Don’t tar all our soldiers with the same brush

Nov 26, 2020

War in all its forms is awful, so let’s support those who conduct it on our behalf and, when they come back, go easy on them. They were only doing our bidding.

These days our soldiers are often put in impossible situations where the enemy is indistinguishable from the general community and follows no rules. While there can be no excuses for ill-discipline or criminal conduct by our forces, let us try to understand the dangers they face and the horrors they witness. Our forces should not remain in Afghanistan a moment longer.

The current outrage about the alleged criminal conduct of a small number of special forces soldiers in Afghanistan is justified, but let’s be careful not to tar all our soldiers with the same brush.

Both of my grandfathers served in the British Army on the Western Front in the First World War and both were gassed and suffered other injuries from their time in the trenches. I never got to meet my paternal grandfather, who died from his injuries well before I was born, but I’m proud to have his medals.

Growing up in England in the 1950s and ’60s, there was a sense of pride, a belief in the invincibility of Britain: the Second World War was still fresh in people’s memories, and we’d won that, hadn’t we? Films and comic books about the war were everywhere, and I was fascinated by the apparent glory of it all, even though the part of London where we lived was still horribly scarred from the blitz, piles of rubble everywhere 10 years after the Armistice.

My mother and I would occasionally visit her parents in the country, and I’d buttonhole my grandfather to try to get him to tell me about his experiences in the trenches. He’d shoo me away. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was because he was ashamed, he thought I’d never understand.

Years later, as a teenager with nothing else to do, I joined the British Army myself, and did three tours of duty in Belfast at the height of “the troubles”. It was only then that my grandfather was prepared to share his stories with me, because even though the shootings and bombings on the streets of Belfast couldn’t compare with what my granddad had experienced, I was a brother in arms. I knew what it felt like to have been a soldier in action, and the feelings of fear and guilt and shame that went with it.

Like most recruits I’d never really thought about what armies and soldiers were there for. To me and my comrades it was an opportunity to have some adventures, play a lot of sport and travel abroad to sunny places well away from the depressing grey dampness of England.

This may sound naïve, but despite being trained in a number of ways to injure, maim and kill people, we never actually thought we’d have to do it, until we did. I remember years later trying to explain to a good and trusted friend what had happened and how it felt, but I still remember the look of disgust on his face to this day. I felt like an animal, and I thought that I’d only been doing my job.

And that was why my grandfather wouldn’t tell me anything until I’d been there too, when he knew I’d have some hope of understanding it all, and that I wouldn’t judge him too harshly. And then we’d talk about the futility of it all and how it should never happen again, both of us knowing that it would.

And now, many years later, not much has changed. War follows war, and soldiers still do what they’re paid to do while politicians, the media and public wring their hands about bastardisation and the poor behaviour of our forces at home and abroad, and the terrible toll that war takes on innocent civilians. And then we send the soldiers off again to do more inhuman things to other humans, while the politicians we elected ride around on tanks or pose for photo opportunities wearing camouflage and holding weapons to look tough.

Meanwhile, our young men and women are fighting other young men and women, other peoples’ brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. And while we still send our young people to war, and will do again, let us take our share of the responsibility for what happens next. Try to imagine yourself in a situation where you have been shot at, and seen your mates killed and innocent civilians blown to pieces by an enemy which has absolutely no regard for “the rules of war”, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Our countrymen are killed and wounded, inexcusable atrocities are committed by both sides and it usually seems hard to find a winner when the smoke has cleared and the bombs and bullets stop.

And when our servicemen come home again, from Afghanistan, or from other conflicts that have nothing to do with us, let’s welcome them. I still remember how shocked I was when I first came to Australia and learnt that returning Vietnam veterans had been treated like lepers, when surely it had been the Australian people who had sent them there in the first place. War in all its forms is awful, so let’s support those who conduct it on our behalf and, when they come back, go easy on them. They were only doing our bidding

And, if there is an opportunity for anything positive to come out of all the current turmoil, surely it is to bring our soldiers home from Afghanistan now.

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