In 1969, when troops were sent into Northern Ireland, a pessimist was somebody who thought it might take months to get them out again. Nobody predicted their stay would last not months, not years, but almost four decades.
Today, as that 38-year deployment comes to an end, nobody is celebrating that campaign. The prevailing sense is rather one of relief that it is finally over, mingled with much regret that it took so long and cost so many lives.
The military took on the toughest of tasks by going in. When the troops arrived, law and order was on the point of breaking down in parts of Belfast and Londonderry, with local police exhausted and mobs on the rampage.
In those innocent early days it was assumed that the military intervention would quell the trouble and that, with the streets quietened, something could be worked out politically. Instead, the years that followed saw a descent into large-scale terrorism and murder. The apparently straightforward nature of the original military mission was soon lost as republicans, loyalist extremists and the Army became locked in a violent three-way conflict.
One of the great pities of the Troubles was that the Army, which was supposed to be part of the solution, quickly came to be seen by Catholics and nationalists as part of the problem. It is unprovable but quite probable that, without the continuing presence of tens of thousands of troops, the violence of the past four decades would have been much more uninhibited and the bloodshed much worse.
Yet at certain points, military actions brought about an escalation of the conflict, most notably the 1972 Bloody Sunday incident in which soldiers shot dead 14 nationalists during a protest march. In all, troops killed some 300 people: many were IRA members, but many were not. The Army was ill-served by the long-standing official approach of defending troops even when they were plainly in the wrong. That inevitably fuelled the existing sense of nationalist injustice.
The Army itself sustained 500 fatalities, while another 500 locally-recruited military and police also died. To this grim toll can be added many thousands more who suffered wounds and traumas, for in all more than 300,000 military personnel served in Northern Ireland.
All this means that the Army's record - as is the case for practically every institution caught up in the Troubles - was imperfect. Yet its presence was also indispensable. While its long hard slog often seemed endless, it was one of the factors which combined to make Belfast's politicians realise that outright victory was not a possibility, and that the time had come for the present compromise.Reuse content