Our Armed Forces will have you believe that military life is an excellent environment in which to grow, to discover new continents and gain friends for life and in some ways they’re right. You develop discipline, physical fitness and it’s a great character builder, albeit after you’ve been subjected to the break-to-remake training process. Unfortunately it also encourages us to defy our parents should they want to hold you back from getting this – those same people who nurtured us from birth and now showing caution to the prospect of war are neatly sidelined in order that young, impressionable recruits can prove themselves in a job where they are taught the craft of killing within the first few months of joining. I gained much in the way of technical skills and adventure courses which HM Forces would undoubtedly be all too keen to broadcast in order attract more recruits but this simply wasn’t the case for many others including my brother who went through the system and besides, the politics stinks.
I joined the day after my 18th birthday in 1998, leading up to it I was doing my A-Levels but was dissatisfied and I wasn’t too interested in studying for the sake of it. Throughout my school years I would be impatient with the teachers, feeling they weren’t getting enough interesting information out and would often get into trouble as I sought some sort of attention. I would dream about the army and was chomping on the bit to join as soon as I could, to prove myself and quite possibly shoot a gun. I did my aptitude test at 17 and was told I could join right away as an infanteer but I had it in mind to fix things and in order for me to do that I’d need to improve my grades in maths so I took night classes to make the grade. I had grandiose ideas that I was going to be peace-keeping, travelling the world and impressing women everywhere. I felt I would be changing the world in a good way but my time in the Armed Forces would eventually prove contrary to this.
As you’d expect the training was tough, perhaps the hardest thing I was likely to do in my life! It was 4 months of shouting, running and waking up with cramps in muscles I never knew I had. I soon become fit but didn’t take well to the shouting and was “back-squadded” with a bad attitude. This was eventually overcome and I learnt my trade as a Vehicle Mechanic, repairing all sorts and picking up new skills along the way. Being in the REME added value to soldiers which meant we were given opportunities to try all sorts of adventurous exercises – scuba, skiing, paragliding amongst others which I’d later realise doubled as a retention scheme and one which my brother would be denied.
The 2003 Iraq war brought a few things home to me. We were sent to Kuwait in February 2003, a coalition of 200,000 troops while the media were still reporting of negotiations with Saddam Hussain over WMD. We set up camp in make-shift tents out in the desert, with filtered broadcasts from the BBC and no idea that a million people were out in London protesting against the war. Whatever Prime Minister Blair and President Bush were saying at the time it felt like we were going to make it happen regardless, I wanted to believe them but I started having my doubts. I felt alone with these uneasy feelings and made my decision to leave right there and then, signing off just before we sent over the border into Basra. Quite naturally I was quizzed and said I wanted to go to university but really it was the nonsense of it all, it was Harry G. Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit and I didn’t want to spend another day more in the army than I had too. I served my time and completed my duty out there – vehicles needed maintaining and sometimes we’d recover the ones that ended up on their roofs. Most of the damage was inflicted by our own allies, the Americans not the opposition, highlighting the discord in basic protocols and creating resentment between those involved. There were times when I was tasked to take parts from broken cars to maintain those more roadworthy but one case remains in my mind. I was required to retrieve the remains from a particular ‘blue-on-blue’ site, gathering the ashes of the crew into a jar to send home to their families. We didn’t know what was the interior of the vehicle or the remains of a loved-one.
I mulled over it for some time afterwards, studying for a time the reasons nations wage war and the things we all get up to once we’ve all warmed to it. Keith Lowe paints a harrowing landscape of this in Savage Continent, where both sides in WW2 committed atrocities, justifying them as necessary evils and spinning news to make people hate each other even more. There’s always a power struggle with morality acting in the background, almost as an after-thought. It seems all this societal and technological advancement has made it necessary for modern nations to hoard industrial minerals and oil in order to maintain our lifestyle. Acquiring all this is both physically and, invariably, politically messy but once it’s been removed from country of origin, refined, cleansed of it’s bad past and poured into our cars at supermarket-low prices it becomes a different thing altogether and everyone rejoices in their ignorance, bating the next collateral calamity. On reflection, it wasn’t my experience on tour that was so bad; it was the politics in war.
I was fairly close to my brother and he joined the army because of me but his experiences were polar opposites of my own. He joined the tank regiment, driving the machines I would eventually have to clean up in Iraq. For a time, we were based in camps not far from each other but his accommodation was poor by comparison – temporary war knock-ups clad in asbestos – and his commanding officers didn’t really care what they did in their spare time so they had none of the adventurous perks I enjoyed. There was a brothel opposite his camp, the local Spa was never short of alcohol and porn and very little else was offered to entertain them. Some took to drugs, others festered in their rooms while I paraglided above them. It was absurd.
We all have issues that take time to resolve and our environment can have a big bearing on how these can be worked through, especially for an impressionable, young man trying to find himself in the world. My brother was no exception, it didn’t end well and his actions would change his life and those around him in a very bad way. It would be too simplistic to place the blame solely with the army but they certainly didn’t help, not investing in him and giving him the opportunities I received. It seemed like he was worthless to them as he just sat and stewed in those squalid quarters. You shouldn’t break a man then offer him nothing. When he returned home the family couldn’t get any sense out of him. He had become paranoid and a habitual liar. We couldn’t distinguish between fact and fiction and no longer knew what he’d even done in the army. I guess because he didn’t have an obvious physical disability the system wasn’t interested and the general populace didn’t want to know. The Invictus Games is taking place as I write this but no one mentions the psychological effects, it’s just not tangible enough – you can’t point at someone’s soul and say what’s missing. I knew him before the army as an outdoor, fun if not unsure young man and I can see some of this in him still but somehow this has been buried under a lot of bullshit since those army days. We looked for ways to break him out and he once helped me with a building project abroad. It was a little family project in the country and we all got on well enough, joking like the old times. He seemed to be getting better, I introduced him to the neighbours and he stayed on when the rest of us left to return home. A few months later my brother killed one of them, he strangled him. He was messed up and he only got into that situation because he was in a different world and had found himself trapped between a rock and a hard place which he simply couldn’t deal with. The whole situation was tragic mess.
Our Armed Forces also talk about ‘fun’ in the adverts. Happy young men jump off cliffs into water whilst surrounded by smiling faces, no doubt new found friends for life. Shooting ‘advanced’ weapons in training exercises with their fellow comrades. But not in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria where the reality of war takes place, where they experience the violent shredding of friendships in front of their faces. Not sitting shaking at home, crying and shouting at walls – these are where real deaths take place. These people are out there right now – a lot of homeless people out there, a lot of people contemplating or have followed through committing suicide because they simply can’t make sense of it all.
I want to show you that the army makes some people but invariably breaks others. It isn’t all clear-cut, training excellence and an honourable discharge. It’s not how our young men and women need to prove themselves in a world of wanton wars. The army is dealing with human beings with tender feelings that need special treatment when subjected to psychological beatings but they don’t seem to see this. Cherish our children, they are our future and not the army’s to break and ruin. I may have had my fun but my brother didn’t have his, nor the countless others who passed through the military, unheard. No one talks about that and that’s what we all need to talk about.
Geoff Martin is a member of VFP UK he will be appearing at The People’s Chilcot Tribunal onWednesday 8 June in London.