By Ian Taylor
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‘I Despise the Army Now’

This article is over 16 years, 7 months old
Soldiers and their families speak to Ian Taylor.
Issue 297

Ray is an army reservist. He fought in the first Gulf War, but has told the army he will not serve in Iraq this time:

‘As long as it is an illegal war and occupation I don’t want anything to do with it. The army said to me, “Deal with it. You’re a reservist.” I wrote to Geoff Hoon and he said, “Deal with it.” But I don’t want anything to do with it.

I’m in touch with a few serving soldiers. A friend is on his second tour in Iraq. He didn’t want to go, but if he did what I’ve done he would lose his career and his pension.

Every soldier I’ve spoken to does not want anything to do with it. There is a massive morale problem. Partly it’s because of the casualties they are taking. You expect to take casualties, but you know so many people at home disagree with what you’re doing.

I fought in the first Gulf War. I’ve seen friends suffer, but I thought it was for a worthwhile cause. Now people think, “What’s the point?” I’ve seen people dying, and dying soldiers never think of their country. They think of their mums.

The abuse of prisoners is a symptom of it. I took lots of prisoners in the last Gulf War. But I had nothing but respect for them. This time the war is unpopular. It’s like Vietnam – no one cares about you and you end up hating the people you’re fighting.

Soldiers are a very tight-knit community. It’s nigh on impossible to speak out. You risk being shunned by your fellows. You’re portrayed as betraying “our boys”. There is a fear of being tarred with the same brush even if you think someone is right.

I’ve been very fortunate. Most people I know have said I’m doing the right thing. They know I’ve been to war. But I’ve been told I’m a coward, a disgrace, that I should be put up against a wall and shot.

The image of Reg Keys making that speech with Blair looking so uncomfortable will have created discussion among soldiers. They will be saying this is wrong – like in the first Gulf War when the Americans destroyed the Iraqi army on the Basra road when it was running away. The official line was, “This is war.” But privately the boys said, “This is murder.”

Yet speak out and the army can give you a very hard time. I think it’s difficult for physical bullying to take place at the moment because of the media attention. But bullying is rife. New blokes get a regular kicking. There are lots of regimental punishments. It can be very frightening physically.

I’ve a friend who went Awol just before the first war. We were all called in and made to sign to acknowledge that if we went Awol it would be classed as desertion and we would get 20 years [in prison].

There was lots of discussion, lots of grumbling. There was talk of fragging officers. Spent cartridges and grenade pins were left in officers’ sleeping bags. We were called in and told, “This is a desperate situation. We’re outnumbered. If we fight among ourselves, we’re all going to die.” We were frightened into submission. It works when you’re 18 or 19. We used to laugh at people in civvy street going on strike. We would say, “If we had that right, we would all be out.”

Other reservists don’t want the publicity I’ve had. But if I get out of going to Iraq more will do what I’ve done.

The officers are different. They are enjoying the war. But they come from planet rich. The majority don’t get stuck at the sharp end of it. After the last war they would say, “What a great spanking the Iraqis got.” We’d say, “Lots of people died.” And they’d say, “They’re not real people – they’re ragheads.”

But the men are all working class lads. It quickly becomes obvious you’re killing other working class lads. It becomes desperately unpleasant and you just want it over as soon as possible.’

Rose is the mother of Gordon Gentle, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra a year ago. She helped found Military Families Against the War:

‘A lot of the boys home on leave are really depressed and frightened to go back. They’ve seen kids hurt, with their parents lying next to them dead. They’ve seen bodies lying around.

Lots of the boys think they shouldn’t be there. They say they don’t know why we’re in Iraq. A couple of them can’t handle it. The bodies they see when they’re out there upset them.

A few on leave have gone Awol. I know of 53. The army has admitted there is a big increase.

Families are phoning me to say their boys can’t handle it. Sometimes I get a call every day; other times it’s every second or third day. They say their boys sound very depressed on the phone [from Iraq].

When boys come home, their families say they have changed. They’re shouting and bawling all the time, or just sitting in their rooms drinking. When their families ask them what’s happened, they say, “You don’t want to know.”

But they don’t want to go back. They’re frightened and they don’t like what they’re seeing.

The boys are under a lot of pressure. Parents tell me their sons are locking themselves in their bedrooms and not communicating. If they call me, I tell them to go to the doctor and get signed off as sick. They’re frightened to speak to their officers.

We know there are over 800 soldiers in hospital, but we don’t hear anything about them. We need to know how they are. I don’t think the government is taking time for them. That affects the troops and their families.

My son Gordon didn’t even know where Iraq was. He’d just had his 24 weeks training. It was his first posting. It was my birthday on 13 May and he went away on 14 May. He died on 28 June.

I had seen on TV that a British soldier had been killed and saw a body lying on the ground. I didn’t know it was Gordon. Two members of the army came to my work and told me in the back of a car.

Blair is embarrassed to face us. But the boys [who knew Gordon] keep in touch. They let me know how they’re doing. They’re a lovely bunch. It’s good to know they’re OK.

I’m not giving up. Military Families Against the War has 15 families now and I think we’ll have a lot more by the time our legal case starts.’

David has 22 years experience in the regular army and as a reservist. He was called up as a battlefield ambulance commander in February 2003. A serious injury to his knee led to his medical evacuation two months later:

‘I was very proud to go to Iraq at first. I accepted going. I was an ambulance commander – I was going to save lives.

When we drove into southern Iraq we saw children with nothing on their feet. But it was clear in my mind. I thought Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons and WMDs.

To think they lied to people – people who have lost sons and daughters. I imagine morale is very low. I know one guy who threatened to walk on a minefield if he wasn’t sent home.

I despise the army now. I’ve pride in my old regiment. But I’ve never even had a visit from the army. They dumped me in the UK without any transport. They didn’t even inform my wife. I was treated like a lump of muck.

They said I was physically fit for duty. But I was in agony. My wife and my mate had to take me everywhere. A scan showed massive damage to the cartilage and kneecap. I was told to get fit and given three weeks physical fitness training. I had no choice – I’d have been banged up if I didn’t do it. It damaged my other knee.

I was demobilised and went back to work. I was driving an ambulance and my knee locked. The surgeon said I’d cracked the patella and the kneecap was to one side. All the cartilage was gone. I’ve had three operations. I’m still having problems.

I’ve been downgraded at work. I’ve had to go on lighter duties. I’m on half pay – with all the bills, the mortgage. Now I’ve just been awarded a reservist pension – £68 a month, when I’m losing £12,000 a year in pay.

In 22 years I’ve never seen anything like Military Families Against the War.

There will be support for the campaign. But you don’t have a say when you’re a soldier. If you said something, you would probably be given a kicking. If you go through the proper channels, you get banged up, discharged and humiliated.

But hundreds of soldiers will not be happy. They will be doing their duty – and seeing mates come home in boxes.

When that latest lad died, what was the first thing his wife said? “Tony Blair is to blame.” That will be in everybody’s mind.

I can speak my mind now, and I’d say 98 percent of soldiers are unhappy to be in Iraq. The country needs to know what’s happening.’

Carol is married to a serving soldier:

‘When you talk to soldiers about the war they say, “We know it’s about oil. We’re just in it for the pension.”

There is a culture of fear in the army. If you speak out, you won’t get promotion; you won’t get your pension; you’ll get extra duties. People also fear bringing the army into disrepute. You can go to prison.

In private, soldiers don’t want to be in Iraq. But as soon as an officer is about, everything is OK. Private soldiers, officers, they are all saying the same: “We shouldn’t be there.” But they won’t say anything in public.

A lot of soldiers’ wives are on anti-depressants. They’re depressed about their husbands being in Iraq, but also about the time they’re away. They’re meant to be away for six months, every 18 months. But it’s becoming ten months or 12 months. The divorce rate is rocketing. There are arguments in every home.

There are husbands with post-traumatic stress disorder. But people suffer in silence. They are scared to admit it because they’ll be labelled.

It’s difficult to get on with your life, wondering if your husband is going to die today. But I don’t mind him fighting for a good cause. This is all about oil and Bush getting an empire.

A lot of people have the same view as me. It goes up through all the ranks. But people say, “What can you do?” The army is based on divide and rule. Even two friends won’t speak about it. They say, “You’re not going to change the army. You’re not going to change the government.”

A lot of people who have been to Iraq say they’ve been doing some good for the Iraqi people. Engineers have been building bridges or helping people with water. The army uses that. People are used as cheap labour. They know it.

But if you really think about it, you can’t be in the army. In the past, people had gripes about working hours. But now it’s different. Everyone in the army says Bush is just in it for the oil.

People have come back saying they’ve seen bodies strewn everywhere. Husbands are having nightmares. But people are scared to say much. It’s swept under the carpet.

People think Basra is safe. But from what I’ve heard it’s not. The soldiers feel vulnerable. They say they smile at people, but make sure their weapons are cocked. They’re constantly prepared to fight. They can’t sleep.

A lot of soldiers say things like, “I’ve only got another year or another two years.” They all talk about the pension trap.

It’s simmering. But the army is all about fear and control. They get soldiers up early in the morning, run them around and work them so hard they don’t have time to think.’

Where necessary, people’s names have been changed to protect their identity.

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