– Why did you join the army?
Get away from my home town. See the world. I’ve always wanted to travel. I enjoy travelling. All my brothers have got trades – plumbers, electricians and things like that. And you come back, and people say ‘how was your week at work?’ And they say ‘Oh I’ve done this and done that’. And they say ‘Well he’s done a 6 month tour of Afghan’. And you can hold your head up high and say that. A lot of people respect you for that.
Private Kieran Connolly (20)
– What will you be doing out there?
Detaining people, helping out the Afghani citizens and then, if needs be, killing the Taliban
– And are you… quite excited about…
Aya, I like to kill people – known what I mean
– Do you?
Kill people and you don’t get any trouble for it … so .. why not
Private Junior Taylor (17)
I want to go to Afghan, I mean that’s what I’m training for. I’ve been training for 2 years now… to go to a different theatre and stuff you know. So you can come back and so you can say you’ve been there, you know what I mean. There’s not a lot of people that … people that can say they’ve been to places like Afghan you know.
Private Nick Whelan (18)
– How do you feel about going to Afghanistan?
Well, I like travelling… generally I’m looking forward to it. I like meeting all the different people you know, maybe not in the best circumstances … My life’s maybe not all that interesting so therefore to me its like a great chance to travel … you learn language as well and it’s, like broadens your mind…
Private Robert Templeton (31)
– Why did you join?
Don’t know .. just something different… eager to find out new things and learn different skills and drills…
Air Trooper Gareth Miller (20)
I think they might get a wee culture shock when they get out there. But I think they’ll all come back a hell of a lot better for it. They’ll all come back men, and the experience will be great for them.
– What will change them?
What will change them?
Somebody shooting at them will change them, it changed me. You’ll appreciate things more in life, you know what I mean? You take everything for granted.
Section Commander, Corporal Lachlan Macneill (31)
I’d rather die than just lose a leg or something… just be horrible… cutting a bit off one leg, or one arm and not being able to do the things that you could always to do. You can lose memory, get blown to bits and then you have to live like that without knowing who you are for the rest of your life. If that happened, you’d just probably rather die anyway, you know. Better than that your family having to treat you like a retard and that.
Private Junior Taylor (17)
All quotes are taken from the Guardian’s in-bed reportage of our boys fighting the good fight. Britain’s so-called leading liberal newspaper offers an exciting online film of soldier games at home in Scotland, with mock-up Afghan towns, an authoritative English commander explaining to the (mock-up) Afghani locals that they are ‘not safe here’ and a mock-up local nodding meekly at the kind protectors. It feels exciting: the kind of war games many of us played as children – only with real weapons, electronic devices to show when you are dead, and much more adrenalin. No wonder the boys – not yet men – from 1 Section, 2 Platoon, A Company, 5 Scots (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) want to go and try the real thing.
The Guardian also offers interviews with members of the Highlanders. These are open, friendly, normal lads, game for a bit of adventure, ready for hard work, keen to do something useful (or heroic). Ready to travel and see the world.
Boys, Not Yet Men
But I doubt that the MOD has told them what it means to get a wee culture shock and come back men. I doubt that they have been told about the devastation we have brought upon the country they are off to visit, the lives that we have ruined and the people we have helped to brutalise. I doubt that the MOD has bothered to warn them that the impact of that brutalisation and devastation is likely to be felt not just by innocent Afghani citizens, whose lives and livelihood, whose nerves and friends and family have been pulverised beneath our mighty bunker busters. Because that devastation and the brutal killing culture will no doubt leave its imprint on the boys-not-men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders themselves.
I doubt that they have seen these horrifying pictures, or these, or these, the last of which show deformed half-human children with half-alien features – a result of the radioactive waste which we have laid bare all over Afghanistan. I doubt that they have read these accounts of gruesome and systematic torture by our allies, the leaders of the free world, or this report or this one, which tell of how the British too have been complicit in the systematic torture. I doubt that they have read any of the testimonies from US veterans of the so-called war on terror – the war of terror – in which hardened men – boys who then turned into men – break down and speak of how the war of terror transformed them, terrorised them, turned them into terrorists. I doubt that the MOD has even given them the following statistics, just so they know, and before they head off to save Gordon’s face and civilise Afghanistan.
- After the first Gulf War, about 20% of around 3,000 war veterans registered on the (British) Gulf Veterans’ Medical Assessment Programme turned out to have a psychiatric diagnosis. A recent Rand report has found that among American servicemen who have returned from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the same proportion – 20% – ‘report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression’.
- Combat Stress, a British charity that assists veterans with mental health issues, today claims to be dealing with a 27% increase in GP referrals of veterans – 1,200 new cases a year. (More than half of those reporting psychotic nightmares, depression and suicidal thoughts have not been granted a war pension and are, therefore, not eligible for specialist psychiatric help). The charity reports that ‘It is seldom appreciated that the number of psychiatric casualties of war far exceeds those who are killed or physically disabled’.
- Falklands veterans’ groups estimate that more people committed suicide as a result of the 1982 war than were killed in action (300 suicides, as compared to 258 killed in action)1. For the first Gulf War, 380 out of the total 537 deaths were suicides2 (the percentage may be smaller, because it took 25 years for the Falklands’ numbers to reach the level quoted above)
- The suicide rate among American war veterans is already greater than the official rate at which soldiers have been dying in Iraq: at least 18.7 per 100,000 for veterans, while the rate for Americans as a whole is 8.93. For veterans aged 20 – 24, that figure rises to a minimum of 22.9 – almost four times the non-veteran average for people of the same age4
It stands to reason. You only have to glance at the photographs, or listen to a few of the accounts from veterans who have fought in the war of terror to see that no-one with any sort of human sensitivities or sensibilities could return with their head and body intact having witnessed – let alone having taken part in that. In some ways, it almost comes as a relief that human beings cannot carry out this sort of behaviour, cannot live in a brutalised environment, brutally eliminating or mistreating other human beings – while still remaining human beings.
There are times when it is so hard to deal with these experiences that I suppose your own body, your own psyche, in order to protect you from these memories and in order to protect you from losing your humanity, erases certain memories that are too painful to deal with, that are too overwhelming to deal with. And whether it is to punish the men in your squad or the men in your unit or to erase the face of a child whose father was decapitated next to him in a car at a traffic control point, or whether it is to pose next to a dead civilian or Iraqi or whoever, it is necessary to become dehumanized, because war is dehumanizing.Former Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia
War kills. And it kills the killers too. Or perhaps that is what it means to ‘become a man’: to dull the sensitivities completely, so that you can go back for more, and more, and more.