As a retired career soldier, I have sometimes been depicted as ‘having a narrow outlook’, having had ‘a sheltered or protected lifestyle’ and ‘been polishing my boots while others outside live real lives’. Not to mention being ‘somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan’! (The military on the whole however are apolitical, having sworn allegiance to the sovereign and not the government, although naturally we are directed by the government of the day and as such are the instruments of government policy).
Of course I would wholly refute all these comments and would apply my following remarks to most people who serve (note the word) or have done so in the armed forces. For a start as well as learning basic discipline, team working, loyalty and comradeship from the early days we also receive education on subjects outside the fully technical and operational military sphere such as the Geneva Convention, which deals with basic human rights, the law as it applies to the military and their families (additional laws on top of civil law) and complex subjects such as employment law, ethics and equality. Military people are married to ‘civilians’, employ civilians and work in a civil environment, their children attend civilian schools and we pay taxes the same as anyone else.
More importantly however, is that military personnel in the course of their careers and service travel widely, work amongst deprived and oppressed people in all parts of the world and see and try and alleviate poverty and suffering of all sorts. We see the best and worst of people and places and what bad politics and corrupt regimes can inflict – mostly at first hand and not through the often biased offerings of the press or broadcasters. So it is difficult to understand how people can think that we are ‘blinkered’ or ‘protected’ compared to the majority of the civilian population who have relatively safe and far more enclosed lives in the professions or ordinary day-to-day careers safe in the cocoons of a secure, well-ordered, well-policed and regulated society with minimum insecurity and corruption!. The majority of people who do not work abroad regularly, or travel seriously off the beaten track, base their knowledge of international affairs on their tabloid newspaper, sports or music radio channel or on the holidays to popular resorts dotted well away from conflict zones around the world.
As an example in my own, fairly limited military career, I have seen first hand, on the streets of faction-riven Northern Ireland in the early 1970s the antagonism, lawlessness, anger, deprivation and mindlessness of sectarian hatred, and the depressing sight of very young mothers putting stones in the hands of their uncomprehending toddlers to throw at the peacekeepers or ‘occupiers’ as some of them saw us. 30 years later, many of those toddlers themselves were active participants in the terrorism that plagued the country for so long. We also saw the significant innaccuracies of national newspaper headlines, supplied by third parties with vested interests, of events we had witnessed ourselves and knew to be grossly distorted. Later, during the Cold War years, I saw a beleagured Berlin, surrounded by the poverty and oppression of the Soviet Bloc, and the resurgence of a strong and wealthy West Germany linked to the military preparations we had to apply to prevent any attack on the west, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Later again, I lived in Flemish Belgium and saw the division in that country between its Flemish and Walloon populations which later drove it to have no government at all for nearly a year.
I saw in the Falkland Islands the consequences of a country under dictatorial rule pushing under nationalistic grounds an attack on a small rural population to appease public feelings it itself had raised and to cover its gross missrule and poor economic situation. In Zimbabwe, ten years into Mugabe’s presidency, I saw the increasing poverty, the townships, the deteriorating public services, the corrupt police and army – although on the whole the people were lovely and we could do very little to alleviate their suffering.
Over the years we have lived in often sub-standard accommodation, with the prospect of moving every two years or less to who-knew-where-next, our children have had their education disrupted in a series of Army or state schools (Zimbabwean and Belgian too), as well as later the stability of private education – so on the whole having a fairly good overview of the country’s range of available education standards. As for health, I was ‘interned’ in a military hospital in the late ’60s when military medical staff combed National Health hospitals in their vicinity and ‘liberated’ patients in overcrowded wards or in corridors and transferred them to the military hospitals where the old-fashioned systems still existed, e.g. traditional matrons and ward sisters albeit in the red capes of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (or QA’s), who applied order and efficiency, and where more resources existed. Unfortunately in the name of ‘savings’ all these facilities have been swept away, although the military adjuncts to some NHS hospitals are very efficient and remedial centres for war casualties are second to none.
So with these national and international insights available to the military and their families – where are the ‘blinkered’ outlooks on life in 21st century Britain and the world? Many of the soldiers seen on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee parades sported a large number of service, campaign and gallantry medals showing that as still young men and women they have served their country and people, in wide-ranging conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as peace-keeping missions in Sierra Leone, the Congo and Ruanda and disaster relief missions to other places around the world – so if anyone knows the reality of what is going on on the ground, it is not the politician or the armchair pundit but the soldier, sailor or airman who has seen it for themselves and lived with the consequences.