Recently, I had cause to recall an incident from my youth (not today or yesterday) when I encountered a member of the British Army who was stationed at that time in my home region of the Occupied Six Counties (OSC) of Ireland.
It was a summer weekend and I was in Cookstown, a small, politically-mixed (Nationalist and Unionist) town in East Tyrone. On the main street – which, at approximately 1.25 miles long, is said to be the longest such in the OSC, if not Ireland – the British military had erected vehicle checkpoints. These consisted of 2 reinforced sangars surrounded by wire mesh cages (referred to locally as ‘The Monkey Cages’) from which would emerge British squaddies as they conducted checks upon the passing traffic, and sometimes also on any pedestrians on the vicinity.
The sangars were strategically located, one at either side of a British military barracks, which in turn was situated next to a large Nationalist residential area. This barracks had been attacked by the IRA previously, and so the military powers-that-be determined that vehicle checks on the road passing the base would deter any further militant action. They were wrong.
The sangars themselves, and the soldiers within, became targets for Republicans angry at the presence of foreign troops on their streets. In one incident, a large sweet tin was given by a woman, as a ‘gift’ at Christmas, to a naive soldier. Upon eventual examination, the tin was found to contain a bomb. The device didn’t detonate and no one was injured, although I expect the soldier concerned was severely reprimanded, and no doubt he had to burn his underwear.
On many occasions, Nationalist youths passing the monkey cages were subjected to verbal and physical abuse by soldiers, dependent upon which Regiment happened to be stationed there. Some troops were notorious for their aggression and bigotry.
The night in question was mild and peaceful. I was leaving a pub in the town centre to make my way down main street to a nightclub that I used to frequent. Upon approaching the first adjacent sangar, a soldier who was standing guard, spoke to me in a friendly manner, commenting upon the fine night.
Republicans, by nature, are justifiably suspicious of British military personnel. I am no different in this respect. Yet, I must confess to being curious about that individual squaddie. Additionally, as I was on a promise at the nightclub, I was in a more conciliatory mood. What followed was the first and only good-natured conversation that I ever had with a serving British soldier.
I noted that, firstly, the trooper was about my own age (at that time in my early 20’s), and secondly, I learned that he was Scottish, from Glasgow, and was a Celtic supporter. He also appeared to be a decent enough person.
We spoke about football, and Scotland. As we did, a second soldier emerged from the sangar and was introduced as a Rangers supporter. Having never been to Scotland at that time, I was amazed that two such bitter rivals could be in close proximity without shooting the shit out of one another using the assault rifles that both carried. I was assured that their football rivalries did not encroach upon their working environment. What a pity, I thought at the time.
The Celtic squaddie, at one point, handed me his SA80 rifle so that I could get a feel for it. I hefted the weapon and sighted down the street, wondering if I could shoot the tyres from a Fiat Panda that I had spotted parked further along. It was only when I asked the civil Scot where the safety on the gun was that he quickly suggested that ‘maybe I had better take that back now’.
I was curious as to how the young man felt, standing as he was in uniform in a country not his own. He admitted to me that, when on duty, he was consistently shitting himself. He was terrified that the IRA could strike at any time, in a variety of different ways. It appeared that it was anticipation of an attack that was most tiring, and going on patrol in an area where militant Republicans were active was a psychologically exhausting ordeal.
Of course, militant strategists long realized this. Not every casualty of war suffers a physical injury. I can recall a time when I worked at a US veterans facility in California. I observed a group of 3 black men – most of those who attended that facility appeared to be from the black community – who had just collected their little brown bags of meds. They were milling about outside the building, quietly shooting the breeze close to where I was working.
The men were approached by yet another black man who was a great deal less tranquil than the others. The new arrival spoke loudly about how many people he had killed in Vietnam. He began to describe the actions he had undertaken. The 3 relaxed individuals quickly distanced themselves from him, calmly trying to explain that the war was over and everyone needed to move on. For some, it seemed, moving on was not an option.
I expect that for many in the British Army who were either responsible for, or witnessed, the brutality and murderous actions of their colleagues, it has remained difficult to lay their pasts to rest. I find it difficult to feel sympathy for any soldier who engaged in murderous and/or barbarous activity in Vietnam, the OSC or anywhere else. My sympathies lie with their victims. Yet I am acutely aware that many young men who found themselves in uniform in a foreign land were not bad people. The youthful Glaswegian, who I conversed with on that mild Irish night, was one such person.
He told me that he joined the military because there were no other jobs available, and he needed a wage. I can’t blame him for that. There are many young men and women who have bills to pay and children to raise, and must take employment wherever they can find it. Many such unfortunates will have found themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan, wondering if it’s worth it.
There are others who join the military because they want adventure. I expect many young Irish Republicans can empathize with such desires. To journey around the world with a gun may seem like the greatest adventure… on paper, yet when the squaddie is shot or injured in a bomb-blast, or when they can see the effects of the same on their friends and colleagues, they might quickly discover that the reality is not quite so glamorous.
One further reason that some enlist in their nation’s armed forces is patriotism. Governments are great at spewing out propaganda that encourages those naive enough to believe such officials when they exclaim that their country needs them. Young and foolish patriots sign up in the belief that they are defending their nation and way of life. In fact, the truth is more usually that they are being manipulated by ‘Suits in Suites‘, who callously send the gullible overseas to kill or be killed.
Irish Republicans will understand patriotism, just like they understand a desire for action. Speaking to that young Scot, I came to understand that most regular British soldiers are no different to the militant Republicans that they fight. Sometimes the reasoning is similar, although I accept not always.
In different circumstances, I realized that I could easily buy that Scot a drink, and enjoy some good-natured banter with him as we eyed up the girls in a bar on the Costa del Sol. Such is life.
There are bad people in the British military. During the heaviest days of conflict in the OSC, there were many such soldiers who committed atrocities. They all escaped justice. Yet I do not believe that the Celtic supporting trooper was one. I believe that there were many more like him.
Those who join revolutionary groups, like those who join state forces, are largely of comparable cut. They are often encouraged into action by circumstances beyond their control. The Surplass delight in pitting such people against one another. Such distractions allow the Surplass to survive, and thrive. The combatants find themselves staring across both barricades and battlefields at those of a similar nature, differing in accent or language or religion or nationality, or the colour of their attire.
There is a maxim to be heard in, and after, times of conflict;
‘Hate the uniform, not the man’.
There is much truth in it.