In May 2004, Private Johnson Beharry was driving an armoured vehicle that had been called to assist a nearby foot patrol. There was an ambush in which the vehicle was damaged by several grenades rendering Beharry unable to call for help or even see where he was driving.
So he decided to open the hatch and expose his entire head to intense enemy gunfire, drive his crew through the ambush to safety and personally helped the wounded soldiers out of the wreckage despite still being under heavy fire.
A month later he was leading another armoured patrol when his vehicle was once again leaving Beharry with multiple shrapnel injuries to his face and brain. He still managed to drive his men away from the attack before finally passing out.
He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the youngest living recipient and the first for 30 years. Whilst Beharry’s story is particularly unique it remains difficult to comprehend the level of courage and resilience that is required of those serving in our military services.
But when we hear these tales of valour from overseas we find ourselves lost in a fierce admiration of our armed forces and somewhere along the way, some things are forgotten. Others are ignored.
The military are an incredibly hard subject to discuss, or at least with an even hand. We should always endeavor to form our opinions based on facts, rather than the surrounding connotations and public opinion.
Say if you were required to explain the role of ‘a soldier’ to someone that had no conception of the military, foreign policy or warfare, it could provoke an uncomfortable response.
You might start by explaining enlistment, in which you are promised money in exchange for your absolute agreement to arm yourself, travel abroad and follow any subsequent orders that invariably involve shooting people.
At this stage you would probably be asked who was giving these orders and you could confidently assure him that it is a democratically elected government. But what if they asked about the credibility of this higher authority? Have they earned this complete trust?
Given the false pretenses of the Iraq war and the tragic mistakes that have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths it would be difficult to suggest that the British military only led soldiers into noble conflicts.You could try and explain that people join the army to defend our country.Yet even the most hardened of patriots would struggle to characterise our military record in the Middle East as defensive.
Instead it seems that enlisting in the army equates to a contractual agreement to board a plane to a country of the government’s choice where you will aggressively protect Britain’s oil interests or maybe reinforce an ally’s dominance on the global stage.
Regrettably, this agreement does not always result in acts of heroism. The casualties of the Iraq war were devastating. Yet the 4,800 British soldiers who died were honoured for their bravery on the front page; somehow the 112,000 Iraqi civilians seem to fade into the background.
The hardest fact to acknowledge is that the British Army is partially responsible for those deaths. There were thousands of civilians who died as a result of our negligence and poor judgment. Admittedly it would require a small library to fully analyse and evaluate Britain’s involvement in Iraq or any other conflict.
But when we glorify our armed forces and label them as heroes we are contributing to misinformation and insulting the families of our war victims. We throw parades and play music, flagrantly celebrating our heroic struggle but the 5,000,000 orphans we left in Iraq will be growing up soon, and if we fail to show some resemblance of humility then what kind of national reputation will we have left for the next generation?
Whilst preparing for this article I interviewed two representatives of the British Army, a Staff Sergeant, Gavin Ball and a Recruitment Officer in Southampton who wished to remain anonymous. I asked Sergeant Ball whether he would enlist if knew that he would have to participate in a conflict he did not support.
‘That’s something you have to think about if you wish to join. It may be necessary to take life in order to save lives. If that is in any way a problem then the army is not for you.’
Later on he elaborated – ‘We are all volunteers; we don’t have to do this job. If you disagree with what you may be ordered to do then you shouldn’t apply. It really is that simple.’
I asked him if there was any way to know what you may be asked to do given that the army requires you to sign up for up to ten years. He told me ‘that is something anyone must take into account before joining the army.’
The mystery Recruitment Officer was a little more assertive. I’d heard an American Captain suggest that soldiers were often apolitical, that their operations was more about fraternity and getting the job done, I wondered whether the same could be said for English soldiers.
‘Absolutely not, no.’ was his reply. ‘Some of the lads aren’t bothered but there are some incredibly intelligent young men out there who are completely aware of the domestic and foreign politics surrounding the conflict.’
I asked him whether any of them disagreed with the war or their role in it.
‘No. We all believe what we’re doing there is good; we’re defending our country either directly or indirectly. It is necessary for us to be there and will stay and see it through.’
I was curious whether this extended to all recent conflicts the British Forces have engaged in for the last 20 years. ‘Maybe not all the conflicts no but when there’s a job to be done, we do it. When the foot and mouth outbreaks hit, we sorted it. When the fire service decided to strike, we got the job done.’
I was impressed, not having considered the army’s more domestic roles. The ideas he expressed were reminiscent of character from Spooks who curtly reminded his supervisor: ‘I serve my Country in whatever capacity is asked of me’.There seems to be a precarious balance between vehement loyalty and an arbitrary deference to a higher authority. It’s not a judgment one can make alone.
The British public holds strong opinions on the wars and its combatants, but are we sending the right message? In 2003 London hosted the largest march in the city’s history, over a million of us travelled to our capital and opposed the war. Suffice to say it was a rousing success.
Following the same conflict 72% of Britons believed there should be an official enquiry examining both the reasons for invading and our conduct in the war itself. 63% of us agree that all British forces should withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible. In the same survey 91% of respondents said serving in the armed forces was something to be proud of.
The public evidently has serious concerns about the conflicts but those that fight in them remain heroes and they should be rewarded as such. Despite already receiving a salary, living expenses, tuition, accommodation for family and what the army calls ‘one of the best pension plans there is’ Britain feels we owe more to those that take up arms.
In 2008 the British Legion received £104m in donations. That’s more than Comic Relief and Children in Need combined. Help for Heroes has also received an average of £47,000 every day since its establishment in 2007. They have now raised £112m.
To suggest that these donations are in any way wrong would be monstrous; the sacrifices should never be devalued. But the question we should be asking is where are the enormous donations for the real victims of war?
380 British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan; Afghan civilian deaths are estimated to be at least 10,000 and our presence could be indirectly responsible for another 30,000. Maybe a British soldier with a prosthetic leg makes for a better poster than a homeless Afghan child but surely we need to start paying attention to both?
As a nation we think of ourselves as intelligent and reasonable. But instead we find ourselves swept up in this wave of reverence, a quick toast to the heroes and we go another year without really thinking about what we are doing in the Middle East.
We forget that thousands of our young people see this undying adoration and decide to enlist themselves. The Government clearly feels permitted to engage in further conflicts and will continue to do so, we are contributing to a country that glorifies war.
No one would deny that serving a term in Afghanistan must be an immensely difficult and terrifying experience; soldiers younger than me demonstrate bravery I could never be capable of. We owe it to our country to engage with the real subject matter, throwing money in the collection box and labeling the entire British military as heroes actively encourages enlistment, it allows people to think they have done their part and the truth is we haven’t. We’re afraid to talk about the reality of these conflicts. So instead we focus on our decorated soldiers, celebrate their heroic bravery, applaud the victorious, honour the dead. Just don’t mention the war.