Later, from a vantage point on top of a ridge, I noticed a small group of figures picking their way along the valley. They were Argentine stragglers, trying to make it back to their own lines. I had no one to tell me what to do. They were no threat, but they were the baddies. Their lives were in my hands. I took aim at the leading figure and waited . . .
The investigation of claims made last year by former Lance-Corporal Vincent Bramley that he witnessed atrocities committed by 3 Para during the Falklands war raises painful questions for the British public, used to their soldiers being the good guys. 'Today Company G committed a war crime,' wrote an American officer during the Second World War, 'but they are going to win the war, however, so I don't suppose it matters.' Do we really want to know what happens when we send our boys to war?
The story about some Argentine prisoners being bayoneted on Mount Longdon was widely known within the forces on the islands after the war. Such events were not surprising to anybody who knows basic military training. Kipling wrote: 'And if sometimes our conduct isn't all your fancy paints, Why single men in barracks don't grow into plaster saints'.
A soldier's training is only partly about gaining skills. Its main function is to shape the way recruits think, feel and act. Peter Bourne, a psychiatrist who wrote several studies of the military in the Vietnam era, says basic training is 'a masculine initiation rite that often has particular appeal to the late adolescent struggling to establish a masculine identity for himself in society'.
The details may vary from unit to unit and country to country, but the essentials remain. '(The) theory,' says former US Marine Michael Petit, author of Peacekeepers at War, 'is that before a man can be built, the identity he brought with him must be destroyed.' The recruit's hair is shorn, his every waking moment is controlled, everything he wears is military issue. He has to earn every privilege.
This period of 'beasting' is intended to make the recruit dependent on the group for support. The harder the 'beasting', the stronger the attachment of the survivors to the unit and the greater the sense of achievement. The survivors are special because they are part of something not everyone can join - a mystical elite of warriors.
Our society generally has no point at which adolescents are formally accepted as adults. The 'passing out' ceremony, however, marks a man's transition from youth to warrior, welcomed as an equal by those he has sought to impress. Each unit looks down on those who are not members. For those who wear the Parachute Regiment's coveted red beret, anyone else is a 'craphat'. Aggression to outsiders has marked elite troops throughout history.
Journalists Patrick Bishop and John Witherow, in their account of the Falklands war, wrote that many of the paratroops 'seemed to enjoy their image as emotionless, efficient killers, one step away from being psychopaths. They wore skinhead haircuts and, when out of uniform, carefully tattered sweatshirts.' A Para was asked what he would do if he found a wounded Argie. 'Kill him with me bayonet, rip his gold teeth out and cut his fingers off to get his rings,' he said.
Bishop and Witherow added: 'Of course they did nothing of the sort when the hypothesis became real, but they like you to think they would.'
The line between official policy and the machismo of junior soldiers was blurred. Aboard the Canberra, two other journalists, Jeremy Hands and Robert McGowan, attended some of the troop training sessions held on the journey to the Falklands. They wrote: ' 'Under the Geneva Convention you are not, I repeat not, allowed to stick a bayonet in a newly captured prisoner,' explained the instructor. 'So what do you do if you capture an enemy trench with a couple of wounded Argies still inside?' 'Shoot their heads off,' came the reply. 'Quite right. But remember, if there's a TV crew near by you've got to go through all that first aid rubbish just as if they were your best mates.' '
'If only the deed had been performed by patently demented men]' lamented Time magazine's report on the My Lai trial. But it wasn't. The recipe for the Longdon incident is an old and simple one. Take a young man, desperate to establish an identity in the adult world, make him believe military prowess is the epitome of masculinity, teach him to accept absolutely the authority of those in command, give him an exaggerated sense of self-worth by making him part of an elite, teach him to value aggression and to dehumanise those who are not part of his group and give him permission to use any level of violence without the moral restraints which govern him elsewhere.
I didn't fire that day; the stragglers probably made it back. What keeps me awake at night is the memory of how I felt holding the power of life or death over those men. I wanted to kill them, because they were the baddies, because they were there, but most of all, just because I could. I don't know if I would have participated in the executions on Longdon had I been there. I hope not. But I know I wouldn't have tried to stop them.
Tim Lynch, who left the Army in 1985, is now a counsellor for ex-servicemen and their families.Reuse content