - 7,000 miles away from the others, true, but ours damn it, now and forever. HRH The Duke of York KG, KCVO, ADC was there, dutiful royal, and sends this message to us as he sombrely recalls the conflict: "Anyone invading British Territory needs to know that we will never stand idly by whilst injustice is allowed to fester ... I am sure that the programme of commemorative events will provide many opportunities to reflect on that important period in our recent history and will once again bring the attention of today's generation to the sacrifices made during that particular Conflict'." (The capitals are all His). We obey, then, and reflect.

In 1982, my son was four and unnaturally attached to his cheap plastic guns - bought by his father, not me. Caught by the excitement of this Palmerstonian adventure, he would charge through the flat looking for hidden enemies. I feared this passion would stay on and he would one day go join the real army. Like so many eager men do, at an age when some of that childish enthusiasm must still be with them, the innocents.

Altogether, 255 British servicemen died in the Falklands war, as did 649 Argentinians - forced into service by the military Junta. Nearly half the Argentinians who died were on the Belgrano, attacked by us when she was no threat. Both Mrs Thatcher and the Junta used jingoistic violence to boost their waning popularity. Thatcher won that war too. These facts are fairly well known. What is not, however, is that around 300 Falkland British veterans have committed suicide since our triumphs. They will not be remembered at the various memorials, their stories would be trespassers in the gardens of remembrance.

Some of them died, it seems, because they couldn't live with the vivid, recurrent scenes and surging guilt about what they had to do and watch. A veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome told a Sunday newspaper: "Some of the stuff we've done you could not believe. They did some terrible things on the Falklands." Our men in battle do terrible things. They did so in the first Gulf War and they are doing so today in Iraq. But they also appear to have a conscience that never sleeps after they did their worst and were told it was their best. That makes the most brutal of them better human beings than the glib, unrepentant politicians who make wars for spurious reasons.

I am not against military action. Sometimes there is no other option, as was the case following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Too often though, non-violent options are never even considered, as with the Falklands and Iraq. Men and women sent into battle are turned, for cynical purposes, into killing machines. I have written previously, and will do again, about how our boys are getting away with the abuse, torture and murder of civilians because the British military and political establishment arranges matters to stop any accountability.

War crimes have been committed by our exemplary ones in Fallujah, in Basra and elsewhere. Families of innocent Iraqi victims are set to sue the British army, and the MoD has hastily removed a link on its website to a video showing gross racist abuse by one of our soldiers. I condemn such atrocities. Today, I can see how these perpetrators, too, are victims of the system, whose lives end with the wars they service whether they are killed or not.

If so many couldn't carry on after the Falklands war - which had most of the nation behind it - how will they recover from service in Iraq? They know ours was, and is, an illegal assault, opposed by millions in their country and loathed around the world, except for a diminishing band of boy journalists still clutching their toy guns and those who believe the only good Arab is a dead one. Several books have been written about the sense of emasculation and dehumanisation felt by US Vietnam veterans who had done barbaric things and gone through appalling experiences in the hands of the enemy, and then returned to a public which had turned against the grotesque adventure, mounted yet again by grandiose politicians whose children are never out there. Iraq is worse, and unimaginable inner chaos will devastate veterans as the years go by.

Once used up, our boys are given hardly any proper help with their busted minds and weeping hearts. There is only one charity in the UK, Combat Stress, providing the kind of regenerative treatment soldiers need. We are living, too, in neoconservative times, when psychological help is thought to be soft, girlie stuff, a modern embarrassment making snivelling cowards out of macho army men. We have just lost soldier No 150 in Iraq. When we finally withdraw from Iraq, as soon we must, the number of mentally ill soldiers will rise. We will ignore them too, the living dead, the silenced witnesses who know truths Blair and Bush cannot hear, the inconvenient truths.

y.alibhaibrown@independent.co.uk

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