Inside the minds of the hard men

Soldiers are supposed to be tough, but that is not a licence for thugge ry. Christopher Dobson asks what has gone wrong with the Paratroopers
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The Independent Online
The people of Aldershot, a garrison town that lays claim to being "The Home of the British Army", are well accustomed to the "uncontrolled licentiousness of a brutal and insolent soldiery", as Thomas Erskine said in 1796. Indeed, a large proporti on of them earn their living, one way or the other, from the Army; but even they are outraged by the events of last year, in which four members of the Parachute Regiment punched and kicked a civilian so ferociously that they broke both his arms, some rib s and injured his head.

They have escaped prison because Judge MacLaren Webster decided that they would be "of more use to your country to do some community work than for me to incarcerate you ... It will not repair Mr McGuire's broken bones if I were to ruin your lives and army careers by sending you to prison ..."

However, while they may atone for beating up Mr McGuire by helping old ladies across the road, or whatever it is that community service entails, there is no way that their regiment can escape the disgrace they have brought upon it; and the Parachute Regiment has had a sufficiency of disgrace recently.

The emotional commemoration last autumn of the Paras' glorious defeat at Arnhem had barely died away before Major Peter Kennedy was tried by court martial for assaulting Major Graham Carruthers during a live firing exercise in Kenya. He was acquitted, but the impression remained of officers as turbulent as their men. Another officer, Captain Christopher Kelly, was mortally wounded during those same exercises. Death by "friendly fire" is an accepted risk when live ammunition is used, but the coroner holding the inquest into Captain Kelly's death came to the conclusion that the safety precautions taken by his unit "were sadly lacking".

Meanwhile, overhanging the regiment, there is the tragedy that has eaten into its heart: the case of Private Lee Clegg, imprisoned for life for murdering 18-year-old Karen Reilly when he opened fire on a joy-riding car as it drove through a Para roadblock in republican west Belfast in 1990. To a man the regiment is certain of Clegg's innocence, that he fired because he believed he was shooting at terrorists.

That may well be true, as may Clegg's belief that he has been made a political scapegoat. Certainly the regiment and many senior officers are convinced that he has been wrongly imprisoned and have mounted a powerful campaign to have him released. In the atmosphere that prevailed in Northern Ireland at the time it might have happened to any soldier of any regiment.

What rebounds so badly on the Paras, however, is that Clegg's comrades afterwards claimed one of them had been hit by the car, "elected" one of the patrol as the victim and then hit him with a rifle butt and stamped on him to provide the necessary bruises. It was, to say the least, not very bright - especially as there were Royal Ulster Constabulary officers with the patrol.

That incident added to the hatred of the Parachute Regiment in Northern Ireland, stemming from "Bloody Sunday" in Londonderry in 1972, when a company of the 1st Battalion killed 13 Catholics and wounded another 14 after a civil rights march. When the IRAretaliated by blowing up the Paras' mess at Aldershot, killing seven people including a Roman Catholic padre, the battle lines of mutual hatred were drawn.

What has gone wrong with the Parachute Regiment? This elite force, composed of the toughest and supposedly the brightest young men in the fighting regiments, has stumbled from one embarrassment to another, and its current reputation is not one that is enjoyed by the proud survivors of Arnhem. Mind you, they were no angels. No young fighting soldier with adrenalin and hormones running wild ever is. But it is one thing to go into town on a Saturday night to sort out the "crap hats" of other regiments, or even your rivals in a different company, and quite another for four members of the regiment to kick the daylights out of a civilian lying defenceless on the ground.

What makes this all the more puzzling is that the regiment only selects the very best volunteers and then weeds them out drastically during their harsh selection and training courses.

One problem is that the very training that makes them such good soldiers on the battlefield - quick, aggressive and , in keeping with their regimental motto "Ready for Anything" - also creates a culture of violence. Old hands boast that the hand-to-hand fighting between the Paras and the Marines on their way home from the Falklands was fiercer than anything they inflicted on the "Argies".

Another factor is that the modern soldier is well paid. He can afford the pints of lager which so often slip the safety catch on his aggression - not in the Naafi but in polite surroundings. This is not a phenomenon unique to Paras. The soldiers of otherregiments stationed in Cyprus have won themselves a fearsome reputation for brawling and vomiting in the tourist island's nightspots.

Boredom and uncertainty about the regiment's future have played a large part in unsettling it. The great moments in the Paras' history - except for the Falklands - are bound up in the mass parachute drops of D Day, Arnhem, the Rhine, Suez. Those days aregone for ever, modern weapons and tactics preclude such large scale operations. In an attempt to solve this problem they have adopted special low-altitude parachutes which enable jumps to be made from as low as 250ft, thus reducing their vulnerable timein the air. Even this technique, however, is only viable for small scale "insertions" of small groups behind enemy lines.

So, while they maintain their parachute training, it is highly likely that they will not be used except as an infantry strike force - the role they played so effectively in the Falklands. Their omission from the war in the Gulf still rankles, but there was no role for them in that essentially armoured conflict. They must look instead for an expanded helicopter-borne role in a joint European quick reaction force; but that, too, is uncertain.

Paradoxically, part of the regiment's troubles stems from its very excellence in turning out fighting soldiers: many of the best officers and NCOs are creamed off by the Special Air Service. A half of the SAS come from the Parachute Regiment and, while this is undertandable given the Paras' specialised training and attitude, it does the regiment no favours when these outstanding men have to be replaced.

All these factors have played their part in bringing shame on a regiment which deserves better, but even though the behaviour of the four thugs in Aldershot was inexcusable, the lesson that must be remembered is the one preached in the Army since Wellington's time and which will hold true for ever: "There are no bad soldiers, only bad officers." And that's where the blame should fall.

Christopher Dobson is a military expert and former soldier.