‘How is he?’, ‘I’m sorry?’, ‘How is he?’, ‘How’s who, Sergeant-Major?’, ‘Lord Lucan, last seen in your hair, get a haircut!’ A typical moment of NCO humour means I will never forget the first day of my abortive and very short lived stint in the Territorial Army.
The British Army is an extraordinary institution constituted of some of the finest people this country produces. In many respects it is the British institution par excellence. Part of me understands the allure and lustre of being, however insignificantly, a member of it. But sadly the international events of my adult life have compellingly illustrated the harm caused by an army put to wrong uses by politicians without the faintest idea of what soldiers are for and the limits of what they can achieve.
I signed up in the autumn of 2002 having just left university and embarked on my law conversion studies. I thought, embarrassingly in retrospect, that joining up would be a good way to get fit and participate in some of the outward bound activities that army advertising continues to suggest is a major component of an army career. Adolescent notions of service and camaraderie also played their part. Finally, in my callowness, there was a nebulous feeling that without a spell in khaki mine would not be a real man’s life: seduced by a fanciful attraction to warrior scholarship. Needless to say my mother, rightly, did not find any of these to be good reasons for putting myself in harm’s way.
Two things I had not given any proper thought to at all though were killing and obedience and, above all, killing through obedience. Without having had any experience of army training it is very hard to describe how effectively the army fractures civilian notions of entitlement and autonomy. Subordination of personal freedom to the demands of the unit are paramount. In some ways this abdication of responsibility is extremely attractive; your life becomes a succession of orders to be followed. Obviously this is felt most acutely at the outset of training when resistance to the army way is at its highest. But even the Chief of the Defence Staff is obligated to follow orders despite decades of experience and countless promotions.
As the weeks wore on prospective recruits to the regiment fell by the wayside. Ostensibly dropping out carried no judgement, however it was always a quiet and furtive process. The following week there would be fewer faces at drill but they were not missed or commented upon. But those that remained definitely felt within themselves that they were succeeding where others failed. As time passed and the battle camp neared that marked the final stage of the selection process I grew increasingly anxious and conflicted about the whole undertaking. I knew that a time was fast approaching when pride would prevent me from walking away and all throughout that period Bush and Blair hastened an ominous beating of the battle drums.
It seemed obvious to me, as to so many back then, that 2003 meant war in Iraq come what may. It also seemed obvious to me that Saddam Hussein posed no threat to me or to my friends and family. There were weapons of mass destruction but they were in the hands of US, UK and other cobbled together coalition forces. We often overlook how recent a phenomenon the deployment of soldiers as peacekeepers is and that is certainly not what soldiers were sent to Iraq for. It is also an uncomfortable truth that no soldier joins up hoping never to fire their rifle. Soldiers are trained to fight and when there is no fighting there is nothing for soldiers to do but train for fighting. I remember a farcical moment on an early weekend exercise, when we weren’t even entrusted with blanks, running around a field in Hampshire with a rifle shouting ‘Bang’ until a corporal ordered rapid fire and we had to shout ‘BangBangBang’ like lunatics. Very silly but it was clear that one day soon there would be live bullets in the magazine.
Iraq was a war I did not want to happen and it was certainly not a war I wanted to fight in. And so one evening, before it was too late, I asked for a quiet word with the Sergeant Major and asked to leave. He asked me what my reason was, I had been fit enough, I hadn’t been causing the NCOs any aggro or given them lip, I was a promising candidate for selection. Absurdly I found myself answering that I didn’t think I could kill someone. He gave me a wry smile and suggested that perhaps I should have thought of that before signing up.
Since leaving the barracks for the last time that evening two of my school fellows have been killed on active service. One very soon after the Iraq War started in April 2003 and the second in the last months of the main deployment to Afghanistan. Both of them, I do not doubt, will have repeatedly reminded the soldiers under their command of the purpose of their mission, of its utility and its virtue. How those reassurances shared with men on the ground can be reconciled with the encyclopaedic and devastating conclusions of the Chilcot Report I do not know.
Mercifully we are not living in an age of conscription nor even one of National Service. Soldiering is the preserve of volunteers and all soldiers that sign up, from Field Marshal to Private, are free to make their own assessment of Britain, its place in the world, its politicians and the uses to which they and the army they join will be put.
The sad truth is though that over the last 15 years the brave men and women who have made that choice have been dishonoured by their political leaders. Britain and its army has been diminished in the eyes of the world by involvement in an engagement both impossible and illegal. 2.6 million words can’t explain to the bereaved families of servicemen and women why their sons and daughters died beyond satisfying the vanity of a politician who had not one day’s experience of soldiering.
The Chilcot Report makes for a very long cautionary tale for anyone now minded to take the Queen’s Shilling.